Thursday, June 30, 2011


Whether you're a diehard Top Chef fan or you've never watched an episode, you can find something to love at Graffiato - Top Cheftestant Mike Isabella's new restaurant on 6th Street behind the Verizon Center.

It's hard to get better press for the opening of your new restaurant than to be a finalist on Top Chef All-Stars. (Not that Mike's resume needed it after being the executive chef at Jose Andres' Zaytinya) His runner-up finish a few months ago caused people across the area to wait on the edge of their seats for him to fling open the doors of his new Italian-inspired restaurant. I, for one, jumped on Opentable as soon as I heard the announcement that opening day would be June 23rd. Luckily we scored a reservation for dinner on their first Sunday of operations.

This isn't some generic restaurant that Mike slapped his name on. It's like Mike in restaurant form: loud, casual, slightly goofy, with a focus on rockin' food. Case in point, I don't know whether Mike picked out the t-shirts that the waitresses wear, but the v-neck was so low. Maybe it's related to that awkward Top Chef moment where Padma said she wanted to motorboat Mike's cousin Antonia? Moving on...

After waiting a few minutes in the downstairs bar area and watching Mike dart around the kitchen like his hair was on fire, we were led upstairs to our table.

The upstairs dining room, featuring a second open kitchen, was packed. As we got settled, Jesse Sandlin from Top Chef: Las Vegas (Mike's season) sat down at the table next to us. Bryan Voltaggio was also in the house (according to Twitter) earlier in the evening. What a night for a Top Chef fan!

Graffiato is in full compliance with the new DC law mandating that every new restaurant serve small plates. OK, maybe it's not a law, but it sure feels that way. However, so many dishes on the menu looked tasty that I was glad he went the small plates route that allows diners to sample a variety of things. We each ordered the Chef's Tasting Menu. For the reasonable price of $45 per person, we were treated to a parade of eight dishes plus bread and two small desserts.

Starting off the evening were the blistered sweet peppers with smoked paprika and capers (top, right) and the honey glazed cipollini onions with rosemary and onion seeds (bottom, right). The dishes were served with an above average bread basket (it better be when you charge for it) with olive oil "jam" and a ricotta mixture that tasted like lemon cheesecake. The peppers were great spread on the bread and they had such a fun tangy flavor that I almost forgot I don't like capers. The onions were the star of the evening. The sweet honey glaze made them melt in our mouths and the accompanying cloves of sauteed garlic went down like candy. Fresh breath be damned, this was a fantastic dish.

Next is what I can best describe as a pig on a cake plate. The selection of three hams was a pork lover's dream. I was especially fond of the ruby red prosciutto.

Because Mike Isabella doesn't always like playing by the rules, he put a pizza on his Chef's Tasting Menu. Forget the tiny bites of fanciness served on a tiny spoon. At Graffiato, tasting the menu means tasting one of their wood fired pizzas. We tried the Countryman, topped with black truffles, fontina, and a duck egg. The egg is served runny and your server will break the yolk at your table and spread the egg evenly around the pizza so everybody gets a bite. The crust was light, but the flavors bold. Even B, who has a serious aversion to eggs, gave it two thumbs up.

The pizza was served at the same time as a bowl of wood roasted mushrooms. Not the most memorable dish, but a good break in between the pizza and pasta courses.

From the pasta menu we enjoyed the sweet corn agnolotti which elicited a fist pump from B. Perfectly pillowy pasta delicately wrapping its arms around the juice from fresh sweet corn. Pine nuts added a crunchy element that turned this dish up to an 11.

If you're a Top Chef lover, hold on to your chair because here is the famous PEPPERONI SAUCE!!!!!!! This sauce was never going to live up to the hype that Gail Simmons bestowed upon it . . . and it didn't. It was fun and perfectly good, but did not change our lives. B said it tasted like something you made by blending up the pepperoni from a Domino's pizza. We did, however, love the chicken thighs as they were as perfectly cooked as you'll find anywhere.

By the time the next dish hit the table, we were feeling more than full, but I'm glad we made room for the wood oven octopus. What a fun preparation of a notoriously chewy dish. The wood oven gave it a crackling crispiness without drying it out. Is there a magician lurking in that wood oven?

We had no business eating dessert after stuffing ourselves silly, but somehow the nutella cookies and chocolate gelato disappeared. A little too much focus on chocolate for B, but I'm a happy camper where there is chocolate involved.

I have to hand it to Mike Isabella for taking his time and doing Graffiato the right way. It's not a giant Top Chef advertisement. You won't see his picture plastered on the wall. The food is legitimately good and reasonably priced (especially given his fame over the last few months). Bravo sir, bravo.

Second Thoughts from B

J and I have now eaten at restaurants owned and operated by three Top Chef contestants, Bryan Voltaggio (Volt), Spike Mendelsohn (Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza), and now Mike Isabella (Graffiato). While they are all very different, the common thread is that the restaurants from these "celebrity chefs" have all borrowed heavily from their reality show personas.

Bryan Voltaggio was portrayed as the sophisticated and thoughtful older brother of eventual Season 6 winner, Michael Voltaggio. Appropriately, those are the exact words I'd use to describe his menu. Similarly, Spike's outgoing, hip, and casual personality is well reflected in his neighboring fast food restaurants that cater to young staffers on the Hill. That he appears larger than life on TV and on the walls of his twin eateries is no surprise to anyone.

That leads me to Mike Isabella, who came off as a cocky jokester on his first go around on Top Chef, but added an element of refinement and maturity, not to mention real talent, on his All-Stars season. In many ways he blends Bryan's cool sophistication with Spike's irreverence. It is a potent mixture indeed.

What I liked about Graffiato is that it severed the link between the fine dining experience and truly outstanding food. This is not to say that the service or the environment is lacking in any way (other than the poor pacing of dishes that is almost predictable for a restaurant in its first week). We were eating white tablecloth-quality food on metal chairs, in a loud industrial concrete room, with boobs flying by my head. I don't know who wrote the rule that you need to wear a tie to eat well, but Graffiato has no such requirement. Baseball caps, shorts, and flip flops were standard attire.

Mike Isabella has brought rock and roll to fine dining. It is like Green Day or the guys behind South Park making it big on Broadway. Graffiato breaks the unwritten rules of dining in all the right ways. Sure, there is something nice about dressing up and having a great meal in a beautiful ballroom, but that doesn't mean it is wrong to disassociate those two experiences. I hope we always have both options, but it does make me wonder if our kids will someday make fun of us for dressing up to go out to eat. After all, a three piece suit or a dress and heels were once the standard attire at baseball games. Food for thought.
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