The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide.
Critics aren’t paid to keep food secrets, so here goes: There’s an off-the-menu nosh at the Dabney that’s so popular among insiders, it typically runs out before the night is over. To get in on the treat, nod if a server mentions “sweet potato rolls,” fluffy buns with seeded domes and a rocking filling of crisp catfish, cool lettuce ruffle and fresh tartar sauce. The snack is no more than a few bites, but the memory lingers long after it’s dispatched – my reaction to much of what chef-owner Jeremiah Langhorne is cooking these days. Maryland crab stars in an elegant stew, smoky with charred okra and tangy with Meyer lemon puree. Pork belly glides to the table with some pickled clams atop a dollop of soft eggplant, also charred, because campfire flavors are what to expect from one of the biggest, well-tended hearths around. Rockabilly music, acres of wood and better-than-ever desserts add to the appeal of my favorite Mid-Atlantic specialist. When a server overheard two of us debating whether to order the signature corn bread, she passed on another tip: Did you know the kitchen bakes a “baby” version in a three-inch skillet? Now you do.
The Dabney: 122 Blagden Alley NW. 202-450-1015. thedabney.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Prices: Mains $18-$28.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review originally appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
The Dabney’s fine flavors stay close to home
If Alice Waters asked for the Washington equivalent of Chez Panisse, I would send the mother of California cuisine to the locally rooted creation of Jeremiah Langhorne in Blagden Alley. The dining room, like the temple in Berkeley, is spare but warm — a tavern for food worshipers. Eyes and ears are drawn to the enormous hearth in the center of the long open kitchen, a mesmerizing show of leaping flames and crackling wood. Summer found the chef sending out some of the best of the season. Memories were made of DIY tomato toast — chopped heirloom tomatoes, grilled bread and labneh — and scallops hooked up with creamed corn and pickled blackberries, an unusual but delightful foil to the sweetness of the main attraction. The way Langhorne treats beef belly — rich, tomatillo-slathered meat served atop creamy coco rubico beans and beer pickles — makes me wish more chefs embraced the cut. Desserts of late are underwhelming. Use that as an excuse to fill up on raw oysters, fried chicken and crab (with okra, it’s delicious). In a world with lots of sizzle, Langhorne plays it straight, simple and mostly sublime.
The following review appeard in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Who needs the Chamber of Commerce when there’s the Dabney, the handsome, hyperlocal shout-out to the Mid-Atlantic from Jeremiah Langhorne? Whereas much of the early attention focused on the chef’s obsession with tracking down only-from-nearby ingredients, patrons these days are more likely to be consumed by the deliciousness on their plates. Smoked catfish dip with finer-than-Fritos corn chips makes for great cocktail conversation, and anything involving pork deserves your consideration, be it pork sausage and herbed ricotta on thick toast or blushing slices of loin. The latter gets an escort of pole beans dappled with cream sauce and delicate fried onions, an update on Mom’s green bean casserole. There’s no escaping fire at the Dabney, whose enormous hearth commands center stage in the dining room and whose combination of heat and wood makes everything from vegetables to monkfish taste better. The food stencils on the wall are as endearing as the sorghum cookies with the check. Hope someone slips up. The mea culpa for a delayed dish might be crisp skate in a tender sweet potato roll, an off-the-menu fish sandwich worthy of more exposure — and yet another reason to applaud the service.
In his Valentine to the Mid-Atlantic in Blagden Alley, Jeremiah Langhorne is so obsessed with using only regional ingredients, the chef nixes olives for cocktails and even makes his own Worcestershire sauce. The heart of the restaurant is a massive hearth that’s part eye candy, part source of some very good eating: vegetables smoky from the embers in which they’re tucked, quail bronzed from brushes with fire, and cornbread cooked on a griddle in a cast-iron skillet. (Lard makes the dish lovely.) Langhorne claims a soft spot for heart (lamb or pork), slices of which are grilled and combined with potato soup, beer-pickled onions and a froth of buttermilk: a fist bump for offal. Named for a Virginia ancestor of the chef, the room fits the food, with old area maps gracing the walls and captain’s chairs pushed into sturdy wood tables.
The following review was originally published Feb. 24, 2016.
The Dabney review: Bringing Mid-Atlantic cuisine to life
My martini-inclined tablemate has just been informed that olives are unavailable as a garnish. Hoping to salvage my guest’s drink request, our flannel-clad server counters, “I can bring you something pickled, though!”
There’s commitment to local sourcing, and then there’s the Dabney. Introduced in Shaw on Halloween by Jeremiah Langhorne, the former chef de cuisine of the Dixie-dandy restaurant McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., the District addition goes further than any establishment in years in stocking its pantry with nearby ingredients with the aim of articulating Mid-Atlantic cuisine.
