Washington has a new restaurant with a little problem that’s going to make it hard for you to try it, despite the considerable talent of its chef, Yuan Tang.
Suffice it to say, 50 seats is too few for the crowds I predict at Rooster & Owl on 14th Street NW once word gets out about his handiwork. Carrots cooked to taste like you’re at a barbecue, noodles pulled from kohlrabi and celery root, and oxtails reimagined as pot roast are sure to generate the kind of enthusiasm that has made reservations at, say, Fancy Radish, Himitsu or Three Blacksmiths as challenging as the union of Kellyanne and George Conway.
Going into Rooster & Owl, I had never heard of Tang, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Carey. Leaving their debut venture, I felt extraordinarily well fed by the Falls Church native, who until recently had been earning his living as an Uber driver.
The dining room (formerly Crème) doesn’t prepare you for what’s to come. The leather chairs are comfortable, but also tightly spaced, and random overhead branches and leaves suggest the remains of a Halloween party. Shelves of plastic food containers keep some space between the visible kitchen and Tang’s audience. From a design stance, Rooster & Owl looks unremarkable. It doesn’t much matter, though, because as soon as the food starts showing up, your eyes will be riveted to the plates.
The menu is four courses for $65, with four choices in as many categories. Like a lot of his brethren, Tang wants you to share your food with your tablemates. Easier said than done. The portions are restrained, the compositions frequently luscious. Once you try his lobster etouffee — pulsing with tropical heat, finished with fish sauce and lightened with an herb salad — you’re inclined to keep it close at hand (or mouth). As with most of his ideas, the bread service tells a little story. Guests are greeted with subtly sweet pineapple buns, named for their crackly diamond-stamped tops and introduced as the chef’s childhood snack when he lived in Hong Kong. The butter on their plate, piped to look like a flower, is made on the premises.
Without an ounce of sermonizing, Rooster & Owl encourages customers to eat their vegetables, which play a leading role on the menu. The heavy cloak of winter was lifted with every bite of a salad of raw julienne kohlrabi and celery root, invigorated with a lemon vinaigrette and fresh mint. What could have passed for linguine, with the exception of its faint crunch, was made more compelling with a scattering of cotija — the Parmesan of Mexico — and crushed sesame seed brittle. A number of restaurants are pushing carrots as center-of-the-plate attractions, but no kitchen has made them taste heartier and sassier; Tang applies a dry rub to the baby vegetables before roasting them to softness and applying barbecue sauce thereafter. The tang is the ideal foil to their cool and silken accompaniment. “You didn’t know you were missing cornbread ice cream in your life, did you?” asked a server as we explored the scoop.
She didn’t inquire about the impact of Tang’s oven-roasted Napa cabbage on my existence, but I’m here to say, a wedge whose leaves are stuffed with shallots, pear and thyme, and presented on a little pool of green peppercorn sauce, is quietly life-affirming.
Not to say meat fanciers can’t eat here, or will feel deprived. Tang seems driven to consider all points of view with his cooking. Look, then, for the aforementioned “pot roast,” whose quote marks hint that the recipe is unlike anything any mother is likely to have served. For one thing, it’s just a cup or so of comfort (the way most of us should be eating, but I digress). For another, braised oxtail acts as mere garnish for a bed of buttery whipped potatoes and diced rutabagas sweetened with a bit of maple syrup. Contrast, thy name is crispy shallots, the crowning touch on the small plate.
Crackling fried baby quail, glazed with miso, honey and yuzu juice, lounges on grits fired up with Thai chile in a red pepper relish: fusion at its finest.
Despite the Uber gig, Tang, 36, is no Johnny-come-lately. His New York credits include line cook positions at the esteemed Jean-Georges and the Modern. Most recently in Washington, the college accounting major served as a sous-chef at the late Rogue 24. I can taste those and other stops at Rooster & Owl, an effort Tang preceded by three years of catering gigs, pop-ups and driving strangers around town in his own car.
“LOVE Rooster & Owl,” a friend with great taste texted me after she tried the restaurant in its first week. “Come with 4 pple so you can have everything. 4 stars out of the gate. Seriously.”
I’ve never given any area restaurant my highest rating out of the gate, preferring to see how they settle in over time, but I can understand my friend’s animal enthusiasm. Tang sets a high bar for himself. Familiar as some of the combinations read on paper, none of them dip below very good. There’s an ocean of crudo out there, but the kanpachi lapped with coconut milk and dappled with lime leaves and grapefruit at Rooster & Owl tastes wholly fresh. Gnocchi staged with shiitakes and preserved lemon is so ethereal, I glance up from my plate to see if Fabio Trabocchi or Amy Brandwein has momentarily slipped into Tang’s Batman Crocs.
Rooster & Owl? The name acknowledges that Carey has a day job, at Children’s National Hospital, and Yuan works nights. The couple has a thing for animal art, too, pieces of which they display at home and used as inspiration before christening their restaurant. Good thing they drilled down; Giraffe & Elephant just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Dinners are inspiring to the last crumb. Pastry chef Olivia Green comes to the project from the much-admired Métier and Kinship. Here, she seduces diners with a downy goat cheese bavarois tarted up with cranberries, slender eclairs piped with praline mousseline and graced with brown butter ice cream, not to forget bite-size, robot-shaped milk chocolates with the bill.
“We want to put a smile on people’s faces when they get the check,” says Tang.
Nice gesture, but honestly, Rooster & Owl pretty much has diners grinning from the first bite.
Rooster & Owl (Excellent) 2436 14th St. NW. 202-813-3976. roosterowl.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Four courses for $65 a person. Optional wine pairings, $35.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.