I recently had the good fortune of attending a soft open of a restaurant at a new hotel in Washington, D.C. A Rake’s Progress, which takes its name from the series of paintings from 18th century artist William Hogarth, is the first D.C. offering from Foodshed, a Baltimore-based restaurant group. Like nearly all its sister restaurants in the Baltimore-area, including the Woodberry Grill and Part & Labor, A Rake’s Progress solely will utilize food items produced locally or native to Maryland, Virginia, and, in some instances, parts of the Mid-Atlantic. That means ingredients like citrus, a tropical fruit, will remain absent from the dishes and drinks on the menu at the restaurant. This may sound like a bad challenge from a Food Network game show, but in reality, it forces James Beard Award-winning chef Spike Gjerde to be more creative by embracing the food and beverages grown and crafted locally.
I first learned of A Rake’s Progress through Meg, the volunteer coordinator of the University of Maryland Arboretum where I volunteer. Meg had mentioned that the restaurant was seeking to feature a garden of local herbs, plants and flowers that would be cultivated for use in meals and beverages served at the restaurant. Meg’s boyfriend Walter is a bartender at A Rake’s Progress. For those of you who follow my blog, you may recall that I interviewed Walter a few months ago at a Tiki competition sponsored by the DC Craft Bartenders Guild. It was at Meg and Walter’s invitation that I got to sample the restaurant’s Golden Hour menu, assembled especially for the restaurant’s preview weeks leading to the official opening.
The restaurant occupies the second floor of the Line Hotel and makes great use of the space which once housed a church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Diners are drawn to the cavernous ceiling and its focal point suspended from above, a sculpture of repurposed pipe organs retrofitted to provide soft illumination upon the marble walls and ceilings. The ambiance suggests that diners will soon enjoy a spiritual experience by way of their meal. From the bar where I sat with Meg and her friend Kari, I observed that the hotel’s philosophy of using local artists and thrift shop finds for glass ware and furniture were on full display at the restaurant.
During the course of the evening, I was able to enjoy the entire Golden Hour menu consisting of five small courses and three cocktails. The standout cocktail was the first that I ordered, the Cranberry Julep made of Bluecoat Gin (produced in Philadelphia), cranberry-rosemary shrub (a vinegar-based syrup that adds sweetness and flavor to the drink) and sorghum, a molasses type sweetener. This seasonal cocktail had me with the rosemary, my favorite herb. I cannot resist anything made with rosemary. The other drink that I enjoyed was the Hot Buttered Cider. A variation of hot buttered rum that included both cider and dark rum (made with Lyon Dark Rum crafted by a micro distillery in Saint Michaels, MD), the smell was initially a little off-putting, perhaps because of the ginger turmeric butter. As the drink cooled, so did the taste and the smell, mellowing the beverage and making it pleasure to sip.
The tasting menu kicked off with a spicy cheese dip that embodies the restaurant’s commitment to locally sourced products. The dip features Hawks Hill Creamery Cheddar, made in Street, MD and fish peppers, which originated in the Caribbean and was brought to the U.S. in the 19th century where it flourished and has gained popularity in the Mid-Atlantic. The fish peppers give the dip its heat and flavor.
The next course featured raw Chesapeake oysters served with an assortment of condiments and petite root vegetables from farms in Monkton, MD. The best accompaniment to the oysters is Foodshed’s own Snake Oil hot sauce made of fish peppers, cider vinegar and sea salt, and was first originated for the Woodberry Kitchen. The oysters made a perfect canvas for the hot sauce making use of fish peppers which are often used in crab and oyster dishes while the root vegetables cleared the palate for the next oyster and condiment combo.
The terrine and porchetta course presented pork in two manners. The first as a country pate with ramps and mustard seed served with rustic bread. The second, as sliced pork perfectly roasted on a baguette, with a smoky nectarine jam. This course alone could be quite filling as a meal.
To close out the culinary journey of Delmarva and Mid-Atlantic offerings, the kitchen offered a selection of holiday cookies, candies and pastries meant to evoke the treats mom may have churned out of her kitchen during the holidays but with a hipper aesthetic.
If there was one miss it was the yule log which was void of any flavor, not even the often, unjustly maligned vanilla. Of course, this does not detract from the rest of the menu or the ability of the kitchen to serve up a memorable meal. Since this was a dress rehearsal for restaurant, some missteps are permitted prior to the official opening. How else can restaurateur innovate if casualties aren’t allowed.
I have been to other soft opens in the past, but mostly to chain restaurants. It was a real treat to get experience a restaurant whose chef and owners carry such vision and dedication for the food native and crafted in our region. A concept that took seed with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse 47 years ago flourishes under Gjerde and will surely have everyone stoked for A Rake’s Progress.