Thomas sees the cup half full, though. “It’s a blessing it took as long as it did.” For one thing, the entrepreneur was able to recruit from South Carolina his chef of choice, Russell Jones, formerly of Jack Rose. “The band is back together!” says Thomas. Time also changed the theme. What the restaurant the owner initially had in mind was a raw seafood bar and a casual vibe. Because similar concepts were opening as the Imperial was taking shape, Thomas and Jones went in a different direction: small plates, more elegance, some French influence.
Among the talkers are a beef Wellington apportioned for one and a caramelized onion tart that a server introduces as “our version of a Bloomin’ Onion.” Sure enough, the composition of buttermilk-battered, cayenne-seasoned, fried-to-golden cipollini onions dappled with rémoulade brings to mind the outsize snack at Outback Steakhouse — well, if the chain had a stylist on staff.
Set where 18th Street NW meets Florida Avenue, the Imperial shares its block in Adams Morgan with Jack Rose, best-known for its vast whiskey collection, but the principals don’t see the two competing.
From a liquid perspective, the Imperial highlights cocktails, wine and the vintage spirits Thomas has collected over the years, including Chartreuse dating to the 1970s and cognacs from the 1960s. His motto: “Consume and enjoy” the rarities rather than hold on to them forever. The Imperial offers a chance to sip a riff on a Negroni made with juniper-infused sherry rather than gin and a syrah that tastes as if it’s from southern France but hails from Morocco (hence the playful name: Syrocco).
The newcomer’s menu also checks off more boxes than its sibling. A category called “Mostly Raw” features buttery cauliflower in multiple colors, gathered in a bowl with an artful swipe of curry yogurt and a garnish of fried kale. The welcome tang is courtesy of tamarind-date puree in the beautiful salad. Housemade pastas include see-through agnolotti plumped with pureed Swiss chard, shiitakes, lemon and Parmesan, and the chef’s contribution to the world of fried chicken is a craggy breast atop a “gravy” of confit leg and thigh atop a fan of sliced fried potatoes. Decadence is yours by asking for the poulet rouge.
Steamed oysters? That’s how Jones recalls them being cooked in the Carolinas. Topped with a zippy tomatillo mignonette and splayed on a bed of seaweed, the gently warmed oysters at the Imperial are a little feast for the senses. The pleasure comes with fried crackers, hit with paprika and garlic salt and addictive as Goldfish. You will wish for more.
Patrons can use the Imperial, which unfolds on multiple levels, to suit their needs. The street level finds a mod dining room and bar set off with yellow-green stools and silvery glass tiles meant to evoke the moment when a school of fish pivot in the water. Looking for oysters on the half shell and a drink? Head to the eight-seat, lower-level raw bar whose bay windows pull in the street show outside, hold the noise. The basement is home to a bar, Dram & Grain, relocated from the cellar at Jack Rose. In warmer seasons, the rooftop will offer dinner and drinks under the stars.
Out of the gate, the Imperial offers oodles to applaud.
2001 18th St. NW. 202-299-0334. imperialdc.com. Plates, $11 to $28.
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