Competitors might offer rockfish yanked fresh from the Chesapeake and call it a day. Langhorne tags menhaden and turns the catch into fish sauce. His curiosity and obsessiveness go beyond bragging rights — rare is the chef who bothers to concoct his own Worcestershire sauce, using the leaves of young black walnuts — to embrace dishes assembled mostly from area fields and streams, sometimes with the help of recipes from regional 19th-century cookbooks (one of which, to Langhorne’s surprise, included his forebears as contributors).
Another out-of-towner trying to sprinkle fairy dust on Washington’s food scene? Langhorne, 31, was born in Bethesda, spent his early years in Northern Virginia and his teens in Charlottesville. The District, to which he returned in 2013 to prepare for the Dabney, is therefore home. Developers encouraged him to occupy 14th Street NW or CityCenterDC, hyped restaurant zones that were the exact opposite of where the chef and his business partner, Alex Zink, pictured themselves. And, unlike so many chefs who boast in print about their shopping prowess, Langhorne limits the number of his purveyors — most of whom he has actually interviewed where they work — that he lists on his menu to just a few.
Nestled in Blagden Alley and named for long-ago Virginia relatives of the chef, the Dabney is without an oven. Instead, a mammoth hearth commands center stage in the exposed kitchen that’s visible to most of the dining room. From a distance — say, the 16-seat bar near the front door — the 10-by-5-foot fire pit looks like a romantic plug for a roast beast or two. Up close, the cave makes space for grill baskets filled with vegetables that sponge smoke from the embers in which they’re tucked. There are bars, too, from which quail can be suspended over the flames, then stuffed with oysters and sweetened with golden raisins. Similar to the cornbread served at McCrady’s in Charleston, the Dabney’s crisp yellow round, presented in a cast-iron skillet (but laced with lard rather than bacon fat), is made possible by Anson Mills and the hearth’s hot griddle.
The Dabney’s early months were marked by menus that changed completely from night to night, frustrating returning diners who might have hoped to relive a favorite dish (and restaurant critics looking for something permanent to write about). For me to wax poetic about late fall’s fetching root vegetable chowder made grand with oysters and brioche; fresh ham tartine set off with crisp celery and cheese-intensified mornay sauce, one of the finest open-faced sandwiches in recent memory; or pink trout tricked out with hot-sauced black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes and pickled okra would be to just lead you on. (Not that everything from the first two months merits a return engagement; when this kitchen errs, it’s usually with a too-sweet sauce.)
January’s blizzard gave Langhorne a chance to reassess his strategy, offer more continuity and introduce bread service. Housemade, char-etched ciabatta is good by itself but wonderful when slathered with sorghum butter speckled with dried fennel and chilies. The menu retains some eccentricities, though, as a waiter might explain. “Imagine an invisible line about here,” says one, pointing to a spot that’s meant to separate appetizers from entrees. True to form at most new restaurants, she adds, “We like to share here.”
Salads can be tricky for chefs in the depths of winter. Langhorne raises the reclaimed bar with commanding greens — peppery mizuna, tangy tatsoi, anise-hinting chervil — a light application of buttermilk dressing and punctuation in the form of tiny brioche croutons. Nestled in the mix are bites of sweet potato armed with the aromas of campfires.
Langhorne has a soft spot for heart — sometimes lamb, other nights pork, typically grilled — and crimson slices of it grace a bowl into which a thin potato soup is poured at the table. Along for the joy ride are beer-pickled onions and a froth of buttermilk and horseradish juice that ties the elements together and converts naysayers to offal. Leg and shoulder cuts of meat make strong impressions, too. Look for a fist of lamb enriched with vadouvan, the curry-fragrant spice blend. Like a number of dishes, it’s tasty even if it doesn’t shout “Mid-Atlantic!”
The plate that tastes least like any competitor’s and most like a signature-dish-in-waiting is pheasant, its breast dreamily moist, the legs cured with area spicebush, its flavor akin to allspice. Every component — the buttery yellow-eyed beans, the briny carrots, the crisp sails of pumpernickel on top — boosts the performance of the others.
Langhorne isn’t such a purist that he won’t use lemon to flavor his cooking or offer truffles when they’re in season. So far, he says, he has yet to find a substitute for lemon that’s both local and matches the power of the citrus. While the Dabney’s beers, ciders and sodas let a consumer buy local, the restaurant’s selection of wines is much more worldly.
If you spring for only one dessert, bite into the ice cream sandwich, thin chocolate cookies joining peanut butter ice cream and fluffy marshmallow. The lone letdown at night’s end is a rye blondie that smacks of Betty Crocker taking her cookies out of the oven too soon. Yet with the check come bite-size pecan sandies and sorghum snaps that make you wish they were sold by the box.
Langhorne and Zink, who serves as general manager, applied their sterling kitchen standards to their pine-paved dining room, where black captain’s chairs frame sturdy wood tables and the brick walls display old maps of the region. (In a 10-part series, Tim Carman reported that even plumbers were interviewed before being hired, the rationale being that everyone connected to the Dabney be of the same non-commercial mind-set.)
If the restaurant’s story sometimes trumps its cooking, the Mid-Atlantic has a dedicated friend in the Dabney. So far, so swell.