Hamilton Johnson spent eight years as chef de cuisine at Vidalia, Jeff Buben's Southern-accented downtown restaurant. Now the 34-year-old chef is striking out on his own.
Johnson will open Honeysuckle, his first solo venture, at Prequel, the pop-up-hosting space in Chinatown that is currently home to Bluebird Bakery, bar Brick & Mortar and burger joint BFF. Johnson is hoping to debut with a kind of tasting menu dinner on Friday, after which he'll serve dinner a la carte Monday through Friday for a period of four-to-six months. (He'll also provide food for Brick & Mortar.) Cooking classes on Saturdays are a possibility as well, Johnson said.
He's currently searching for a future permanent home for the restaurant.
Johnson described the fare at Honeysuckle as American regional with a bit of Southern inspiration. It sounds similar to what he did at Vidalia, but Johnson said diners shouldn't expect to see anything they may have eaten there. With Honeysuckle, he's starting with a "clean slate," he said. Dishes at the pop-up may include a warm fig salad with cured ricotta; seared foie gras with zucchini bread; and Icelandic cod cheeks with crab, corn and bacon.
Johnson said he thought it was time to be his own boss, though he's happy to embrace his experiences at Vidalia.
"It was awesome. I loved it," Johnson said. "I loved everything I did there." Johnson's work helped land Vidalia in Tom Sietsema's 2014 Fall Dining Guide.
"He's about as good as it gets," Buben said of his former employee. "Hamilton certainly put his mark on the restaurant."
Buben said Vidalia's new chef de cuisine is Jayro Cruz, 27, who has worked for him before, as well as at Fabio Trabocchi's Fiola and Fiola Mare.
Cruz is currently putting together his kitchen team, Buben said. Some of the menu has already changed, but "we're still going to stick with the Vidalia classics," he added. Buben and Cruz are currently collaborating on new dishes for the fall.
Of Cruz, Buben said, "He's the next generation that's going to push us forward."
Honeysuckle at Prequel, 918 F St. NW. www.prequeldc.com. Open for dinner Monday through Friday, beginning Aug. 31.