Tuesday, June 28, 2011

First Bite - Graffiato

Few restaurant openings in Washington DC have inspired the same type of palpable excitement that has been generated by Mike Isabella’s Graffiato. This Chinatown “hot spot” has barely been open a week, but the buzz has been building since Isabella left his head chef position at Zaytinya. Yet, after eating my first meal at Graffiato I can confidently say that all the hype has been worth it.

I was lucky enough to snag one of the first reservations at Graffiato and met a handful of friends there on Sunday night. (I guess that is what you get for obsessively calling the restaurant until no longer getting a busy signal). After arriving we were promptly seated at a table that wasn’t in the kitchen, but it was as close as you could get. Chef Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio were standing mere inches from us and kibbitzing. Not a bad way to start the evening, especially when you combine it with a glass of bubbly prosecco on tap.

From there things only improved. A few of us had been thinking about getting the chef’s tasting menu, but our server thoughtfully steered us away from it. He said that it made more sense (and it would be less expensive) to just order whatever we wanted off the menu. He was absolutely right. All 5 of us left full and happy and paid significantly less than we would have (under $35 - before drinks but with tax and tip).

Right off the bat we put in an order for the fresh mozzarella and the bread basket. The mozz came out warm and it was topped with a lovely fava bean puree and some fruity olive oil. The homemade bread basket held a treat for everyone at the table. Some of us loved the olive bread (we think there were also raisins hiding in there) while others were smitten with the sweet polenta corn bread. Yet, we all could agree that the olive oil jam & fresh ricotta took something that was merely “good” and elevated it to “great.”

Next up were 2 pizzas. Our server told us without hesitation that his favorite was the Countryman with black truffles, fontina and a duck egg. Done and done. We also opted to order the White House, a beautiful pie topped with mozzarella, taleggio, ricotta and black pepper honey. Both exceeded expectations with their crust and combinations of toppings. The Countryman had a delightful balance of earthy and upscale ingredients. It had a smokiness and saltiness that was unlike anything I had previously tried in this city. On the other hand the White House was something that screamed summer to me. The combination of cheeses mingling with the fresh honey made it the perfect pizza to devour on a hot summer night.

We couldn’t leave Graffiato without trying Chef Isabella’s award winning dishes on Top Chef All Stars - the infamous chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce and the roasted gnocchi with pork ragu, whipped burrata, and picked ramps. These lived up to all expectations that Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons set on tv. What made it even better was our first table-side visit from the chef himself. He told us a delightful story about going with his wife to Pennsylvania to pick 30lbs of ramps. Now how many chefs do you know that do that?

There were 2 additional dishes that made their way to the table. We opted to be semi-healthy and order the wood roasted mushrooms and the sweet corn agnolotti. The mushrooms were complemented by a handful of sweet and spicy cherry peppers and a wonderful addition of mustard. It was not a traditional way of serving them, but it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a single speck left in the dish. The agnolotti (kinda like mini ravioli) were filled with a sweet mixture of cheese and corn puree and they were topped with pine nuts. It was perfection in a bite.

Now, if you thought that we would leave without trying dessert you are crazy. I had originally had my heart set on an order of zeppoles, but apparently they haven’t started making them yet. Oh well, just another reason to return in the future. But, our last course did not disappoint. First up was a slice of chocolate tart (with a pinenut crust!) that was served with sea salt gelato. Looking at it you would have expected something ridiculously rich, instead it was light with the perfect amount of sweetness. We also ordered a cup of dark chocolate gelato that was quite sinful, and a plate of beautiful Nutella cookies. Chocolate coma is the only appropriate phrase for the end of this evening.

The meal was a standout from start to finish. Each course tasted better than the last and the service would be worthy of the highest Zagat rating. I have no doubts that Graffiato will become a go-to hangout for Washington, and will deserve every ounce of praise that visitors, locals and critic give it.