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Hazel’s new chef changes course and steers toward Turkey

The tender gnocchi draped with crisp-soft pork ragu at Hazel. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

First sign of change at Hazel: the bread on the table. It’s baked-to-order balon ekmek, puffed up like a balloon, with a texture akin to pita crossed with tortilla. Do yourself a favor and try it with some creamy carrot haydari, one of a handful of better-than-butter spreads.

Six months after opening chef Rob Rubba left the youngest brand in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, his replacement, Robert Curtis, is making his presence known. Erased are the many Asian accents that characterized his predecessor’s menu. Taking their place are notions Curtis, 29, has picked up from Turkey and elsewhere.

Tom Sietsema’s Dining Guide

Falafel make a memorable first bite. Their centers are green and fluffy with the help of fava beans and quinoa; a light application of potato starch gives the orbs a pleasant crackle. The snack is just as easy on the eyes. Curtis spreads labneh and hazelnut dukkah on the plate, which is finished with mounts of cucumber to display the falafel. 

Indeed, vegetables, sometimes in the company of grains, rate among the chef’s best efforts. A round of applause, please, for a wedge of charred, near-melting cabbage, carpeted with fried garlic and ginger and delivered with a creamy pool of orange-caraway “vinaigrette.” Beets are smoked and arranged as a salad, with diced apple, feathery dill and a ring of green puree that provides a surprise stab of heat. Jalapeños will do that to a sauce.

Not that meat doesn’t turn in some fine performances. Crispy rice with duck confit, for instance, does a great imitation of Cajun dirty rice. The funk of the ground liver has a nice foil in the pickled peppers that top the dish. From a category called “Animal Kingdom” come tender gnocchi draped with crisp-soft pork ragu and a novel rethinking of lamb sausage. Curtis serves it as a rectangular bar of charcoal-kissed ground meat set off with ribbons of marinated cucumber and a hint of mint. Now you see it. Now you don’t.

Lesser moments are few, but they surface. Fork-defying squash and a shy red curry vinaigrette have me pushing away a rye berry salad. And while the smear of spiced yogurt on whole branzino is pleasant enough, $46 seems like a lot for an otherwise okay slab of fish, one of a trio of family-style platters.

The D.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame

That said, early meals under Curtis’s watch make me want to know more about the young man behind so many impressive dishes, including delicate chocolate cremeux and rice pudding with pumpkinseed granola. Born in Philadelphia but raised in Montgomery County, Md., Curtis comes to Hazel from the late RN74 in San Francisco (and more recently, a months-long apprenticeship at the world-class Noma in Copenhagen). Previously, he cooked in the Washington area at Bourbon Steak, Restaurant Eve and Brabo. Curtis’s focus on things Turkish was piqued by a fiancee who lived for 16 years in Istanbul, where the chef says he fell hard for the aforementioned haydari, made with shredded carrots plus yogurt, lemon, dill and olive oil and eaten even at breakfast.

The food holds our attention as we graze. But a pause in the action reminds me how much I appreciate mismatched banisters repurposed as a see-through wall separating bar from dining room — and how nice it is to know about fluffy white pillows on couches parked near space heaters on the front patio.

Pro tip: Get an alfresco seat while the weather allows.

808 V St. NW, 202-847-4980. Small plates, $6 to $19; family-style “feasts,” $46 to $59.

More from Food:

Tom Sietsema’s Dining Guide

The D.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame

First Bite

Other Tom Sietsema reviews/Ask Tom