This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
The name is a joke. Beefsteak refers not to meat but to tomatoes at yet another great idea from prolific chef and restaurateur José Andrés. “I believe the future is vegetables and fruit,” the Spanish native told “60 Minutes” five years ago. Putting his money where his mouth is this year, Andrés rolled out this fast-casual restaurant in Foggy Bottom, where customers line up before a field of greens, grains and garnishes and task an army of assemblers to whip up custom-tailored combos. (Instead of fryers, Beefsteak, which has since expanded to Dupont Circle, uses wire baskets that get dunked in boiling water.) Dozens of possible ingredients make decisions tough; a handful of house favorites help narrow the options. My go-to meal is “Frida Kale,” a blend of rice, kale, tomato and black bean sauces, plus pumpkin seeds, cranberries and a honey dressing. Chomp. Smile. Chomp. Smile. Temptation lurks near the cash register, where the chef’s mug graces bags of designer potato chips — fried, natch, in extra-virgin olive oil from Andalucia. This food might be fast, but it’s also mindful.
This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on Aug. 23, 2015.
For a while, José Andrés hinted about going fast-casual on us. The celebrity chef with a collection of upscale restaurants around Washington initially tested the waters three years ago with Pepe, his food truck peddling Spanish sandwiches.
Concurrently, Andrés has been nudging us to eat our vegetables by giving them more real estate on his menus at Jaleo, Oyamel and Zaytinya. In a 2010 appearance on “60 Minutes,” the genius behind Minibar told Anderson Cooper, “I believe the future is vegetables and fruit.”
That future is now, at Beefsteak, Andrés’s entree into the world of fast food sans (much) meat. The cheeky title — think beefsteak tomatoes — sets off a corner locus in Foggy Bottom with a number of factors in its favor: proximity to a subway stop, a major hospital and hordes of starving students from George Washington University.
Inspired by the success of Chipotle and Shake Shack, Beefsteak and its open-kitchen ordering line represent another noteworthy brand hopping on the quick-serve bandwagon. Across the country, top chefs and restaurants are vying to reach larger audiences with ideas as diverse as Pasta Flyer and Lewellyn’s Chicken & Biscuits. The first involves gluten-free noodles from Mark Ladner of four-star Del Posto acclaim in New York; the second honors the grandmother of Miami restaurateur John Kunkel, the boss behind the popular Yardbird.
The drill at Beefsteak will resonate with patrons of the aforementioned burrito and burger phenoms. Customers queue up in front of an assembly line of workers who customize guest requests from among assorted greens, grains and garnishes. Separating Beefsteak from some of its competition: vegetables (asparagus to chard to zucchini) cooked a la minute, while you watch. Orders are added to what look like fry baskets but get dunked in furiously boiling, lightly salted water for 90 seconds. The combinations can be completed with a spoonful of sauce and a sprinkle of something “fresh” (read: chickpeas, radishes, seaweed salad) or “crunchy” (almonds, cranberries, seeds).
The mixes and matches are limitless if you choose from any given day’s field of ingredients. Several house favorites make decision-making easier. Consider “Frida Kale,” rice and kale that get some kick from a zesty tomato sauce and black bean sauce and some crunch from pumpkin seeds and corn nuts. There are scallions, cranberries and cherry tomatoes as well, everything bound with a dressing of honey and lemon.
Another specialty, “Kimchi-wa,” calls to Asian-food enthusiasts. A boat of rice, edamame, kimchi, corn, toasted sesame seeds (and optional roasted chicken sausage) finished with a soy-ginger dressing renders a jumble of sour, chew and shade in every stab of the fork.
Unlike grilling or sauteing, blanching isn’t a cooking technique that imparts extra dash. For that, Beefsteak relies on fresh vegetables and the various accessories. “We’re developing the concept as we go,” says Andrés, who wants to add more local farmers to his equation. A chalkboard sign recently saluted growers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The upstart took an opportunity to promote its name over the summer with a “burger” featuring sliced beefsteak tomato along with sprouts and pickled onions on a brioche bun spread with herbed caper mayonnaise. The devil in me dreamed of asking for bacon. Reality assured me it wasn’t necessary.
The one signature I wouldn’t return for is “Naked”: green beans, purple potatoes, cherry tomatoes, lettuce and a swipe of yogurt dressing. The combination is a salad full of color and crunch but subdued in comparison to the other dishes flagged as favorites on the menu. “Naked” should get dressed.
Less health-bent fast-food chains tend to come in red or yellow. Beefsteak runs blue on its ceiling and on its walls; its kitchen is awash in handsome Spanish tiles. “Blue is water,” Andrés explains. “Blue is the sky.” The back of the dining area finds what appear to be school desks on several tiers, their chairs designed more for pint-size diners than bachelor of science aspirants (or really, the average American eater).
Whimsy comes by way of sketches of vegetables “misbehaving,” the entrepreneur says.
As much as Andrés wants us to eat better, the man whose kitchens dish out pedigreed ham (at Jaleo) and a meringue “Rubber Ducky” made with foie gras ice cream (at Minibar) knows dining is as much about pleasure as sustenance. Or should be. Hence potato chips near the cash register. The bags feature the chef’s face and a blurb that describes Spanish potatoes, extra-virgin olive oil from Andalucia and Himalayan pink salt. The poetry on the package helps me forget I’m still eating fat, carbs and sodium.
No surprise, Andrés plans to replicate his good-for-you recipe with five or so more locations in the area before branching out to other markets. (Six months after Beefsteak opened in Foggy Bottom, a second shop is poised for Dupont Circle in late September.)
Stay tuned for more gardens of good eating from an evangelist who wants diners to have fun while he’s preaching.
Location: 800 22nd St. NW. 202-296-1421. www.beefsteakveggies.com.
Open: Daily from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Make-your-own-bowls $7.99.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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