Chef Cathal Armstrong is left-handed. So too is his mother, and an uncanny number of chefs who have worked under him at Restaurant Eve and his other Northern Virginia restaurants. That’s why he selected the Filipino word for left-handed, Kaliwa, as the name for this forthcoming Asian restaurant coming to The Wharf in D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront in fall 2017. “It’s similar to other cultures, like Italian, where the word for left-handed is sinister,” Armstrong says. “There’s a little bit of darkness behind it.”
One could assume the decision to go Asian was birthed out of the successful family-style Filipino menu Armstrong rolled out at Restaurant Eve as a fun alternative to the otherwise fine-dining, American menu. But the pilot light was lit long ago. “As a consumer, my first choice is always Asian and has been for a long time,” Armstrong says. “As long as Meshelle [Armstrong] and I have known each other, it’s been Asian food. We used to live over by Duangrat’s and would eat there twice a week, and that was 25 years ago.”
Only, until recently the Irish chef has been wary of cooking it. “Mainly because you have to taste the ingredients and taste them where they come from,” Armstrong says. An October 2014 trip to Thailand enabled him to do so. “When you get banana leaves fresh and use them to steam fish versus what’s available in America, there’s no comparison,” he says, also ticking off experiencing things like tasting galangal fresh out of the ground and chilies straight off the vine. Thai food shouldn’t just be spicy, he says. It should have complex flavors.
While Armstrong will pull from several cultures, Kaliwa is not a fusion restaurant. “I don’t really want to do anything that’s mixed up or confused,” he says. There will be distinct Filipino, Thai and Korean menus, plus a couple of dishes from other regions that the chef admires. His wife is Filipino and thus the chef has been around Filipino food since he said, “I do.” As far as Korean cuisine, Armstrong’s taekwondo trainer Jason Yoo is pitching in with cooking tips. As is Yoo’s father.
Kaliwa will also offer a special-occasion feast called “Kamayan,” most likely at one table on Thursday nights. The traditional Filipino meal is typically saved for Christmas day and other major holidays. “They lay out banana leaves on the table and the food starts coming out in waves, one after and another, and you graze for hours.” But not every meal at Kaliwa will be a big production because they plan to do a big take-out business too. “You can’t have an Asian restaurant without take-out,” he jokes.
The 4,300-square-foot restaurant will have both indoor and outdoor riverfront dining. The latter will have a street barbecue feel where guests can walk up, thrown down some cash, and grab a high-top table, says Armstrong, who estimates outdoor dining will be available May through September.
Find the restaurant near the three major hotels going into The Wharf: Canopy by Hilton, Hyatt House, and the Intercontinental. A specific address hasn’t been released yet. Armstrong selected The Wharf for his D.C. debut because of its promise. Mike Isabella, Fabio Trabocchi, and Jamie Leeds are also opening restaurants there. Armstrong’s company is even doubling down, as his longtime business partner and drink man, Todd Thrasher, is opening Potomac Distilling Company and an accompanying tiki bar four doors down.