Sunday, August 7, 2011

Graffiato Hits the High Notes: Score Mike Isabella

Graffiato Entrance
      Mike Isabella was a high scoring contestant on season 6 of “Top Chef” and returned this year for “Top Chef:  All-Stars” where he was named the runner-up.  On the show, he mentioned that he was going to open a restaurant in his hometown of DC and that he had backers already.  He could be somewhat full of himself on the show, which made him both charming and annoying, sort of the type you hate to love.  Neil was trying to find a moderately priced restaurant when we were going to visit Washington last week and he ran across Mike Isabella and Graffiato online.  He chose this after reading the menu.  It sounded good, though I thought it was a little like A Tavola, a local restaurant we liked and reviewed a couple of weeks ago.  

     Problem 1:  we could reserve at 5 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night.  Problem 2:  Isabella is a rising celebrity in the chef world and this was in his hometown.  Problem 3:  It had been open five weeks.  We were ready for an ambitious noisy mess of a place that wouldn’t quite deliver the food or the service.  We were proved far wrong in these assumptions/prejudices.

Downstairs Bar and Dining Area
Mike Isabella Chatting with Guests
     Graffiato was hopping at 5 p.m. with many attractive locals lined along the bar and open kitchen downstairs.  Mike Isabella was already chatting with the crowd, especially the twentysomething women in
little black dresses and heels.  We were seated upstairs in the industrial looking dining room, between picture windows looking out over the newly glamorous Chinatown and the open kitchen that works with the precision of a Swiss watch.  This was a restaurant with buzz,  both literally and metaphorically, but it was not loud.  Even with all the concrete and open areas, there was discreet sound muffling throughout the upstairs.

Upstairs Dining Room and Open Kitchen
     Our server, Andrew, was calm, intelligent, and honest in detailing the menu’s highlights.  Almost everything was in the $7 - $12 range, which was a surprise for a place of this quality and with a star chef.  We asked for his recommendations, though Neil had checked out a couple of other online reviews and food blogs.  Graffiato offered a number of cheese and ham selection plates, which is becoming de rigeur for cutting edge restaurants, thereby underlining its commitment to local independent producers.  In fact, those producers were listed above the kitchen.  

Roasted Spiced Pistachios

     We knew we were on the right track when Andrew brought pistachios roasted in their shells in a variety of spices.  It was an original, fun, and upscale snack.

Caesar Salad with Cream Cheese Croutons
He’d recommended the Caesar Salad, which surprised us but we went along with the suggestion.  There were anchovies minced finely within the salad.  I like anchovies, but Neil does not yet he didn’t even notice them in the dish.  It was a good salad, combined with the right amount of dressing, but what hit it out of the park were the croutons.  OMG.  They were lightly herbed cream cheese, rolled in breadcrumbs, and lightly baked or sautéed(?) so that they were warm and literally melted when bitten.  I could have eaten those all night. 

Sweet Corn Agnolotti
     Always go with a dish you’d never make at home or find in a local restaurant and that was the reason we chose the Sweet Corn Agnolotti.  It was a pasta that resembled rectangular ravioli, filled with cheese, while the corn and pine nuts were the basis for the sauce.  They kindly served the chanterelle mushrooms on the side due to my allergy.  The pasta was home made, slightly al dente, and the filling – light but slightly bland – perfectly complemented the sauce that was both piquant and earthy.

Octopus from the Wood Oven
We never see Octopus in Cincinnati, though calamari is popular, so we ordered it.  The chickpeas were puréed and the artichokes were baked alongside the fish in a wood oven.  I know octopus puts off people immediately, but the consistency and meatiness of this dish was akin to a small pork chop.  The wood oven delivered a smokiness that would have delighted even a steak lover.

The White House Pizza
     We knew we should order a pizza, which were in the $14 - $18 range and around 12 inches.  We decided on the White House because we were in Washington.  This was like a white pizza or a four-cheese pizza in various pizzerias right now, but the difference was that this was topped with prosciutto and had a glaze of black pepper honey under the cheese.  What could have been dull was turned into a complex salty, sweet, and spicy combination.  The thin, crisp, slightly charred crust was excellent.

     “Top Chef” always features a couple of episodes that terrorize the contestants because they have to make a dessert.  Some moderately priced restaurants are limiting their dessert choices, outsourcing them, or not offering them.  This is not Isabella’s method.  He had a full selection of desserts.  We ordered one on the menu and another that is a special.

Carrot Panna Cotta

The first was the carrot panna cotta.  It was described as being like a carrot cake.  Actually, it’s still custard, albeit a denser one with the puréed carrot, but it tasted like carrot cake because of the spice combination.  What lifted it up was the thick foam layer, which was cream cheese with a citrus tang.

Strawberry Dusted Zeppelis
I’m not certain the zeppelis are always available, but they’re a must.  They resembled donut holes, but they were yeast dough with mascarpone cheese in the center.  They arrived hot, dusted in a pink strawberry flavored powdered sugar.  The sugar melted as does the dough and the cheese when we bit into them.  It was another OMG moment.

     One thing that needs to be noted is the service.  The bill came before we’d been served the zeppelis and they weren’t on it.  I pointed this out to Andrew, who was deeply apologetic.  He explained that there had been a last minute, surprise visit by some investors and that it had thrown off his service, for which he apologized.  We had noticed a large group seated near to us, but there had been no sense of disturbance in the service.  A manager came over and also apologized.  We were extremely surprised.  The bill was readjusted and was presented after the zeppelis, but they had been comped by the management.  This was an extremely unexpected and classy move to make especially since it doesn’t happen every day.  If we are able to return to Washington and can secure a reservation, Graffiato will be the top of our list.

Graffiato on Urbanspoon

I really like watching "Top Chef" with the guys.  Congrats to Mike.  It sounds like the guys had a great time!

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