To the flock of stellar chicken wings out there, add the plate from the Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse in Northeast Washington.
Like the best crab cakes, these wings aren’t overly fussy. Their marinade is little more than brown sugar, black pepper and a touch of soy sauce, which means you can actually taste the succulent flesh of the ample chicken, whose skin benefits from both smoking and grilling. The accompanying Alabama white sauce, whipped up from mayonnaise, horseradish and vinegar, isn’t necessary, although when a wing takes the plunge, the combination of char and sass is a duet you don’t soon forget.
You owe it to yourself to try some smoked fish at the tavern, too. A diner can ease in with a single selection or splurge on a board crammed with such sea treasures as cold-smoked salmon, hot-smoked salmon, salmon “candy” kissed with honey, rainbow trout from North Carolina and whitefish salad using fish from the Great Lakes. If there are more than two diners at the table, the $24 haul makes the most sense. The bounty becomes brunch for dinner thanks to the toasted bagels, briny capers and chive cream cheese that flank the plank.
Smoke, if you haven’t detected by now, is a constant at the second-story tavern, introduced a year ago by the owners of the nearby ProFish and preceded by a related retail seafood market and smokehouse on street level. The restaurant, which began serving a full menu last April, was the first in a wave of new eating and drinking spots in a part of town previously known for its abandoned warehouses and homeless shelter. Now, with the addition of Ari’s Diner and La Puerta Verde, among other sights for sore eyes, the neighborhood is attracting the kind of attention Shaw did a few years ago.
Stop by the market before ascending to dinner. The guys behind the iced fish display are so passionate about what they’re selling, they tempt me to cancel my reservation and return home to cook. Most of the wares are domestic — think Gulf shrimp and oysters from sea to shining sea — but if you’re in the market for Spanish octopus or New Zealand langoustines, they’re available. In a nod to neighbors, the stock also includes locally popular croaker and blue catfish.
“If it swims, we have it,” jokes John Rorapaugh, the sustainability director for ProFish and a consultant for the restaurant. If a customer asks for, say, hake and it isn’t on the counter, a fishmonger can usually run across the street to ProFish headquarters and retrieve some. The warehouse has anywhere from 200 to 300 types of seafood on any given day, says Rorapaugh. Some of Washington’s best restaurants — Bad Saint, Del Campo, the Source — use ProFish, which is also dedicated to maintaining the ocean’s supplies of fish and tracing the source of its
Up we go to the tavern, on the site of a former yeast and vinegar producer. The scent of smoke continues in a room set off with brushed concrete floors, painted cinder-block walls and Edison lightbulbs — basically a template for every other new restaurant. The sprawl encompasses an outdoor deck with a fire pit, visible behind roll-up glass doors, and an event space that has hosted live bands, Super Bowl parties and community meetings. (If given a choice, opt for the seats near the warehouse-size windows or the stools at the semicircular bar.)
This is a generous kitchen. The Caesar salad comes in what could serve as a mixing bowl. Part of the bulk comes from singed cauliflower florets tossed in with the chopped romaine and a blizzard of Parmesan, everything moistened with an anchovy-sharpened dressing that’s made in-house.
Similarly, a wire basket heaped with fish and chips could easily feed two diners. Swords of steamy blue catfish come sheathed in a golden batter whose crunch is audible from across the table. The simple concert is rounded out with sweetly fresh coleslaw, herby tartar sauce and a thatch of hand-cut fries, an ensemble cast assembled from good ingredients guided by a light hand in the kitchen.
Tacos, served three to a metal holder, are big, too — also hard to handle, given the paper-thin tortillas that strain to contain their fillings. Even so, that didn’t stop me from snatching from the table any buttery avocado, fresh slaw or sweet battered shrimp that escaped the clutches. (Let’s hope the five-second rule for dropped food at home applies to tables in restaurants.)
Easier to eat, and just as satisfying, are grilled skewered shrimp brushed with some Alabama white sauce fortified with ancho chili and bedded on fluffy cilantro rice.
Kudos to the kitchen for serving crab cakes that taste more of seafood (jumbo lump crab) than filler. The difference between the sandwich and the entree boils down to potatoes — the former comes with fries, the latter with delicious fingerlings — and out-of-season asparagus with the main course.
You don’t have to eat seafood to warm up to the tavern, which beefs up its brief menu with a hamburger, a steak and spare ribs prepared in a separate, hickory-fired smoker in the upstairs kitchen, which is watched over by former Occidental chef Alberto Bollera. The last dish features crusty, smoke-infused pork ribs served with a stinging barbecue sauce. And among the sandwiches is buttermilk-fried chicken sharing its brioche bun with shredded cabbage and a zesty aioli, a bit messy in the eating but plenty tasty going down.
Rib-sticking fare like the tavern’s — and, truth be told, the devouring of too many french fries — negates the need, but not necessarily the desire, for dessert. The cheesecake is house-made and forgettable, but ask for extra spoons with the comforting chocolate pudding, served in a tall glass with real whipped cream. Everyone seems to want in on the treat.
Earnestness trumps efficiency in the dining room, where orders are sometimes repeated back to customers two or three times, drinks might mosey to the table ahead of the appetizers and servers have a tendency to tell you what they’re going to do every step of the way. (“I’m going to place your order for appetizers, then get your drinks, then ...”)
On the other hand, the owners are as committed to hiring staff from nearby as to serving carefully sourced seafood. Go, then, with an open mind and the understanding that the servers are learning some hospitality fundamentals on the job.
One thing the crew here doesn’t lack is enthusiasm, which counts for something. Skills, after all, can be taught. Smiles — genuine warmth and an eagerness to do the right thing — are harder to instill in someone who doesn’t already possess those qualities.
Anyway, this is a tavern, not a downtown destination, where expectations tend to run higher. And besides, the trailblazer is already plenty good — smokin’, you might say — just as it is.
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1356 Okie St. NE.
Open: Lunch Tuesday through Sunday, dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $16, main courses $13 to $39.
Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.