St. Anselm was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Make that three, actually: Stephen Starr, Joe Carroll and Marjorie Meek-Bradley. When news broke that the trio were opening a restaurant across from Union Market in the District, some of us forecast a hit on the horizon.
Think about it. Starr is the restaurateur behind some of the most beloved dining destinations on the East Coast, including Le Coucou in New York, Parc in his home base of Philadelphia and Le Diplomate in Washington. Carroll brought a blueprint for the business, having developed the original, albeit smaller, St. Anselm in Brooklyn. Regarding Meek-Bradley, whose local career includes Zaytinya and the late Ripple, weren’t her fans all waiting for her to do something more ambitious than Smoked and Stacked, much as we appreciate the idea of sandwiches from a talented chef?
Her new home is a dining room and bar carved from former wholesale stalls and made to look as if a generation or two of diners already has been frequenting the place. The lighting, courtesy of naked bulbs and small chandeliers, is dim, in a flattering way. A veritable petting zoo of small stuffed animals rings the top of the horseshoe-shaped bar, already one of the city’s most popular. If the seating is snug, the trim, outward-facing booths in the main room capture the conductor in her exhibition kitchen, above which is a chalkboard outlining the cuts on a cow.
St. Anselm’s assets extend to staffers who don’t wear uniforms and come across as chums who happen to know a lot about food and drink, or at least what goes onto the plates and into the glasses here. When they suggest you order the sherry cocktail or some biscuits, take their advice. The drink, incorporating trendy Cardamaro, is dusted with fresh nutmeg and goes well with cold weather. The buttermilk biscuits — too hot to touch when they first show up, not that that stops anyone — are graced with pimento cheese that any Southerner would be proud to adopt.
As with many of her peers, Meek-Bradley says she’s making food she likes to eat herself. There’s little arguing with her taste. For the cold-weather months, she came up with a salad that speaks to the season with flame-licked squash, toasted hazelnuts, earthy beets and a binder of grapefruit puree. Several “smalls from the grill” make big impressions, too. Sauced with smoked herb butter is my new favorite way to eat cooked oysters; for kicks, the chef slips jalapeño into the mix. A “monster” prawn can easily serve as a munch for three once the sweet center is freed of its natural armor. A pot of garlic butter is just the right dip for the head-on, eight-ounce (or more) prize, among the few ideas brought down from the original St. Anselm. Then there’s bone-on salmon collar, spritzed with lemon and simply lovely. (Fish collars showcase the fatty and succulent meat found between the gills and the rest of the body. More restaurants should offer them.)
For a place that insists it isn’t a steakhouse, St. Anselm does a poor job of convincing us. I mean, the menu includes a wedge salad with bacon, blue cheese and chopped egg! And a category called “bigs from the grill” features nearly a half-dozen cuts of beef, including a New York strip steak that weighs in with plentiful chew, heft and juice. Also, the side dishes include such meat-market staples as creamed spinach and steak fries. The reluctance to identify as a steakhouse is understandable — the city is packed with them, thankyouverymuch — but St. Anselm should just embrace the theme, because it excels at so much of it.
Secondary cuts of beef account for some of the best steaks. First among equals is the flat iron, carved from the shoulder, whose tender profile is enhanced with a knob of herb butter that melts into the thick steak, conspiring with the meat’s own juices to get you to clean your plate. (It’s a task made easy with sleek Opinel pocket knives, which find everyone at the table admiring the smooth grip and rethinking their Christmas gift list.) Shredded spinach is cooked in cream with roasted garlic, a verdant pleasure that tastes mostly of vegetable, and the finger-long fries acquire their irresistible crunch and fluffiness from frying, freezing and refrying to order. The potatoes do not need the accompanying cool ranch dressing, but trust me when I tell you one dip is not enough.
Tack on the intriguing wine list, another hallmark of any self-respecting steakhouse, and you have a role model. Co-owner Carroll worked with Erik Segelbaum, Starr’s corporate sommelier, to come up with a delightful book that revels in old madeiras, big reds, yellow wines, grape juice on tap and . . . just do yourself a favor and get out of your comfort zone. This tavern will surprise you.
The kitchen, shared by sous-chef Sam Molavi, a Ripple alumnus, has fun with saucing. Lamb sirloin, presented in thick, rosy slices, has a nice foil in its racy salsa verde, while pork porterhouse shows its affinity for apricot, as in chutney. The menu isn’t epic, but if you need to whittle down the possibilities, cut from consideration the metallic-tasting grilled broccoli and the carrots that are not flattered by black garlic and dates.
As revealed by the appetizers, a diner doesn’t have to eat meat to acquire a taste for the place. A thick slab of grill-striped tuna is enhanced by a light mushroom-and-celery sauce, and silvery whole mackerel has its assertiveness checked with a conga line of lime slices.
Pecan pie is not too sweet, and for that alone, I enjoy a slice. Same for the warm-spiced carrot cake. After a meal that might include ruby-red beef tartare fueled with Calabrian chiles and peewee potatoes tossed in duck fat, however, my inclination is for something comparably lighter come dessert. Mint ice cream with thin shards of chocolate does the trick, as does refreshing pineapple sorbet.
Add St. Anselm to your brunch rotation. Should you need help opening your eyes, let eggs in purgatory assist. It’s toad in the hole, only with a duck egg in the center of a raft of toast, and ringed with a chunky moat of tomato and onion sauce, jolted with red chile flakes and nuanced with fennel seeds. “Purgatory?” Heavens, no. Even the fruit salad, dolloped with chia seed pudding, is prettier than most. And deviled eggs crowned with sweet crab are a nice carry-over from the dinner menu.
Daylight helps bring into focus the restaurant’s sometimes-eccentric design details. But even at night, in the booths near the bar, eyes are drawn to the framed portraits of past presidents widely considered failures. Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Warren Harding, among others, have their faces obscured by a lightbulb poking through the picture.
If they didn’t see the light in office, they do now.
St. Anselm (Excellent) 1250 Fifth St. NE. 202-864-2199. stanselmdc.com.
Open: Dinner daily, weekend brunch. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $24, main courses $23 to $90 (for rack of lamb).
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.