Johnny Spero has been dealing with a full plate of late. A veteran of such revered Washington fixtures as the Columbia Room, Minibar by José Andrés and Komi, the chef just welcomed his first child, a daughter named Fiona. Netflix recently introduced him as a participant in its international cooking competition, “The Final Table,” which debuts Nov. 20, and People magazine selected him as one of 10 finalists for the title of “Sexiest Chef Alive.”
Oh, yeah. Spero also has a new restaurant. Two years in the making, the other baby in his life goes by Reverie, and it’s tucked away from the bustle of Georgetown, off tiny Grace Street on a cobblestone path.
Spero, 32, describes his cooking as new American and ingredient-driven, his menu as accessible. (Yes, a diner can spend $100 on a steak designed for sharing, but a customer can also find in the mix of small plates a hamburger.)
Anyone who has followed his career, which has also included time at Noma in Denmark and Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque region, will see how Spero’s travels have influenced his menu at Reverie. Two of the best dishes are a moist dark bread that packs in sunflower seeds and rye berries, served with sweet housemade butter speckled with leek “ash,” and a two-pound slab of rib-eye dressed with strips of lardo and presented with glistening fried padron peppers. The former makes a great mop for some of the sauces to follow, while the latter (billed as txuleta) calls to the cave dweller in us.
The interior borrows from the minimalism and spare beauty of Japan and Denmark. Blue tiles set off the exhibition kitchen, around which up to 20 guests, seated on sleek stools, can observe their meals being made. Gauzy drapes and flickering candles lend a romantic touch to the dining room, paved in a white oak parquet floor, and you’re in good hands with the genial staff, supervised by general manager Evan Zimmerman, a Washington native and restaurant veteran recently returned from Portland, Ore.
Good food news first: Reverie’s hamburger is a keeper. An homage of sorts to multiple fast-food sources, Spero’s sandwich hits all the right buttons with its soft bun, pickle crunch, onion bite and cheddar-y ooze. The chef’s sweetbreads are memorable, too. Cooked to the texture of custard, the rich organ meat comes draped in a butter sauce beefed up with serrano, which pops with beads of paddlefish roe and gets framed in stinging greens. There’s also a satisfying crudo combining cured and dried scallops atop a pool of buttermilk and fresh dill. (The truffle smell comes from the dried seafood.)
Other dishes fall into the realm of “interesting.” Smoky coins of cucumber topped with grated cured egg yolk and shimmering roe are fine for a bite or two, but I can’t help but wish I was participating in the charred vegetable trend somewhere else. Same for a slab of celery root, cooked in coconut oil and presented as a vegetarian “steak,” encircled by a teasing sauce of carrot and ginger. A couple of bites is enough.
Still other small plates revive memories of Spero’s first restaurant, the short-lived Suna on Capitol Hill. Stiff steamed halibut comes in a beige cloak of coconut milk, bonito flakes, honey and more: strange to the tongues at my table. Fun as it is to see a fried chicken sandwich on the menu, the main takeaways are unmitigated sweetness and a mess on the table if you don’t use a knife and fork to tackle the construction. And suffice it to say, lovage is not a flattering flavor for a dessert granita. Unless, of course, you enjoy the taste of frozen celery.
Will the real Reverie please stand up?
Readers who dropped by in the early days let me know they expected more of the destination, too. “Nice space, lovely folks, but the food just wasn’t where it needed to be,” a participant of my online chat weighed in.
Spero says the definition of the word reverie is the feeling he wants to impart in his latest restaurant. Daydreaming has its place. So does focus — more, please?
3201 Cherry Hill Lane NW. 202-808-2952. reveriedc.com. Entrees, $16 to $100 (for steak to share).