As hot as I am for the “dirty” chicken and milk punch, ultimately, the dining room is the breakout star at Succotash, the much-anticipated Southern statement from Louisville restaurateur Edward Lee. Everyone I’ve taken there since it opened in September, in a one-time bank, has the same initial reaction: What a beautiful restaurant! As arrivals do a 180-degree turn with their eyes, they take in the sweep and opulence provided by Corinthian columns, Mexican mahogany, mosaic tiles and circular leather booths in 9,500 feet of space.
Nevermind the ham boards and shrimp and grits we spot here and there as we’re led to our reserved seats, a good idea at lunch in particular. The packaging, including a wraparound balcony, is seducing us, big-time. With the possible exceptions of the enormous hearth at Maydan or the Barcelona vibe at Del Mar, Succotash serves the best visual amuse-bouche in town.
By now, you might have heard that the reception of the original Succotash in National Harbor encouraged Lee, a Brooklyn native of Korean heritage, to relocate to Washington with his family and that the smoked chicken wings are a compelling reason to drop by. Everything about the stacked snack — massaged with warm spices, draped with white barbecue sauce and garnished with celery ribbons — says “eat me,” including the accompanying plate of wet hand towels, hot as a Finnish sauna.
Where it makes sense, Lee, 46, inserts a Korean note into his Southern preparations. While the Hummingbird cake is a page from the sweet past, for instance, a lunch-only steak salad tastes as if it originated in Annandale, home base for Seoul food in the region. Rosy slices of richly marinated rib-eye share a plate with vinegared carrots, ruffled lettuce and pomegranate seeds, the makings for a sensational, DIY Asian wrap, should you choose. Most dishes are designed with meat-eaters in mind. A delightful exception, also offered only at lunch, is the Delta rice bowl, in which barbecued leeks, smoked tofu, roasted carrots and steamed Mississippi rice seem to be auditioning for a PETA awards banquet. The dish, like other arranged culinary marriages at Succotash, also underscores the flavors and techniques shared by Koreans and Southerners.
So far, so fun. If I had simply stopped making reservations after my initial mash note to Succotash — or avoided the duck schnitzel, or had more food at the right temperature — you might be seeing more stars attached to this assessment. But the newcomer has had an uneven run, despite a kitchen staff headed by a Washington veteran, executive chef Dean Dupuis, 45, formerly of Brasserie Beck, and chef de cuisine Phil Cronin, 30, an acolyte of Lee’s from Louisville. Lee serves as culinary director, allowing him to attend to other projects, including a forthcoming book, “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine,” and Whiskey Dry, a new booze-and-burger addition to his realm in Louisville. But his experience is such that he says he can jump in where needed — including a shift as a dishwasher not long ago when an employee was a no-show.
Adherence to form, the hallmark of a good restaurant, eludes Succotash. I can’t help but think the daily soups are receptacles for leftovers. See: one day’s tinny short rib soup, basically hash served with horseradish and a spoon. Some ideas are just unfortunate, none more so than butterflied duck. Slathered with Dijon and encased in what tastes like greasy cardboard, it’s a schnitzel no Austrian would recognize, bordered in both gravy and celery root puree. Not all sides are created equal, either. Curried succotash could use more spark, for instance.
Heat-seekers, in contrast, can have a field day. What’s “dirty” can be eye-popping, sweat-inducing, pleasure/pain. The aforementioned “dirty” chicken, for instance, is Lee’s take on Buffalo chicken wings, whereby legs and thighs are doused with lime, honey and the fiery Korean chile paste gochujang and dappled with blue cheese, which Lee likes for its umami. The dish, interspersed with sails of fried black nori, looks like a kitchen raid and lands like firecrackers on the palate. I love it. Among the compelling side dishes are bourbon-pickled jalapeños, best treated as a condiment (added to an entree) rather than eaten by the slice, unless you like the sensation of your tongue being Tasered.
Succotash can do subtle just as well, though. Lee calls the flounder on a recent menu his current pet, and I can see why. The fish, flaky and sweet, comes brushed in lemon butter and paired with braised fennel and a subtle romesco. It’s the ideal plate for someone who wants to eat light, and well.
The genial staff sometimes goes overboard trying to win your affection. One enthusiastic server channeled John McCain for the number of times he called us “my friends.” And the row of smiles at the host stand brings to mind the ubiquitous do-gooders seeking money and signatures seemingly everywhere downtown. “See you next week!” a young host called out to me on my last visit. Earnestness is better than disinterest, of course, but I wish the mind-set saw drinks delivered in timely fashion and food dropped off at the appropriate temperature — not always the case. If you get the combination hot, fried chicken and tender waffles are a classic duo made interesting with a web of manchego cheese. Served tepid, the dish leaves me cold.
“I want to play in the sandbox with the big boys,” Lee told The Washington Post a year ago. From a design standpoint, his $6 million new restaurant is every square foot a contender. Food-wise, your mileage may vary — too much for some of us, spoiled as we are in 2018 by some of the best restaurants in the country.
915 F St. NW.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $8 to $16, main courses $17 to $36.
Sound check: 84 decibels / Extremely loud.