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Tell people you’ve just discovered an Eastern European/Scandinavian restaurant in the city and see if they don’t cock their heads like dogs alerted to some high-pitched whine. Then try telling them that this restaurant is located in Petworth and that it has an Asian-American owner and an African-American chef.
Yep, culturalism doesn’t get more multi- than at Domku, the cafe and bar whose arrival last January in a neighborhood better known for wing joints was a blast as bracing as a cold slurp of aquavit.
Domku is a shocker, all right, but in the end, the most surprising thing about it is how lightly it wears its novelty. Sandwiched between a church and a convenience store, the restaurant is not the uppity arriviste you might presume but rather a low-key, unassuming charmer. Owner Kera Carpenter answers the inevitable questions she gets from her customers—Why this food? Why this neighborhood?—with a shrugging “Why not?”
Carpenter may be her own best argument. A native of Kansas City, Mo., she signed on with the Peace Corps after college, spending three years in Poland and after her stint going on to explore Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Returning to the States, she settled in D.C. and became a policy wonk, thinking often about how “strange it was, considering this is such an international city,” that there were so few Eastern European restaurants. Chef Eric Evans is a native of Petworth—he remembers the neighborhood of his youth as a hodgepodge of Jews and Poles and Italians and blacks—who just happened to have spent six years living, and cooking, in Northern Europe.
Their partnership has resulted in one of the most fascinating spots in town, a place that revels in incongruities, from the odd juxtapositions of the space—cement floors and crystal chandeliers—to its intriguing mix of people—which, on a recent midday afternoon, included a group of sandal-shod liberals gabbing about gay marriage; a table of white-haired white women who’d come by cab from Upper Northwest for the mussels; and a couple of black guys in ball caps and bling who were picking at a plate of cured salmon and rye crisps. And the cooking, anomalous as it is in this city, in this neighborhood, rises above being merely a curiosity.
Gravlax appears in several guises, from a tasty sandwich with cream cheese and sprouts to a variation on eggs Benedict at breakfast to a platter that surrounds the star with a promising cast of salmon roe, diced onion, cornichons, and tomatoes. Too bad that last is undermined by salmon that tastes as though it had sat out too long, warm and slightly wilting. There’s better communal grazing to be had with either the trio of lip-curling pickled herring or a plate of lightly smoked sprats.
Evans is canny with his mains, looking wherever possible to lighten rich, heavy fare without sacrificing flavor—fashioning his terrific pirogi from dough that is just thick enough to hold his fillings, for instance, or setting a limp, if satisfying, Serbian cheese pie alongside a mound of lightly dressed field greens. A plate of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes is rescued from comfort-food klutziness by a light hand with the flour in the gravy and an active, vigorous hand with the potatoes, whipping enough air into the bowl to keep the cream and butter from taking over.
This penchant for lightening, however, seems to vanish at brunch—not that I’m complaining. I loved a platter of mounded, sweetened homemade cheese, which a friend and I couldn’t help but heap—dainty spooning be damned—onto our corners of toast. And although I might grumble about the portion of the Norwegian pancake—just a single cake?—it’s as rich and eggy as it should be. Evans anoints the plate with either a subtly perfumed lavender syrup or a champagne-and-orange sauce—smart, contemporary touches.
The biggest disappointments so far have been the soups: A concoction of pea and vanilla is thin and flavorless, and the charms of the clear borscht are overwhelmed by too much salt.
I’ve heard carping about the prices (and so has Carpenter), but it strikes me as a curious bit of criticism when the most expensive thing on the menu is $17 (a beef tenderloin) and that the majority of entrees go for less than $13. (Sandwiches run from $6 to $8.50.) An appetizer-size portion of the mussels—steamed in a heady, lightly rich broth of aquavit-spiked cream and laden with diced shallots—makes a fine entree at lunch. Granted, one of the aquavit-based cocktails will set you back 10 bucks. But the fact remains: You can eat well here, and cheaply.
Perhaps such carping is less a reflection on Evans’ kitchen than of the expectations of a quiet little neighborhood that is undergoing its second seismic shift in a half-century—the first the decay that followed the ’68 riots, the second the gentrification of the ’00s. At this point Domku may be less a place of diversity than a place for people who like diversity; during my three visits I saw many more African-Americans taking my order than I did eating.
But word of mouth is doing its work, and there are already people willing to travel halfway across the city to eat here. That might not satisfy any utopian visions Carpenter may have, but it does help out the bottom line. You can’t solve the problems of the world, or even the neighborhood, if you can’t stay solvent.
Domku Cafe and Bar, 821 Upshur St. NW, (202) 722-7475.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.