Nagged by the thought that his work at the Cato Institute wasn’t his true calling, Justin Logan left his job at the libertarian think tank last fall. Midlife crisis? “I didn’t get a red Corvette,” says the former director of foreign policy studies, 39. Instead, he embraced his passion for Latin American food and wine and opened Ruta del Vino, whose name translates into English as “wine trail,” in Petworth.
Lucky locals. The fresh face replaces the crumbling Riyad Market with a dining room whose picture windows show off a restored interior. The look — black pressed-tin ceiling, bare pendants — veers rustic, dominated by a rough-hewn wooden bar in the center. A second, semiprivate dining area is fronted with see-through slats and sports banana leaf wallpaper. The details make a jaunty backdrop for a menu that roams from empanadas and ceviches to grilled meats and whole fish.
Logan co-owns the restaurant, which debuted last month, with his wife, Jessica, and an investor, Michelle Rodriguez. All of them live nearby. They hired Victor Meneses, most recently a sous-chef at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, to create a list that will be music to the ears of anyone tired of petite portions or sharing. “We didn’t want to do small plates,” says Logan, who adds, “maybe I’m old-fashioned” — preferring as he does the idea of an appetizer followed by an entree followed by dessert, not to mention dishes paced for the convenience of diners rather than the kitchen crew.
The collection isn’t long or complicated, yet it offers something for everyone and touches on multiple cuisines. Ceviches are served in small bowls rather than on plates; the chef, a 2005 graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, prefers what he calls the “high and tight” visual. All I know is, dusky cumin, creamy avocado and spiced pepitas nudge lime-“cooked” rockfish to goodness. And squash, spinach, golden raisins and toasted walnuts make each bite of a fluted empanada a reason to make the packet vanish. Another meatless pleasure is the lightly battered chile relleno, oozing Oaxaca cheese at every slice of the knife.
Ruta del Vino’s wood-fired grill is the source of some of my pet dishes, including creamy-centered, lightly charred octopus served with black garlic crema, and carne asada, blushing slices of hanger steak simply marinated in olive oil, garlic and thyme before they hit the fire. A chili rub provides the beef with a nice kick; a thatch of fat yuca fries offers pleasing balance. (And any meat is better in the company of the Villard syrah from Chile’s Casablanca Valley.) By itself, the roast chicken, crisp of skin and succulent throughout, would get me back. The entree, redolent of herbs, rests on grill-striped fingerling potatoes and a yellow underliner of heat in the form of creamy huancaína sauce.
Only one dish, a Cubano, smacked of a lesser kitchen. The torta, or sandwich, was layered with meat that was dry.
Otherwise, the restaurant has all the makings of a neighborhood hit: well-balanced cocktails, including a caipirinha that got a thumbs up from the Brazilian at my table; a list of Latin American wines that consider Brazil and Uruguay as well as Argentina and Chile; and a happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. weeknights) bound to get bellies up to bar. Four-dollar glasses of vino in the company of $2 cheese-and-bean pupusas or masa fries with chimichurri add to the charms, ever-increasing, of Petworth.
800 Upshur St. NW. 202-248-4469. Sandwiches and entrees, $14 to $26.