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Incoming Executive Chef Robert Curtis has transformed Hazel from the Asian-accented affair conceived by opening chef Rob Rubba to a restaurant one could call “Turk-ish.” Curtis took over shortly after Rubba left in June to open Oyster Oyster.
Gone from the Shaw restaurant are Rubba’s kimchi ragu gnocchi, Peking duck spread with bao buns and duck fried rice, and trademark Fire Panda hot sauce. Now guests are greeted with complimentary puffy balon ekmek (Turkish balloon bread) topped with toasted coriander and nigella seeds to pair with dips such as whipped tahini, muhammara, beet-top shug, and carrot haydari.
Taking over Hazel is a homecoming for Curtis. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Bethesda and attended Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina to get his culinary training.
“The more I look back, the more I realize I was always cooking,” he says. “Everyone in my family is a great home cook, and everyone has their specialty. My dad is still the barbecue guy, while my mom’s filé gumbo is fantastic.”
After graduating in 2009, Curtis moved back to the D.C. area to work at Brabo and Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, before heading out to San Francisco three years ago for a gig at Michael Mina’s RN74. But when RN74 closed last October, the chef reassessed and decided to return east.
Before his big move he took a lengthy detour, first to visit his fiancé in Turkey, where eating at meyhane-style eateries (bars serving mezze) inspired him to think of new culinary directions for his career.
Then it was on to Copenhagen from March through May of this year to apprentice at the new incarnation of Noma. Curtis says he was most inspired by the way the world-renowned restaurant’s dishes “impart a serious depth of flavor,” a layering technique he hopes to showcase at Hazel.
Curtis’ menu, which debuts today, is divided into four sections of shareable plates—greens & beans, grains of various names, animal kingdom, and feast—with a heavy emphasis on vegetable preparations. See the full menu below.
Standout dishes include charred cabbage crusted with ginger garlic crumbles and an orange caraway vinaigrette; crispy potatoes tossed in za’atar spice and accompanied by dollops of harissa aioli; and a hearty, umami-rich porridge featuring braised rye berries, barley, rice, and sunflower seeds.
There is one carry-over from the original concept—the Lazy Susans are still in use. “I like their wow factor,” says Curtis. He offers a trio of large format dishes on the spinning turntables, which he recommends for three to four guests to share.
Like Rubba, Curtis showcases duck in one of these XL dishes. Curtis’ prep calls for Rohan duck brined in cardamom and coffee, which is then dry-aged. The breast is pan-roasted and Curtis uses the thighs to make a roulade. The fowl arrives with braised lentils and roasted curried carrots.
Diners will also still see gnocchi and foie gras mousse on the menu—both dishes Rubba was known for—but Curtis puts a completely different spin on each. “It’s been an organic transition,” he says. “People stopped asking for the old hits and are saying, ‘Hey, what’s this? This is great!’”
Hazel, 808 V St. NW; 202) 847-4980; hazelrestaurant.com