Right now, I’m seeing buckets — oceans, really — of squash soup. It’s winter, I get it, but a lot of bowls are indistinguishable from one another, or rely on the same accents of sage or brown sugar. I like both flavors, just not … everywhere, every time.
Expecting the same old (but ever-hopeful!), I spooned into a carton of winter pumpkin soup from the new-in-November Pennyroyal Station in Mount Rainier and ended up scrape-scrape-scraping the bottom of the package. Ginger and turmeric encouraged some of the dipping, lemongrass and a topper of Calabrian chiles even more of it. The lemongrass lends an electric charge; the chile imparts a fruity heat that teases til the last drop. A swirl of the spoon heightens the drama in your mouth. If there’s one recipe I want from a chef right now, it’s this distinctive vegan soup from Jesse Miller, the former chef of the neighborly Bar Pilar on 14th Street NW in Washington.
Pennyroyal Station, the creation of Miller, 37, and his business partners, Erin Edwards, the former director of operations at Bar Pilar, and Garrick Lumsden, a veteran of Passion Food Hospitality, took time to get up and running in Prince George’s County — three years, in fact. Blame it on a complete gut job, permits and the stops and starts resulting from a pandemic. The restaurant’s name acknowledges the historic building’s past as a bank, the city’s past as a streetcar stop and the flowering herb native to Washington state, home to Mount Rainier.
Do yourself a favor and fetch your food in person. Even if you can’t dine inside at the moment, you should at least see the 1936 facade and take a peek at the bar. The exterior showcases the talent of Yulia Avgustinovich, a Russian-born, Denver-based painter selected by the Mount Rainier Arts Commission to do the mural, abloom with flowers and incorporating local architecture. The bar is visible from the front door, where takeout is retrieved, and it’s a beaut, its counter fronted with handsome sea foam-colored stools and tiny black-and-white tiles. What’s not wainscoting in the high-ceilinged, light-drenched room are windows. (Lucky locals: The restaurant provides delivery — free — within a three-mile radius.) When the weather cooperates, a front patio welcomes interested parties, who get to enjoy some of the thought the owners have poured into the presentation, including vintage barware and china that underscore Miller’s nostalgic, Southern-inflected cooking.
Plenty of places are trying to make us feel good these days by offering the culinary equivalent of hugs. Pennyroyal Station whips up tried-and-true American comforts, albeit with a surprise that makes them feel somehow new. Consider Miller’s mac and cheese, presented as an appetizer bulked up with nuggets of smoked brisket, delicious burnt ends included, and bone marrow. Unlike cheese or wine, biscuits don’t improve with age. Miller understands this, baking batches throughout dinner service. Eight bucks gets you a couple of biscuits sturdy enough to support juicy, slow-roasted pork but tender where you want them to be. Let’s hope when lunch starts (Jan. 26), followed by brunch (stay tuned), the pork biscuits are there to greet us. An investor begged Miller to include the chef’s chicken liver mousse, the lone carry-over dish from Bar Pilar. The richness of the starter, offered with grilled bread, is foiled by the sass of sriracha.
“Sammies” enjoy a category of their own, and they star the sandwich that has graced many a menu throughout the past year. Buttermilk fried chicken, Miller’s contribution to the flock, is lots to like — moist chicken, snappy sliced pickle, “ramp ranch” dressing — inside a soft, toasted bun. The chef calls the creamy sauce the “bell” in the concert of flavors, and it’s apt, thanks to ramp vinegar in the mix. The very good cheeseburgers — lit with chile mayonnaise, smoky with bacon and cooked the color you want — come in three sizes: six ounces, 12 ounces and 18 ounces, allowing you to decide tonight how long you need to Peloton tomorrow.
Winter squash lasagna sounds heavy. Miller lifts the stack of sliced squash and pungent Taleggio cheese with what he calls “excitement bites.” Sure enough, my pulse quickens when I discover minced lemongrass in a dish that already includes ginger and rosemary in its cream sauce, along with the fine crunch of hazelnuts. The only thing I’d change about the lasagna is the cooking time for the squash, which defied my fork in spots.
Miller does tacos, too, apportioned with families in mind. Each $38 order features two pounds of roasted, pulled pork. At home, buyers build their own tacos using the accompanying tender corn tortillas, Carolina rice, sparkling pico de gallo and a salsa verde that leaves a tickle of heat in your throat. Two of us stretched the spread across the next two days and we looked forward to the leftovers as much as their robust debut in our kitchen.
As this review was headed for publication, Miller told me he was pulling an entree of striped bass. People simply weren’t ordering it. I’m here to tell you fish in general is an ingredient that tends to make it from restaurant to home in good condition, and Pennyroyal Station sealed its deal with a bed of farro, sweet baby carrots and a green goddess dressing fit for the, well, gods. Gotta love fresh dill and tarragon. Here’s hoping the striped bass, which benefits from brining, scores a return engagement down the road.
With few exceptions, Miller’s cooking travels well. The lone lapse was one of his “snacks.” When I opened the carton of otherwise delicious deviled eggs, I discovered their crab and relish toppings had slid off. That didn’t stop me from popping the mustardy orbs in my mouth, then swabbing the fiery seafood garnish from the box. If not everything going out in a box holds onto its looks, the chef makes sure its flavor survives any trip.
There are just two desserts, both delights. If you like chocolate chip cookies on the order of Toll House, you’re going to scarf Miller’s crisp batch, based on his mom’s recipe. (The mystery flavor turns out to be warm-tasting mace.) Cake doughnuts come three to an order, glazed in chocolate and jazzed up with sprinkles. Online, the restaurant asks if you’re celebrating anything special. I wasn’t, but I pretended otherwise, just to see if Pennyroyal Station followed through on requests. Per my inquiry, “Happy anniversary!” was written across the box of doughnuts.
My impulse was to write a thank-you note, not just for a job well done but for adding something vital to Prince George’s County. Instead, I’m sending Pennyroyal Station this early Valentine.
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Pennyroyal Station 3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md. 240-770-8579. pennyroyalstation.com. Open for takeout and delivery 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (Beginning Jan. 26, hours will change to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 5 to 8:30 p.m. weekends. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $11, sandwiches and main courses $13 to $24, family meals $38 to $40. Delivery via Grubhub, Uber Eats and Toast. Accessibility: Ramp leads to bar entrance and an ADA-compliant restroom.