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D.C. will have a new fried chicken sandwich to chase down later this month when Mélangeopens in the former Ray’s Hell Burger space in Mount Vernon Triangle. It comes from an Ethiopian chef who has spent much of his career in the pressure-cooker environment of obtaining and maintaining Michelin stars at restaurants like Caviar Russe and Corton in New York.
Chef Elias Taddesse calls the sandwich “The National” because it’s inspired by what many consider to be Ethiopia’s national dish—doro wat. The crimson chicken stew is flavored predominantly with berbere spice and served with hard-boiled eggs.
Taddesse infuses both the flour and buttermilk used for battering the fried chicken with Ethiopian spices. Then he piles the sandwich high with niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter) aioli, turmeric slaw, and either a fried or hard-boiled egg. “If an Ethiopian person comes in and tries this doro wat, I want it to be one of the best doro wats he’s ever had,” he says.
Mélange will open in two stages. On Aug. 28, Taddesse will start serving a menu of burgers and fried chicken sandwiches for pick-up and delivery, including vegan and vegetarian options. Later, he’ll introduce his full-service restaurant that couples his French culinary training with the flavors and dishes he fell in love with growing up in Addis Ababa. Think seared duck doro wat and niter kibbeh-braised octopus with sinig (long peppers stuffed with tomato and onions), all paired with East African-inspired cocktails.
“You have to mix different ingredients and bring people together,” Taddesse says of the restaurant’s name, Mélange, which means a mix or a medley. “I’m showcasing my French training and also highlighting where I come from to tell my story. I want to be someone who can make an impact on how Ethiopian food evolves.”
The timing of the second stage of opening will depend on how D.C. is coping with COVID-19, though Taddesse may do some trial runs of his tasting menu leading up to the launch.
The restaurant is part of a new program from real estate developer EDENS, which owns the City Vista property where Mandu, RASA, sweetgreen, and Alta Strada are also located. The Catalyst program aims to help first-time restaurateurs launch and test their concepts in vacant restaurant spaces.
Taddesse first connected with EDENS in 2016 when he started doing burger pop-ups at Union Market using beef from Harvey’s Market. EDENS operates the market. He also popped up at former beer garden Neal Place Tap & Garden, before landing a more permanent gig serving burgers out of Wet Dog Tavern near the 9:30 Club for the past three and a half years.
The story of how a fine dining chef became obsessed with burgers starts with friends talking smack. After Taddesse left Caviar Russe, he traveled to Ethiopia to conduct research and development to inform the next phase of his career. A buddy, who is also in the restaurant industry, suggested they do a burger cook-off. “He was like, ‘Bro, what do you know about burgers? You cook for the one percent,’” Taddesse recounts. He responded, “Bro, I know food in and out.”
He went to a local butcher shop and worked with them to determine the best cuts of meat, to deliver a finished product that was tender and juicy. Taddesse was consulting for a hotel at the time. His employer suggested they host the burger contest on the hotel’s roof deck. “Next thing you know, there were promos on the radio,” Taddesse says. Of 14 judges, 13 picked Taddesse as the winner. “I realized I found a formula for a business I wanted to do.”
Taddesse initially sought to open a burger restaurant in Ethiopia, but his plans changed for personal reasons. He moved to D.C. because he had a friend that lived in Northern Virginia and started building his burger brand that he’s folding into Mélange. “I wanted to have that three-year business history to have a proven concept,” he says of his time at Wet Dog Tavern.
The chef instructs patrons to try his classic burger first once Mélange opens on Aug. 28. It features a patty made from Roseda Farm beef, American cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato, pickled red onions, and brown butter aioli. He hopes to one day overhear someone say, “One of the best burgers I’ve ever had was from this Ethiopian guy,” Taddesse explains. “I feel like that’s what America is.”
Mélange, 449 K St. NW; melangedc.com (website coming soon)