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The table at Dupont Circle’s Eola is covered in small appetizers that seem innocuous—tortellini, chicken fried steak, tempura fries. But take a second glance. All three dishes are made from parts of a pig’s head: The pasta is filled with brain. The golden, deep fried tempura batter hides slivers of ear. And the “steak” is a gloriously fatty jowl. The spread marks an opening salvo in an exuberant exploration of all things offal. And, in classic 21st-century culinary-culture fashion, the preparation of entrails and internal organs also represents something of a political gesture. Eola chef and co-owner Daniel Singhofen says he didn’t create his menu to shock his guests. Rather, he’s demonstrating his respect for ingredients.
“If we’re responsible for taking life, then we need to be responsible with what we do with that animal,” Singhofen says. “We try to use as much as we can, as often as we can, and not waste anything.” Not that the Culinary Institute of America–trained chef will cop to sacrificing taste on the altar of non-waste. “It’s a challenge to turn this stuff into a wonderful dish and then convince people to order it,” says Singhofen. “But when it’s good, it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted.”
Singhofen believes that diners’ interest in this approach to cooking may come from adventure-food TV, not just from Michael Pollan–era ethics. “When people see Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern traveling the world eating testicles and hearts, they’re intrigued by it,” he says. At any rate, he’s not alone in the local haute snout-to-tail category: Galileo III, Bar Pilar, and Blue Duck Tavern have all embraced the movement, to varying degrees. But Eola may go farther still. “I don’t see it as a trend, because I have the responsibility, the knowledge and the ability to use cuts of an animal that a home cook maybe can’t use,” Singhofen says.
The chef has been honing his menu in the year since he opened. Eola takes nice care of non-porcine details, too: The breadbasket —often an overlooked element—is treated with the utmost respect. Slightly sweet brioche rolls are made in-house, dusted with sea salt, and served warm with salted butter. The space, likewise, is simple and pleasant. The first-floor dining room is a relatively narrow exposed-brick affair with a yellow back wall; the closeness gives the restaurant an intimacy and warmth. Black-and-white photos of autumnal sequences line the sides—a pair of lifeless leaves keep each other company in one shot, while another captures a wispy vine curling into thin air. The theme continues through the leaf-entwined light fixtures and candleholders. The kitchen peeks out from behind the pass, where a fake pig snout playfully covers the barrel of the smoke gun.
To the right of the kitchen, in the back, is a tile-lined bar. Unfortunately, you can’t sit there, which is a bit of a drawback for people waiting for the rest of their party to show up. Luckily, there is another bar upstairs, along with a second dining room, this one decorated with photos from a cross country road trip, where you can have a glass of wine or one of a dozen cocktails. Two notables are the Moscow Mule, which dresses up vodka with the zing of ginger beer, and the Bee’s Knees, which combines the floral sweetness of honey with a tart hint of lemon and the bite of strong gin.
But of course, we’re not here for fancy cocktails. We’re here to chow down on pig skull. Since we don’t want to leave any part of the porker feeling left out, we order everything, which constitutes almost an entire hog head. The ears are cut into three-bite-long straws, tempura battered, and then fried. When you crunch into them, there’s none of the chewy resistance you might expect if you’ve only seen pig ears offered as dog chews. Singhofen’s version melts in your mouth to reveal only the faintest hint of ham. A side of tartar sauce is a nice complement, but isn’t necessary to enjoy the dish.
Next up is the brain tortellini. There’s an odd, primal thrill that comes from knowing that you’re sucking down gray matter. That being said, if you didn’t know the pasta was filled with brain, you’d just think you were eating a mushy meat. The dish is interesting in theory, but unremarkable in execution. On the other hand, the chicken-fried tongue with lentils, pickled shallot, and spiced apple puree is interesting in both concept and execution. The other offal-centric starter, the FBLT, is pure genius. Foie gras stands in for the bacon on a decadently truffled brioche and each bite threatens to overwhelm you with fatty depravity. It’s a haute cuisine glutton bomb of epic proportions.
All in all, Singhofen’s 360-degree ethos works to create a symbiotic relationship between the chef and his purveyors, like David Ober of West Virginia’s Cedarbrook Farms, who provides Eola with all things swine. “He’s maximizing his pigs and I’m keeping my customers happy,” explains Singhofen. “Because it means I’m getting all these odd little bits and pieces that we try to turn into beautiful meals.”
You’re not obligated to go the offal route at Eola. A vegetable-meets-fruit salad is a study in contrasts. The earthiness of the beets finds nice opposition in the tangy zing of the grapefruit slices, while the crunch of the pistachios contrasts nicely with the silkiness of the ricotta.
The velvety celery velouté is a little salty, so the main ingredient is drowned out behind a wall of saline. Celery has such a slight flavor profile to begin with that it has to be treated with incredible delicacy if it’s going to register. The crispy wild rice scattered across the soup adds a snap, crackle, and pop to the proceedings, but still don’t bring back that elusive celery flavor.
More successful are the quarter-sized scoops of trout rillette that rest on miniature toast chips and come topped with a caper and a sliver of lemon. The briny fish provides a nice backdrop for the salty pop of the caper and the spiky tang of the citrus.
Still, there’s a restraint and surprising lightness to Singhofen’s entrees. Where a more classically influenced chef might be heavy-handed with sauces and preparations, Singhofen lets his ingredients speak for themselves. The claws are left on the confited quail, reaching out in supplication for a prayer that was clearly never answered. This faithful departed rests next to a griddled rye cake and a tumble of jus-dressed winter root vegetables. The bird’s rich, duck-like flavor, works well with the slightly sweet jus and the grassy, earthy tones of the rye. It’s totally irresistible; in a short time it’s reduced to a pile of toothpick-thin bones sucked clean and a picked over miniature ribcage.
There are other appealing main courses. A tangle of oxtail sits in a savory broth filled with barley. It looks like it could be a soggy mess, but when you bite into it the beef it’s pleasantly chewy and the barley kernels have the consistency of wild rice. The Tamworth pork is glazed in sarsaparilla, easily the most underrated root soda of all time—bravo to Singhofen for recognizing its rightful place at the forefront of American cuisine. The sweetness of sarsaparilla is a nice complement to the pork’s own sugary tones, but never threaten to drown out its natural flavors.
This is all a nice lead-up to dessert. The brioche bread pudding is perfectly caramelized on the edges and served with a chantilly whipped cream sprinkled with nuts and dried fruits, which ties back to the pudding’s innards. Buttery and moist, it recalls the richness of the offal starters, but the portion is restrained so that diners don’t overstuff themselves in the final leg of the race.
A cookie plate full of choices like a crunchy chocolate hazelnut biscotti, a duo of soft brownie cubes, a bittersweet chocolate chunk cookie and a pair of ginger infused molasses drops is a comforting swansong. A peppermint meringue disc is picked up without design at the very end and becomes the perfect last bite, leaving a lingering freshness on the tongue.
Eola, 2020 P St. NW; 202-466-4441
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery