My taxi driver doubts there’s a restaurant at the Georgetown address I’ve given him. “2622 P St. NW? By the 7-Eleven? There are just homes around there,” he says. Not until we roll up to the convenience store does he believe the slim storefront across the street might be something other than a residence.
Surely my cabbie isn’t the only person to question the place. The dining destination in question, After Peacock Room, hasn’t exactly made itself easy to access since its debut as a modest cafe last March. Three months after it started pouring coffee and offering light fare, the place closed for a kitchen upgrade. It reopened in November with a beer and wine license and a fresh staff, including chef Nicholas Sharpe, then closed before Christmas when he took time off for paternity leave. In January, After Peacock Room turned on its lights again and began serving dinner five nights a week, a dream of a schedule for a new dad — and hopefully an end to the stops and starts for anyone wanting a taste.
After Peacock Room takes inspiration from James McNeill Whistler’s famous “Peacock Room,” on display at the Freer Gallery of Art, says founder Heewon Ra, a designer and novice restaurant owner. The eatery’s walls are moody in dark blue and green; gold-colored steel rods add warmth to the slender setting, illuminated with jewel-like chandeliers.
Sharpe, who is also a partner in the project, comes to After Peacock Room from San Francisco, where he worked for the celebrated Michael Mina at RN74, a popular wine-themed restaurant in the Financial District. After Peacock Room represents a homecoming for Sharpe, who previously cooked at the late Ba Bay and the still-active Sonoma on Capitol Hill.
Printed on a piece of paper not much bigger than a greeting card, the menu is one of the smallest around, just three appetizers and three main courses plus dessert. The brevity is explained by a tiny kitchen and two-man crew. Sharpe has only one other person to help him prep, cook, arrange the food and clean up. The dishes that made the cut were things the chef says he enjoys eating. The selections also revolved around his question: “What would keep people coming back?”
Fluke crudo passes the test with flying colors. Lime-splashed curls of raw fish are tucked into a lush little orchard created from bright bites of citrus, creamy segments of avocado and jalapeño, with dots of blood orange juice for more intrigue. Eating the salad keeps winter at bay. Chicken soup is not the expected clear broth. Rather, the contents of the bowl, flavored with carrots and fennel, are viscous with noodles the chef purees instead of adding whole to the liquid. Paging Cook’s Illustrated! The trick is one I’ll be using at home to thicken future soups.
Has anyone else noticed how good so much restaurant chicken is lately? A flock of breeders is helping to change the bird’s reputation as a mere place holder on menus. Sharpe makes a mousse from thigh meat, creme fraiche and porcini mushrooms, which he slips under the skin of a black feather Pennsylvania chicken and cooks sous vide. Next to the centerpiece sits a roasted golden apple with a cap of creamy pommes espuma, or potato foam. The flavors run homey; the execution shows flair. Sharpe has sharpened his skills since he last cooked in town.
It’s hard for a young chef to resist the siren call of kimchi these days, and Sharpe, 33, is no exception. The fermented cabbage serves as the spicy base for chewy little rice cakes, sliced pork loin, crisp pork belly and a poached egg ringed in mustard greens. The entree has much to recommend it — color, balance, heat, texture — although I wouldn’t mind a moratorium on soft-cooked eggs as garnishes for a while.
Specials let the chef test the adventurousness of his audience. When a server suggests an off-the-menu appetizer teaming dashi, uni and roe, a man next to me furrows his brow and lets her know the dish includes “three words I don’t know!” He grows to like them once he tries them. Dashi is the Japanese stock made from dried bonito (tuna) flakes and kelp. Uni, also known as sea urchin, lends a pleasant maritime flavor to the combination, which comes sprinkled with roe, in this case, trout caviar. Sharing the bowl are (here we go again) a barely-set egg and some thread-like enoki mushrooms. Eating it brings Tokyo closer to Washington.
The macaron ice cream sandwich fuses a French confection with an American one. Hazelnut ice cream between chewy chocolate shells leaves you wanting to come back. Greens are not an accent you expect to see on a dessert, but once you taste the red-veined sorrel atop the pain perdue, you’ll appreciate the apple-y tang the herb imparts.
There’s little margin for error on such a brief list. Sharpe is a careful editor of his work. With a few tweaks, and maybe more choices, his restaurant could make more of a splash.
Check any thirst for a Moscow Mule at the door. After Peacock Room serves nothing more potent than beer and wine, and then in a selection as limited as Internet access in North Korea. If there’s any drawback to dinner here, it’s the well-meaning helicopters on the staff and the lack of much privacy. Most diners are seated at one of two communal tables in the front dining room, a mere 18 seats. Georgetowners of a certain demographic have complained about the arrangement, but not everyone can claim the more intimate table for two in the window. And the even-smaller second room in back opens only when there’s a crowd.
What started as a tease has morphed into a bite-size treasure. After Peacock Room puts a nice frame around art you can eat.
Location: 2622 P St. NW. 202-525-4903. www.afterpeacockroom.com.
Open: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday for coffee, tea, beer and wine; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $12 to $15, main courses $22 to $24.
Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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