Here’s hoping you like your server at Del Campo, because up front at least, you’ll be spending a lot of time together. Indeed, your first 10 minutes at the new South American grill involves a lecture on what the restaurant means, who’s behind it, how the menu is set up, how the food will come to you, descriptions of cocktails and ... “Any questions?” a waiter finally asks some glassy-eyed hostages — er, diners — on a recent weeknight.
Can you please go away so I can catch up with my family? I want to reply. Instead, I bite my tongue and sympathize. My server is probably just as tired of delivering the speech as any returning customer who has already endured the ramble. While the introduction to the restaurant is straight out of a corporate training manual, what follows in this tribute to meat and heat illustrates a more personal story.
Del Campo (“of the country” in Spanish) replaces PS 7’s in Chinatown and finds chef Victor Albisu showing his Latin American roots. The son of a Cuban father and a Peruvian mother, the young Albisu worked under Argentine and Uruguayan butchers in his mother’s market in Alexandria; Sundays revolved around outdoor barbecues at home with friends and family. Del Campo evokes the asados, or barbecues, of South America while celebrating some of the chef’s favorite destinations, among them Peru and Chile.
“Everything is touched by smoke,” a waiter says of the food. He’s not fooling. The drizzle of olive oil that goes on your bread plate is perfumed by smoldering applewood chips and dried rosemary, thyme and oregano. “Burnt” tomato and grilled bread salad tosses flame-singed red and yellow tomatoes with smoky diced ricotta salata and radish slices in a cast-iron skillet. How to brand “scallop sushi ceviche”? Sear one side of the dewy seafood before adding it to a pad of rice and garnishing it with gently wood-smoked uni and a smidge of charred onion. Dessert burns, too, though lemon poundcake with grill stripes is in a lesser league than much of what precedes it.
Braided empanadas are flaky vehicles for sweet caramelized onions and beef (in a baked version) or crab and shrimp (in a fried pastry wrap): haute pockets.
The heart of the menu is a dozen grilled and smoked meats long. “The chef’s favorite is the short ribs,” a perky guide shares. Albisu later confirms that the cut reminds him most of his childhood, and all I can think after trying it is, “Lucky kid.” The glossy, on-the-bone meat is pleasantly chewy and mingles fat and salt and herbs and char along with beefy succulence. Puffy veal sweetbreads benefit from slow grilling and a basting of a garlic, shallot and parsley sauce — chimichurriwithout the vinegar sting. For $9, you can add house-made chorizo to the protein-palooza. Main courses arrive on a wooden board fleshed out with roasted red peppers, a bulb of melting garlic and bone marrow; a handful of sauces are offered, but entrees as distinguished as Del Campo’s don’t need the lifts.
While meat hogs the stage, the house specialties extend to a fabulous Peruvian-style chicken. Roasted garlic, paprika and cumin permeate each juicy bite; for extra richness, the chef slips duck fat beneath the skin. Every detail on the plate — the fluffy-centered yuca, the shocking green chili puree, the creamy aioli — is pitch perfect. The combination underscores Albisu’s knack for elevating the basics.
Herbivores may be dozing off by now, but WAKE UP! One of the best dishes on Albisu’s list is meatless. The chef’s pasqualina tart, Italian in origin but popular in Argentina, translates as a golden potpie overstuffed with Swiss chard and spinach that swells with the flavors of béchamel and cheese. A fried egg on top and a blizzard of grated Parmesan make it look and taste even richer.
The pleasures of the deep blue sea go beyond the opening raw or marinated fish and seafood plates. Prawns cooked a la plancha are lashed with oil made with grilled lemons and supported with citrus-laced spaetzle. Albisu also makes a terrific seafood stew crammed with crab, mussels, clams and prawns, plus yuca and corn, in a broth thickened with bread and robust with beer. Argentine-style chapa bread launches every meal; if you’ve managed some restraint and there’s a bun left, use it to mop up the sauce.
You’ll be encouraged to expand your feast with a side dish or two, and some of them, including canary beans with chorizo and cauliflower with minced anchovies, are worth the extra $8 or $10. Nutmeg and citrus are promised with the rapini, but the vegetable tastes only of char and bitterness; steak fries are not so delicious that you feel compelled to eat more than two fat fingers of potato from their cone.
Del Campo’s muted design grows on a diner more than those fries do. A mere glance around the bar and dining room reveals a lot of beige and brown. Closer inspection finds carved wooden shutters from Peru, antique mirrors and whitewashed floors — elements figuratively lifted from the South American estancias, or country homes, Albisu encountered on his travels. (The plush leather-, velvet- or corduroy-covered chairs are some of the most comfortable parking spots in the city.) Yet the soundtrack makes the strongest sensory impression. Strumming guitar music distances you from workaday Washington. Or is it the second pisco sour that spirits us to another continent?
The same thought that goes into the food and decor seeps into the beverage program. Cocktails flag not just the classics from South America (pisco sours, margaritas, caipirinhas) but also drinks that incorporate Albisu’s theme. Order the rum-fueled Papa Porteño, and it comes with a flourish of grilled pineapple. The wine list, bound in floppy leather, is a model of broad selection, fair prices and choice wines by the glass. Among the treats by the bottle is Argentina’s 2010 Michel Torino “Don David” Tannat Reserve for $44.
No offense to his previous employers, most recently BLT Steak downtown, but “for the first time in my life, I feel completely right with what I’m producing,” the chef told me when he announced his barbecue idea last year. The lesson: Cook what you know (and love).
Now is an exciting time to be dining in Washington. Del Campo’s fiery charm is one reason why.
★★ 1 / 2
777 I St. NW. 202-289-7377. delcampodc.com.
OPEN: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
METRO: Gallery Place/Chinatown.
PRICES: Appetizers $11 to $16, main courses $18 to $49.
SOUND CHECK: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
Victor Albisu’s chief investor in Del Campo is veteran Washington area restaurateur Jeff Black.