To understand Succotash, the new restaurant from Edward Lee in National Harbor, you need to understand succotash, the sauté of corn and shell beans (and sometimes bell peppers) a lot of people ascribe to the South, where it shows up on countless menus. In reality, says the chef, the dish’s name originates from the word for boiled corn used by the Narragansett Indians, a tribe with roots in Rhode Island.
“Southerners are great at adopting other cultures,” says Lee, a partner in Succotash and owner of two Louisville restaurants, the fixed-price 610 Magnolia and the more casual MilkWood.
Lee shares the vignette because he’s a Korean American from Brooklyn who figures he didn’t taste his first collard greens before he was 20, yet went on to become an adopted son of the South. Twelve years ago, the chef, 43, traded the bright lights of New York for low-wattage Louisville, partly because he was eager to expand his horizons and also because “I was bored cooking Asian food.”
The name of his latest endeavor, a skillet’s toss from the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, allows him the freedom to serve food that speaks to the South but doesn’t embrace the region in a bear hug, an important distinction. While the very good collard greens at Succotash are lavished with Newsom’s aged country ham from Kentucky, for instance, their pleasant crunch and tang comes from house-made kimchi. (“If I were German,” Lee says, “I’d probably use sauerkraut.”)
The 200-seat dining room, dressed up with wrought-iron filigree and booths in a shade of eggplant, is welcome news on multiple fronts. Restaurant openings in National Harbor typically involve chain operations; Succotash, co-produced by the Washington-based Knead Hospitality + Design, is the rare personal expression, right down to the wooden horse fashioned from piano parts and displayed near the kitchen. (Racing and bourbon go hand in hand in Kentucky, after all.) The newcomer also adds a different flavor to the waterfront complex, with food compelling enough to draw diners from across the Potomac — and when’s the last time you could say that of a place to eat in this slice of suburbia?
One of the finest po’ boys I’ve had this year, including in New Orleans, surfaced at Succotash, which arranges tempura-battered oysters, creamy-enough slaw and glistening trout roe inside a long toasted roll. Every crackle of oyster and pop of caviar reinforces the sandwich’s billing on the menu: “rich boy,” indeed. I struck gold again with an entree of “dirty” fried chicken, dark meat beneath a red cloak of honey-sweetened gochujang (Korean spicy pepper paste) and blue cheese that went down like Buffalo chicken wings made by a top chef in Seoul. To eat the signature side dish, tinged with curry and crisp with edamame, is to appreciate how receptive succotash can be to outside influences and to understand where Lee is coming from. As concerns Southern food, he says, “I never want to be a preacher or a preservationist.”
If he’s making a statement here, it’s that as long as the food tastes good, who cares if a time-honored recipe takes on some of a chef’s personality?
Lee’s biggest asset in National Harbor is his executive chef, Lisa Odom, 35, a onetime account executive for Yahoo recruited from the restaurant Tongue & Cheek in Miami Beach. (Guess which task she enjoys more: quarterly sales goals of a million dollars or cooking dinner for a full house.) Night after night, she and her crew do their boss in Louisville proud, with cornbread that gets its sweetness not from sugar in the bread but a knob of sorghum butter and what might be the best beef short ribs around: 22 ounces of shimmering smoked meat, served on a bone the size of a butcher knife and infused with a “black” barbecue sauce that lives up to the description, with black bean paste, coffee, balsamic vinegar, cola and … you get the point. Beauty meets beast. The bar makes you happy to have ordered a Manhattan elevated with walnut bitters, and the dessert station encourages you to finish every last candied pecan in the coconut-rich hummingbird cake.
Ready to start your engines? Succotash, unveiled on Labor Day, could use some polishing. Pimento fundido might make for a fun dish at a boozy house party, but the greasy pool of cheese deserves more refinement in a restaurant. Fried chicken and waffles excel at the former and disappoint with the latter, which are soggy rather than crisp. And as much as I like trout, fillets splashed with pecan butter and scattered with pickled grapes don’t add up to much, at least not compared with the other main courses, which run to a good hamburger capped with pimento cheese and french fries that benefit from a quick blanch in vinegar water before they hit the fryer. (The trick holds the potato together.)
Lee says he likes underdogs and challenges, which explains how he came to a space that had seen three other brands come and go and against the counsel of friends. Good thing he likes taking chances. He’s already got the best restaurant in town.
Location: 186 Waterfront St., National Harbor. 301-567-8900. www.succotashrestaurant.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $7 to $29, entrees $12 to $22; dinner appetizers $8 to $29, entrees $17 to $45.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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