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For years, the typical dining experience along H Street NE consisted of a brown paper bag stuffed with fried whiting, a 40-ouncer from the package store, and a long leak in someone’s front yard. Trash disposal, I believe, was optional.
A few souls have tried to wean the neighborhood off its diet of grease, tall boys, and low expectations. Phish Tea Cafe provided an arty, multistory space to enjoy curried goat, jerk chicken, and other Caribbean favorites that should have found an easy home here; it didn’t and became one of the first casualties of H Street’s rebirth. The owner of the Ohio Restaurant and Bar had even grander designs. She wanted to turn the place into an Ethiopian outlet but peddled soul food instead when she realized locals weren’t ready for her native cuisine. The Ohio is a memory now, too, thanks to the owner’s death at the hand of a still-unidentified gunman.
Leave it to Joe Englert, puppet master of the Atlas District, to develop a strategic plan for broadening the culinary options along H Street, starting with Dr. Granville Moore’s, his first operation in the area with a full-time chef. Earlier this year, as he was telling me the restaurants to come, including Moore’s, Englert laid out his grand scheme for the historic ’hood: attract the hipsters, and the food will follow. His nighttime playlands, in other words, are part of his long-term plan to provide more solids on a street drowning in liquids.
“By design,” he said last winter, “the first few [places] we opened up are more tavern- and nightclub-oriented, because you got to get people on the street first, and usually the younger people come first to a new nightlife area.”
Granville Moore’s is a smart play by Englert and his two partners, Getinet Bantayehu and Chris Surrusco. The Belgian-minded gastro-pub both embraces the history of the neighborhood and dares residents to begin envisioning block after gentrified block filled with eats every bit as diverse as those in Georgetown or Adams Morgan. Perhaps you think that’s mighty white of them, but I don’t think so. Their position strikes me as rather colorblind: believing that Belgian cuisine can attract old-timers, gentrifiers, and destination diners alike.
The gastro-pub used to be the residence and office of a real Granville Moore, a mid-20th-century physician who apparently served as the neighborhood’s Florence Nightingale. The two-story building had been abandoned for nearly 30 years—save for the occasional vagrant who might fall asleep with a Saturday night special by his side—when Englert bought the property and began turning it into Dr. Granville Moore’s, the Belgian ale house with moules et frites. The doc’s original sign still glows over the entrance.
“We still get calls, now that the number’s active again in 411,” says Surrusco, who manages the restaurant and the beer list. “They want to know their family medical history.”
Loosely based on Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a historic bar in the French Quarter, Dr. Granville Moore’s feels both Dickensian and downright hip. At night, candles flicker on the tables, illuminating the barren brick walls, the old choir chairs, the floors built with recovered wood from a Manassas farmhouse, and the refurbished Brunswick coolers trucked from Buffalo, N.Y. Only the high-tech jukebox breaks this pre-industrial spell.
The food and drink also provide clues that you’re dealing with a modern, highly conceptualized operation. Surrusco’s beer list is 100 percent Belgian, 50-plus bottles and four drafts, ranging from wheats to tripels to lambics to blondes. There’s not a can of Bud in the house, nor one of
those American-brewed hop monsters that have become all the rage (except on occasional special). Consider yourself teased—or warned.
Likewise, the microscopic kitchen, run by chef Teddy Folkman, keeps a tight focus on a tidy menu of mussels, fries, sandwiches, and seasonal entrees. Folkman was slaving away as executive chef at the Balducci’s on New Mexico Avenue NW when Surrusco, his old college bud from James Madison University, tapped him for the Granville gig. After overseeing the massive offerings at the gourmet store, Folkman seems almost relieved to refine and perfect the compact menu at Moore’s.
His frites are almost perfect already. The kitchen hand-cuts the skin-on fries from Idaho spuds and soaks the raw slivers overnight; next morning, cooks blanch the frites in peanut oil before resting them, cooling them in the walk-in, and finally frying them again in oil. When the fries arrive at the table, dusted with herbs and large crystals of sea salt, their aroma is tantalizing enough to make you want to do a face plant in the bowl. But don’t. Eaten individually, the frites are crispy, aromatic, and full of potato flavor; they almost render the house-made dipping sauces irrelevant—but not quite. Both the curry catsup and the garlic aioli are nicely understated, their heat a whisper, not a wallop.
But be careful. Fries are everywhere on the menu—served not only by themselves but also with each of the four sandwiches. I learned the hard way the wait staff will happily let you turn your table into a lumberyard of frites. One night, my wife, Carrie, and I left behind enough fried potatoes to make an Irishman bawl like a baby.
Folkman’s mussels, plump specimens from Prince Edward Island, are available in five different broths, from the classic moules mariniere to tropical moules navigateur. I found myself digging the preparations sometimes despite themselves. The navigateur could have used more chipotle pepper in its otherwise mouthwatering tomato, lime, and coconut cream broth, while the moules fromage bleu could stand more sprinkles of blue cheese and bacon so you don’t have to hunt down the ingredients in the broth. The only outright clunker was the mariniere, whose white wine broth did nothing to mask the fishy smell of the mussels, which tasted like they’d sat out too long.
In some ways, Folkman seems more comfortable with the nonmussel section of the menu, which makes sense given he learned many of his Belgian skills from cookbooks. His halibut special on Israeli couscous is moist, flaky, and surprisingly flavorful; his bison burger, cooked and rested to the most stunning shade of red, proves to be a rich, juicy mouthful; and his croque monsieur, which layers thin slices of Virginia ham with a thick slab of gruyere, doesn’t need the application of Mornay sauce, but damn, I’m glad it’s there.
I’m glad because it taught me something cool about fruity Belgian beers. While I may not like gulping a Petrus Blond by itself, I found it balances out, and cuts through, fat like you wouldn’t believe. Try it yourself. Consider it doctor’s orders.
Dr. Granville Moore’s, 1238 H St. NE, (202) 399-2546.
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