Even though the DBGB Kitchen and Bar in Washington borrows its name and basic structure from the punk rock-inspired parent restaurant in New York, the D.C. edition is no mere copy of the original, says the man behind this homage to the casual eating of France and America.
"DBGB is maybe the most relaxed restaurant I have, but the one we also take a lot of pride in the craft of the work," says chef/owner Daniel Boulud, who tapped Ed Scarpone, former executive sous-chef at DB Bistro, to run the first DBGB outside of New York.
"It’s a chef-driven restaurant. It’s not a concept restaurant," Boulud continues, releasing a belly laugh. "The recipes were established and guidelines were established, but if Ed feels more comfortable changing something, that’s up to Ed to make sure he feels good with it."
To prove his point, Boulud spent an August afternoon on the outdoor patio at CityCenterDC, where DBGB will celebrate its grand opening on Friday, and dissected the new menu with Scarpone, highlighting the differences between the D.C. and New York operations. Yes, the menus share the same general outline (and, in many cases, the same appetizers, sausages and entrees), but Boulud and Scarpone have created dishes just for Washington and tweaked others to add more local flavor.
Among the newbies are two crab dishes, nods to Maryland's official state crustacean. One is Boulud's take on a crab cake, an appetizer the chef is giving a French twist with his Maryland crab persillade. Jumbo lump blue crab will be served in a gratin dish, the chef says, binded with a sweet garlic custard and accented with mushrooms, tomato and crispy farro.
"The custard is just binding and enriching a little bit the crab," Boulud says. "We don’t want the custard to be the most prevalent thing. We want the custard to enrich the crab."
Boulud has also added an option to the D.C. burger menu that, he says, may have finally solved the secret recipe behind the Krabby Patty, SpongeBob's favorite sandwich at the Krusty Krab. When Boulud was first experimenting with the preparation for what would become "the Crabbie," the chef shared his idea with a friend as they lunched together in the Skybox at Daniel in Manhattan. His friend is apparently a serious SpongeBob devotee.
"I talk to him and say, 'See, I’m opening a DBGB in D.C. and I always dreamed to put a crab cake on top of a burger because for me it’s the quintessential classic: a crab cake Maryland and burger American,'" Boulud recalls. "He said, ‘You’re making a Krabby Patty? This is incredible!’”
Now Boulud drops SpongeBob knowledge as if he were an 8-year-old. Well, an 8-year-old with a highly developed sense of playfulness. "You know SpongeBob and the Krabby Patty and how no one has been able to break through the recipe?" Boulud says. "I think I’ve figured it out."
For a man who trained with the finest chefs in France, Boulud also has developed a deep affection for quintessential American foods. He's already re-engineered the hamburger, with a whopper at DB Bistro Moderne that's as rich as country pate. Earlier this year, he even grafted pulled pork onto a beef patty for the 10th anniversary of Shake Shack. It's a two-fer sandwich, one that combines America's love of burgers with barbecue.
At DBGB in D.C., Boulud has created his own take on another American classic: fried chicken. It's breast meat fried in a cast-iron pan and paired with a DBQ sauce. Just don't ask what's in the sauce.
"The DBQ is a secret sauce," Boulud says.
As Scarpone points out, his boss is one of the few French chefs not scared off by hot peppers and spices. Boulud states his case with a pair of dishes at the Washington DBGB: a harissa spiced lamb chop entree and a snack of curried herring. The latter is paired with green apple, celery and potato.
"I think when we do a curry in France, it’s never like a curry in India or a curry in Southeast Asia," Boulud says. The French curry is "a little more sweet and complex, but never too spicy."
Speaking of spicy, what about Boulud's promise to make his own version of the half-smoke, the signature sausage of D.C.? It's nowhere to be found on the opening-day menu.
"We’ll have a half-smoke coming," Boulud says. "I just want to make sure that I understand better [what it is]."
I joke that Boulud will then be the first person to understand exactly what a half-smoke is.
"I don’t think anybody knows," chimes in Scarpone. "Some of them are a little sweet for my tastes." In his tastings of half-smokes purchased from Ben's Chili Bowl online store, Scarpone says he's learned the link includes corn syrup.
"They were a little sweet. We found that they burned very quickly, too, because of the sugar content," Scarpone adds.
"That's why I want to make sure that my half-smoke is lightly sweet, but I need to figure out where the balance should be," Boulud adds.
As the half-smoke discussion implies, the DBGB menu in Washington is an evolving organism.
"This is the opening menu," Boulud says. "We have to train the staff, but the menu will keep changing. We’re going to be very attentive to comments . . . We want to make sure that people are positively reacting to" the menu.
DBGB Kitchen and Bar, 931 H St. NW. 202-695-7660.