Mike Isabella will take over the former Gypsy Soul space in the Mosaic District and, eventually, transform it into a second outlet of Kapnos Kouzina, his casual, home-style Greek restaurant. But before then, the chef behind Mike Isabella Concepts will host a pop-up at the Fairfax location for a planned seafood restaurant that will open at the Wharf development in mid-2017.
Requin, an intimate French-Mediterranean seafood restaurant, will be a partnership between Isabella and Jennifer Carroll, a fellow "Top Chef All-Stars" contestant and former sous chef at Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert's seafood destination in New York. The Requin deal is similar to the one Isabella struck with former Pabu toque Jonah Kim, who will be executive chef and partner in Yona, the Japanese noodle bar and small-plates emporium scheduled to open this fall in Ballston.
"Those guys are the executive chefs and partners. They control the food. They control the design. They control all that stuff," says Isabella about Carroll and Kim. "I'll take care of the financials and the business side of it, and we let them do what they do."
In the case of Requin — Carroll likes the French term for its feminine quality and its English translation, "shark," because "you have to have a quiet strength like a shark to survive in the culinary world" — her menu will focus on all types of seafood: raw bar, fried fish, shellfish, fish from local waters, fish from far away.
"I’ll be using a lot of Mediterranean fish, a lot of local fish and maybe fish from the West Coast or Alaska. Basically whatever fish or shellfish makes sense for the dish," Carroll says during a phone interview.
"But I’m not going to go all, pure 100-percent Mediterranean fish, kind of like what Paul Bartolotta does out in Vegas. I mean, he has an amazing Mediterranean fish program out there, where he has a marine biologist working with him and flying in Mediterranean fish every day," Carroll continues. "I don’t think that’s financially sustainable, and there’s no way I can’t have Maryland crabs on the menu.”
Isabella and Carroll have been friends for years, ever since season six of "Top Chef," when both appeared on the Bravo reality series, the one that pitted brothers Michael and Bryan Voltaggio against each other in the finale. It was also the season in which Isabella became the poster child for casual kitchen sexism when he cracked to Carroll, as they shucked clams at the same pace, that "a girl should never be at the same level I am."
"To me, that was just him trying to be defensive and trying to make a joke," Carroll says all these years later. "I've heard comments like that my whole life. They don't bother me, but he got hate mail. He got destroyed for that comment. I actually felt really bad for him, so I ended up sticking up for him and being like, 'You guys have to understand. He's really not that way.'"
The two chefs had talked for years about collaborating on a restaurant, even as Carroll tried to launch her eventually unsuccessful Concrete Blonde project. (Professional tip: Don't expect mercy from Johnette Napolitano if you co-opt her band's name for your restaurant.) But for years, it was just that: talk. Carroll was resistant to leave her native Philadelphia, where she runs Carroll Couture Cuisine, a consulting, catering and private dining company. And Isabella couldn't find the right project to entice her to Washington — until, that is, he secured a freestanding, 4,000-square-foot space on the main boardwalk at the Wharf, a Southwest Waterfront location with glass windows on three sides and views of open water.
Carroll was immediately smitten.
"Mike and I have been talking about getting together and partnering up for years, but it was never the right time and not the right project," Carroll says. "When the whole Wharf came up and became available, both Mike and I became super-excited about it because it fits my style and who I am and what I want to do."
It helped that the Gypsy Soul space became available when Cooper, the Beard Award-winning chef, agreed to vacate the property after his landlord sued for back rent and fees totaling more than $270,000. The location gave Isabella not only a chance to expand his Kapnos concept but gave Carroll a chance to experiment with Requin before it debuts at the Wharf. The pop-up will serve dinners only, Tuesday through Saturday, starting in the fall and running through December.
According to Isabella, Edens, the developer behind the Mosaic District, approached him about the property not long after Cooper surrendered the spot. By the terms of the contract, Isabella says he will get the former Gypsy Soul space as well as all the equipment, "from top to bottom, from front to back." The massive open kitchen, with multiple walk-in refrigerators and plenty of high-end equipment, was a draw for Isabella.
"There's not much of a relationship with us," Isabella says about he and Cooper. "I don't know him that well. Business is business. His restaurant was going out of business, through legal [proceedings], which I have no control over, and I thought it was a good opportunity for me. . . At the end of the day, the restaurant was up for sale, so someone was going to take it."
The Requin pop-up serves a strategic purpose: It allows Carroll to fine-tune her ideas but also allows Isabella Concepts to generate income while the company begins the protracted process of applying for building permits. Once permits are in hand, Isabella plans to redesign the place. That means, updated signage for the Greek concept as well as new lighting, table settings and dining rooms, including an expanded bar dining area. The kitchen will remain largely intact, though Isabella will install some kind of pizza oven. (Incidentally, the first Kapnos Kouzina is expected to launch this fall in Bethesda, while a second location of Kapnos Taverna will open at Reagan National Airport in September and a third will debut in College Park in early 2017.)
There will even be a Carroll connection at the Kouzina location in the Mosaic District: Her beau, Billy Riddle, will serve as chef de cuisine at the restaurant, turning out plates such as Greek-spiced crispy chicken with attiki honey and whole roasted branzino in a spicy clam broth. Riddle has previously worked at Philly-area restaurants such as Ela and Townsend.
But it's the waterfront project that has Isabella pumped. Aside from fish and more fish, Requin is expected to feature an old-fashioned cheese cart, dry-aged bone-in ribeye steak, seafood roasts and the largest wine menu of any Isabella restaurant. The place sounds almost like a fine-dining restaurant, but Isabella says it will remain casual, befitting the style of his other properties.
"I'm so excited about that project," says Isabella, "that I'm actually buying a condo at the Wharf."
The Requin pop-up will open this fall at 8296 Glass Alley in the Mosaic District, Fairfax, Va.