2 1/2 stars
The Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood: 1595 I St. NW. 202-800-9994. raredc.com/the-tavern.
Open: Breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
Prices: Mains $16 to $30.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2018:
The following review was originally published Feb. 21, 2018.
The steakhouse may be a cut above, but the real treat is in the tavern below
To stand out in a crowded meat market anymore, a steakhouse has to have a shtick. A quick word association with some of the best-known players in town might go something like this:
Bourbon Steak: Butter-poached beef.
Prime Rib: Live music.
The Palm: Caricatures.
BLT Steak: Popovers.
BLT Prime: Red (as in Republican).
The latest entry into the field is Rare Steak and Seafood, a second-floor dining room whose old-fashioned looks and hospitality are a cut above the rest, but whose menu follows a predictable formula. In essence, a baked potato plus a slab of grilled beef equals Ambien for dinner.
An import from Wisconsin, Rare Steak and Seafood is actually two distinct venues. Per the wishes of its landlord, Laborers’ International Union of North America, the sprawl features a 210-seat tavern on the ground floor. As executive chef Marc Hennessy says of the two-pronged approach, “Steakhouses can be pretty expensive, special occasion.”
Taverns, at least as conceived by Hennessy, a son of Chicago’s south suburbs, can be pretty special, period. Since the watering hole opened in November, I’ve found it to be the answer to a number of questions from readers, perhaps the most important of which is “Where can I find a cozy, moderately priced downtown retreat that’s easy to access, offers something for everyone and doesn’t sound like a construction site?”
On a personal note, this former Milwaukee resident appreciates the way in which Hennessy slips Wisconsin references into the menu without being, well, cheesy about it — save perhaps for the fried curds that find their way into a rib-sticking “muffuletta” made with fried bologna. (It’s a mouthful, and fun fusion.) A riff on a Scotch egg uses ground bratwurst as the sausage shell for the cooked egg; ask for the satisfying “Wiscotch egg.” Garlic pretzels are a disappointment if you’re expecting something large and soft; these are small pretzels out of a bag, tossed with grated Wisconsin Parmesan and garlic oil. Still, we eat more of the doctored snack than we expect; as drinking companions go, they’re pretty entertaining.
Like the formal steakhouse on the second floor, the tavern revels in a vintage charm. Behind the epic, elevated bar, which includes an iced shellfish display, is a retro mural depicting blue-collar workers amid drills and steam. (Kudos to the artist for including women pursuing the American Dream.) A coffered ceiling and leather tabletops make for a swarthy dining room, one in which framed knives punctuate red-and-gold-flocked wallpaper and outsize booths allow for semiprivate meals.
The cooking follows suit, with dishes that sound like pages torn from a Fannie Farmer cookbook but are executed with contemporary finesse. (Hennessy previously cooked for the BLT Restaurant Group, including BLT Prime, and Del Campoin Washington.) Fine, handmade spaghetti supports meatballs shaped with beef and chicken (a substitute for bread crumbs as a binder) and a blob of burrata whose richness is foiled by a spicy tomato sauce. Roast chicken and dumplings suggest an Amish housewife momentarily slipped into the chef’s crocs; the sauce of sage, thyme, carrots and celery is especially pleasing, and the dumplings come with a sear that lends nuance amid the soft textures. The most curious entree is the “bratspatz,” slices of bratwurst mixed with tender spaetzle and clotted cream. It’s what might happen if you asked a Wisconsinite to create an official state dish. I like it, at least for a few bites.
Hennessy isn’t just challenging gallbladders. Indeed, his salads — chopped salad with buttermilk dressing, baby kale with mushrooms and apples — are all keepers (I mean that literally: their size encourages leftovers). The bowl that sustains my interest to the last heart of palm slice also packs in shaved carrots, buttery avocado, cucumbers, halved grapes, some oregano — basically a garden of good eating splashed with red wine vinegar made in-house.
Steam pots are thoughtfully presented with a plate of salt-sprinkled focaccia atop whatever collection of bivalves you fancy (I’m drawn to the tender clams). The kitchen knows that part of the fun of ordering a seafood pot is dunking bread into the broth; take your pick from zesty shellfish curry or the homier smoked ham broth. As for fish entrees, you might be expecting an appearance by walleye or pike at this point. Instead, there’s more universal salmon, and it’s one of the kitchen’s more contemporary selections, finished with artichokes striped from the grill.
What appears to be a case of sibling rivalry — steaks on the tavern menu — is kept in check with cuts that are less fancy than the ones served upstairs. The $27 bottleneck, taken from the center of the rib loin, is nine ounces of simple, dry-aged pleasure served with a loose row of thin-cut sauteed potatoes, onions and kale. But steak is less a reason to
visit than dishes you don’t see as often, or that are prepared especially well. Attention, thymus fans; the tavern excels at
chicken-fried sweetbreads, fluffy inside but otherwise crisp and gently teasing with espelette pepper. The light crackle you get with the “shake ’n’ bake” pork chop, served atop corn pudding and alongside a smoky barbecue sauce, comes from crushed
pretzels seasoned with dried
onion and a garnish that means you’ll truly pig out: fried pork rinds.
Desserts are glorified crowd-pleasers. The coconut almond joy sundae tastes just like the popular candy bar, only cooler and creamier (coconut gelato helps). Coffee cake, which some fans judge on its dunkability, is served as two slices with a tiny pitcher of vanilla custard sauce and a tangy dollop of crème fraîche for subtle yin-and-yang contrast. Toasted marshmallows and gingerbread cookies make for a brassy butterscotch pudding, and a recent request for “today’s slice” brought a wedge of satisfying carrot cake, its center filled with white chocolate mousse.
No offense to Rare Steak and Seafood, but the blueprint the mini-chain should be replicating is the tavern’s. There are plenty of places to drop lots of green on grilled beef. What the world needs now is pub, sweet pub.