Venezuela could use some good press, and one person in Washington poised to dish it out is Enrique Limardo.
A native of Caracas, he studied architecture and industrial design before abandoning both fields for cooking, first in his homeland, with two restaurants in Venezuela’s capital; then around the world (Dubai, Hong Kong, Paris) as a personal chef; and later in Baltimore, where his food at Alma Cocina Latina drew me like Picasso to paint.
After a devotee in the District promised to support him if he relocated to Washington, Limardo, 44, responded with Seven Reasons on 14th Street NW. No sooner did the three-story restaurant throw open its doors in April than it became the “Dear Evan Hansen” of the food scene, a homegrown spectacle with an original point of view.
Arepas — baked, fried or grilled cornmeal cakes that can be filled with just about anything — may be the extent of your familiarity with the cooking of Venezuela. The chef wants you to know the role immigration has played in his native country, a melting pot whose flavors come by way of “Spain, Italy, Japan, China, even India,” says the chef, who got his start as a dishwasher.
It only takes a dish or two to catch his drift and appreciate his creative mind. There’s an ocean of octopus out there. But nowhere else have I seen it offered as a single steamed, boiled and fried tentacle, dusted with trendy “ash” created from charred onions and served atop interlocking yellow rings of liquid ahi amarillo. To get the full effect, dab a bite of crisp octopus in the gently teasing sauce, or one of the others that help color the plate and excite the palate, roasted banana puree included. Part of the tentacle rests on a cake of black lentils, set off with dots of avocado puree, which plays the role of a comma between bites of seafood.
Pale pink folds of swordfish belly, shimmering orange roe and fried black sesame seeds dress a tostada that all but hides the julienned green mango beneath it. The offbeat combination, a hit on the tongue, shows the chef’s flair for layering flavors and textures so that every bite is a joy.
A fire in July at the neighboring bar, Grady’s, resulted in water damage, roof repairs and an unwelcome break for Seven Reasons. But Limardo turned lemons into limonada and used the time off to come up with more crowd pleasers. The addition that tickles him most is a riff on tradition. Sliced lamb loin is perfectly nice. But it improves with spoonfuls of coconut curry, which Venezuelans recognize as part of a popular dish, chivo en coco, typically made with goat. Even better is the black block of forbidden rice next to the lamb, nutty-tasting grains veined with sofrito, cilantro and nuggets of bacon and banana. Good things come to those who partake.
The chef considers himself a mystic, interested in numerology. Hence his inclusion of seven, the number of the spirit, in the establishment’s name. “Our customers are seekers,” he says, “looking for something different.”
They find it in spades on the menu. Argentine steak marinated in garlic, lime zest and Worcestershire sauce makes for a marvelous Milanese. The breaded beef hovers over aligot made with yuca, stretchy as taffy, its richness kept in check with pickled onions scattered atop the steak. The dish is found among the menu’s fashionable “medium plates,” along with roll-ups of scarlet wagyu beef, a carpaccio that announces itself with a fragrant garnish of black truffles and ribbons of fried potato “paper.” A fork inserted into the bottom of the dish picks up creamy hearts of palm and confit tuna belly. Students of Italian might connect the dots and catch Limardo’s spin on the classic vitello tonnato.
The chef puts as much thought into his meatless notions as anything else, and even promises to feature a vegan menu — for a month — next year. Already, however, he’s offering Garden of Eden moments. Roasted, peeled sweet potato streaked with crimson beet puree and almond-chipotle vinaigrette is the flesh-free equivalent of a sizzling porterhouse: a sight to behold and, better yet, devour. The sweet potato slips in jalapeño syrup, along with crisp sea beans and roasted garlic, rendering the spud more of a feast. In another triumph, petals of shaved butternut squash alternate with red and yellow tomato slices in a creamy plot of whipped goat cheese and butternut squash, bordered in a thin cocoa fence. Circling the stunning tart are a dusky roasted tomato sauce and squash blossom vinaigrette.
There’s a lot going on in these dishes, true, but every stripe, dollop and concealed ingredient sustains a diner’s interest. That sweet potato isn’t billed as “Madness” for nothing.
The look of the place bolsters the culinary theme. Picture an urban jungle with creature comforts. A table on the ground floor gives diners a view of the open kitchen, but it comes with a side of clamor. I much prefer a table anywhere upstairs, where skylights and an Amazon of greenery pull the outside in — and the chef hopes to plant “a big tree.” (The mezzanine makes an ideal landing for private parties.) Limardo clearly sat in the leather chairs before buying them. They encourage hanging out and ordering more. Consider whole butterflied fish, served on a bed of rice, swollen with the flavor of the sea, and one of multiple dishes built for two or more.
Does the attention feel familiar? Several staff spent time working for Fabio Trabocchi, whose restaurants select servers like Meryl Streep accepts movie roles. Everyone on the payroll seems excited about the food (and drink: Cocktails are a must), for good reason. Most of it is wonderful. One of the few false notes over the course of several dinners was a plate of falafel. They tasted burned. Similarly, a milk chocolate eclair, which looked like a hot dog, suggested a foreign kitchen had made it.
Otherwise, the restaurant impresses me right through the end. White Heaven — nirvana fashioned from meringue, litchi gelatin and soursop sorbet and foam — fulfills the promise of its name and puts the creamy-textured tropical fruit, similar in flavor to pineapple, on a pedestal. Even if you don’t order dessert, something sweet appears, maybe a little roll of chocolate that channels a Kit Kat bar. A birthday celebrant might receive a small chocolate bar encased in a beautiful green-and-gold wrapper.
Seven Reasons? This diner begs to differ. There are dozens of arguments to be made in favor of a restaurant as novel as this one, a serious bridge to a whimsical world.
Seven Reasons (Excellent) 2208 14th St. NW. 202-290-2630. sevenreasonsdc.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Prices: Small plates $9 to $20, medium plates $19 to $28, large plates $45 to $120 (for four to six people). Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A low ramp at the door welcomes wheelchair users, who have access to a restroom on the ground floor.