When I started writing about restaurants there were no cellphones, OpenTables or Yelp Elites, and mainstream reviewers devoted most of their column inches to what came out of the kitchen. Even at the Gray Lady, the longest-serving restaurant scribbler told me his editors warned him off review introductions that weren’t related to what he found on his plate. “Get to the food! Get to the food!” they directed him.
Food hasn’t lost its luster, not by a long shot, but over the decades, service and ambiance have become so important to so many diners that inattention or noisy environments alone can deter customers from the work of top chefs. Consumers have come to care, sometimes a lot, about the non-edible ingredients that go into the restaurant experience.
Like who’s sharing the place with us. At the Fainting Goat, the year-old American tavern on U Street NW, one can’t help but notice how attractive the clientele is on any given night. A night away from home here could pass for a fashion shoot. It’s not just me who has noticed the abundance of beauty. Fainting Goat, says its second chef, Nathan Beauchamp, is “a big stop for Tinder dates,” referring to the matchmaking app that connects singles based in part on appearance. How does he know? Because a host of them come in looking for someone they’ve yet to meet face to face. And because one night, two different Tinder couples at the bar ended up switching partners when it became clear they had more in common with one of the others.
Surely co-owner Greg Algie is shaking his head at the irony: “Fainting Goat” refers to the restaurateur’s relative shyness around women. Friends kidded Algie about freezing up in the company of the opposite sex. When it came to naming the restaurant, Fainting Goat had an entertaining ring and a story behind it.
(The food, Tom, the food!)
The restaurant assembles its dishes under categories that will either annoy or amuse you: “Nibbles” are snacks for sharing, “Graze” gathers appetizers and “Feed” finds main courses. (“Chomp,” a designation better suited for cavemen and cattle, has been excised from the original list. Color me grateful.)
Algie lets Beauchamp, who replaced opening chef James Barton over the summer, do his own thing. One of the owner’s few stipulations was that goat have some role in the mix. The Other Red Meat stars in some of the kitchen’s best efforts, among them a robust Bolognese draped on a pasta that changes from day to day and a po’ boy that would do New Orleans proud. A trip to NoLa, where Beauchamp enjoyed a po’ boy of roast beef and fried shrimp, inspired the hearty sandwich in Washington, where braised goat, sweet with coconut milk and warm with allspice and cumin, picks up crunch from fried shrimp (and a refreshing mango slaw). Other goat products also get their due: Beauchamp updates fondue with melted goat cheese and Fresno peppers. Grill-striped chunks of bread and a sprightly salad turn the “Nibble” into a mouthful.
An alumnus of the formal 1789 in Georgetown, Beauchamp, 39, spent the past six years in Minnesota, where he taught cooking, tended an organic farm and worked for a catering company. Among the dishes that make me glad to have him back on the East Coast is a flatbread arranged with poached clams, peppery arugula, coins of fingerling potato and piquillo peppers, a riff on New Haven-style clam pizza that tastes poised to land on future lists of restaurant hits. Scallop crudo is the sort of opulent statement a diner wouldn’t be surprised to see at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria or Bistro Bis in Washington, establishments where the chef has also cooked. Brightened with lemon juice, the raw bay scallops are mingled with fleshy lobster mushrooms and crisp shaved Asian pear, then drizzled with brown butter just before serving. The result is a warm, rich and velvety seafood salad.
Beauchamp gives good punctuation, using herbs, heat and acid to balance richer dishes. Take the Tavern steak, the cut of which changes by the day. The constants are bearnaise slathered across the beef and bread pudding enriched with bone marrow. Embedded in the savory custard are thyme and cayenne, seasonings that keep the excess of the side dish in check.
Provided the kitchen doesn’t mask its flavor with salt, as on my last visit, chicken makes a worthwhile detour. The crisp bird is delivered on a hash of Brussels sprouts and hazelnuts with a jus coaxed from chicken drippings and malt vinegar. More grace notes come by way of brioche croutons on the plate.
Duck confit is no rival to the exemplars at Le Diplomate near Logan Circle or Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, but it’s still a pleasant way to pass the time, served as the dish is with smoked cranberries and a sherry gastrique.
A few plates get my goat. The biggest clunker is a first course of smoked mackerel, served in a jar alongside a plank of pickled carrots and broccoli and a heap of toast. “Tastes like a closet,” says a companion of the gray fish spread. I didn’t have a mothball around for comparison, but I shared his assessment. Fish, most recently a mushy barramundi, proves a lesser catch among entrees.
Dessert is best experienced via a straw in a mug of hot chocolate, made irresistible with Callebaut chocolate and (what else?) frothy goat milk. The tang — along with coffee liquor and esplette atop the whipped cream — gives the childhood memory an adult twist.
The Fainting Goat benefits from a young staff that treats diners like neighbors, even if they aren’t, and a two-level bar and dining room that are as easy on the eyes as some of those Tinder members. Upstairs is my preferred destination. A low ceiling, moody lighting, brick walls, mismatched chairs and green paint are the interior equivalent of a wool blanket on a cold night. And Sunday entices wine drinkers with half-price bottles. A “baby Amarone” for $16? Sold!
Location: 1330 U St. NW. 202-735-0344. www.thefaintinggoatdc.com.
Open: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $5to $16, main courses $14 to $34.
Sound check: 78 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.