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Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, the long-delayed project from the ever-expanding Neighborhood Restaurant Group empire, should open in September, even though NRG still hasn’t hired a chef for the gastropub in the former Dakota Cowgirl space on 14th Street NW.

So says Michael Babin, co-owner of NRG.

“I say that with all the necessary anxiety and stress,” Babin adds, with a laugh. “I don’t see anything that will stop us from opening in September.”

And that includes, Babin says, the hiring of an executive chef after Frank Morales‘ surprising departure earlier this month.

Babin says that NRG is casting “the net as wide as possible” for candidates, meaning that the company would be willing to look outside the D.C. market to fill the position. Babin expects to make the hire soon and have the opening day menu ready by, say, late September.

“The people I’m looking at I have a lot of confidence in,” Babin says.

The twin-concept project — the Birch & Barley gastropub on the main floor and the ChurchKey bar on the second floor — was originally scheduled to open in April 2008. But the building was in terrible condition, far worse than expected, Babin says. NRG was forced to replace the outdated electrical and plumbing systems and even bolster the structural integrity of the building, in part to support a rooftop deck, which will not be ready by opening day, Babin notes.

But part of the delay was also based on a design decision, Babin adds. The group has built a special mezzanine space on the second floor, which will serve as a showcase for the many bottles and kegs that Birch & Barley is expected to serve and tap into.

I gotta admit, that sounds like something worth waiting for.