The Tombs is not known for its lamb ragu. It’s a college bar. It serves beer and various inexpensive “study snacks,” including chicken wings and fried pickles.
But lately, the subterranean watering hole, located on the outskirts of the Georgetown University campus, has seen some subtle shifts in its menu offerings. Alongside the typical barroom staples of chili, nachos, and mozzarella sticks, you’ll find various dishes incorporating locally sourced lamb, grass-fed beef, and sustainable seafood.
Three months ago, the bar’s upstairs neighbor, the far-fancier fine dining establishment 1789, hired a new executive chef, Anthony Lombardo. Part of his mission: making better use of what he calls “scraps,” though he admits that’s probably not the best word for it.
“When I throw that term out, it sounds a little scary,” says Lombardo.
Just to be clear: He’s not talking about the leftover gristle from some high-roller’s $45 steak. He means the pieces of meat that don’t generally make it on to that rich guy’s antique china plate to begin with.
Lamb racks, shanks, and shoulders, for instance, have long been signature items at 1789. The one night that Lombardo chose not to serve any type of lamb? Chaos. “It was like that commercial for Burger King where they don’t have the Whopper, and customers start freaking out,” he says.
But what about the other parts of the animal?
Those previously unwanted bits from upstairs are now the new study snacks downstairs in the Tombs. Some sections of that baby sheep will get ground up into lamb burgers, served with feta, lettuce, and tomato and sold for $11.95. Other parts go to other dishes.
“I’ll take some scraps and make, like, a really rich tomato lamb ragu with all the rib meat from inside the rib and all the fatty meat from on top of the rib cage,” Lombardo explains. “It doesn’t make a good burger, because it’s a little too sinewy. There’s some tissue in there that just doesn’t break down on a grill. But, if you stew it for five hours, it breaks down just fine. So we’re doing that, putting it on a rigatoni downstairs and it’s delicious.”
Likewise, auxiliary chunks of the same grouper, halibut, and red snapper served aboveground for $36 to $38 per plate wind up in a hearty fisherman’s stew served for $13.95 at The Tombs. Fishy refuse from above also goes into making the broth. “We take the bones from the halibut, break ’em down, and make a nice flavorful fume with some Riesling,” the chef says.
On a recent visit, I gorged on the golf ball-sized hunks of fish in the soup and the accompanying thick slab of grilled garlic bread, sopping up the entire bowl of lightly orange-tinted, faintly curry-flavored broth. If not the most delectable mélange I’ve ever tasted, it certainly beats the cheap beer-cheese soup I slurped on during my own college days.
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Lombardo, 29, is a former Roberto Donna acolyte whose career has taken him from Washington’s once hallowed Galileo restaurant to venerable Detroit-area eatery Bacco. He later returned to D.C. for a year-long stint working under Amy Brandwein at Casa Nonna, prior to taking his former Culinary Institute of America classmate Dan Giusti’s old post as top toque at 1789.
Earlier in his career, Lombardo spent six months working as a butcher in Italy. He partially credits his ability to disassemble an entire veal calf in less than 30 minutes for impressing his current bosses enough to earn him the job. (Being old buddies with the last chef, who left this past summer to work at Denmark’s illustrious eatery Noma, probably didn’t hurt, either.)
Both The Tombs and 1789 are owned by Clyde’s Restaurant Group. Yet, in most ways, the upper-level gourmet eatery and basement boîte operate as entirely separate entities. Each has its own kitchen, staff, and chef.
In his current role, Lombardo’s primary focus is upholding the culinary integrity at 1789. It’s a pretty prestigious gig. The restaurant has a knack for attracting the neighborhood hoity-toity as well as various world leaders and titans of industry. This past June, President Barack Obama dined with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Georgetown landmark. On my own recent visit, ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson was seated at the next table, overlooking a crackling fireplace. The very next night, I’m told, former Vice President Dick Cheney was in the house, ordering a steak and salad. (Sadly, quail was not on the menu, the chef assures me.)
For its part, The Tombs attracts its own sort celebrity: the Sam Donaldsons of the future, if you will. Plaques mounted on the far wall near the bar are emblazoned with the names of Georgetown students who spent part of each of their final 99 days before graduation at the bar. At the top of the class of 2002, for instance, you’ll see T.J. Crawford, now the spokesman for beleaguered Bank of America.
While satisfying the upscale clientele upstairs remains job No. 1, Lombardo is also ultimately responsible for food and labor costs for the whole property, which is where his new “scraps” initiative comes into play.
“I was really interested in using whole animals and I told [Clyde’s brass] that’s the direction I would go,” he says. “I kind of pitched the thing as, you know, we can really utilize that stuff downstairs as long as I get that chef down there on board.”
Now he collaborates with The Tombs’ chef Frederick Valentin on how best to serve the scraps. Unused beef bits become stew. Pig parts become bratwursts cooked in the foamy dregs of otherwise spent kegs.
Beyond the warm fuzzy do-gooderness of reducing waste, the payoff from the executives’ perspective, at least in theory, is on the balance sheet. “My pitch was, ‘Listen, it’s going to help the food costs,’” Lombardo says. “It’s going to look good when you’re sitting down with the [numbers] at the end of the month.’”
Tom Meyer, president of Clyde’s, isn’t expecting big savings. “If it was just a financial decision, it’s a lot easier for me to buy steaks already cut,” Meyer says. “I’ll say this about Anthony: He thinks like an old-school chef.” Using whole animals, Meyer says, is “more interesting. It makes sense. You’re not wasting food. And, as a result, the food cost, you know, it works. My point is, it’s not an austerity measure.”
The benefit to the college crowd: a more “gastronomical experience,” says Lombardo. However, the execution sometimes staggers on account of the cultural clash between the two kitchens.
Case in point: the lamb ragu. “I put my heart into it,” Lombardo says. “Then, one time, I told my friend to order it. He’s down at the bar. And one of the cooks just steamed the pasta, then just dumped the ragu with the ladle on top. He didn’t cook the pasta with the sauce in the pan—you know, like how you should cook pasta. So I got pissed off. I started making a big deal out of it. The managers are like, ‘Listen, it’s ten bucks, dude. Chill out.’”
My own experience with the pasta wasn’t much different. The sauce, while plentiful, didn’t quite cling to the rigatoni the way it does with pan-tossed pasta.
Meanwhile, the lamb burger, while quite flavorful, came out a bit overdone for my taste. Then again, the collegiate server never asked my temperature preference.
It may never become a full-fledged house of haute cuisine, but The Tombs is likely bound for even more gustatory experimentation, at least as long as Lombardo is in charge upstairs.
“I would like to use more offal meat downstairs,” he says. Imagine late-night cram sessions over liver mousse and beef-heart sandwiches! “I was thinking, late at night, when these college kids are drunk, I could maybe pull a fast one on ’em,” he laughs.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
The Tombs, 1226 36th St. NW, (202) 337-6668
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