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Restaurants are ideas brought to life, but Bronze is a little different—it’s a short story brought to life.
During the pandemic, Keem Hughley, who worked for Erik Bruner-Yang for seven years and is a partner in Maketto, began dreaming of a fictional character, Alonzo Bronze (the first name a nod to his great grandfather). In his imagining, the 14th-century African globe-trotter sought out new spices and cooking techniques to bring back to the mythical Bronze people, who eventually settled on a fictional island in the Caribbean. The story became a way for him to express his idea for his luxurious Afrofuturistic restaurant that opened at the eastern end of H Street NE last month, part of an exciting explosion of newer dining options along the stretch, including natural wine bar and tasting menu restaurant Irregardless, pizza-slinging The Little Grand, and pop-up space Please Bring Chips, currently hosting Marcelle Afram’s Shababi Chicken.
By placing Alonzo’s story so far back in time, Hughley felt it gave him more flexibility creating a brand narrative for his restaurant. “From an African perspective, in luxury we’re not afforded longevity compounding success,” he says. “When we think about Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and other luxury brands, we think about their legacy stories. We don’t have a legacy story, so I had to figure out a way to age the story to create that legacy feel.”
Another driving force behind Bronze was the closing of Kwame Onwuachi’s Kith and Kin at the Wharf. “It left a big void for people looking for food with an Afrodiasporic viewpoint done at a high level in a very comfortable space,” Hughley says. “We feel the Afro-luxury dining experience is a huge untapped market.”
Don’t expect to hear either the backstory or this spiel from your server when you sit down. That’s intentional. “Black restaurants in D.C. typically do not have diversity in their dining rooms,” says Hughley. “They’re typically made by us for us. To help create a diverse dining room, we have to lower the tone so people can come in and enjoy the food, beverage, and service without feeling like they’re checking a box in the social justice world. We just want to be respected as a restaurant.”
Fair enough. I went for the food and left excited by the unique offerings from executive chef Toya Henry, who also worked for Bruner-Yang (a partner in Bronze), and spent time in Brooklyn at the Michelin-starred Oxalis and Mina’s in MoMA PS1. Before the pandemic, she began hosting an in-home supper club focusing on Caribbean and Southeast Asian flavors, a series she continued during the lockdown. That influence is apparent here.
Though Hughley wanted to take a diasporic approach to the cuisine, he gave Henry broad parameters to explore. “Cook from the perspective that we have access to everything: every cooking technique, every ingredient,” he told her.
She offers a tight menu—four starters, eight mains, a pair of sides—but portions are generous, the dishes designed to be passed around, her inspiration wide-ranging.
Start with kanpachi crudo lightly dressed with yuzu kosho and citrus, a small frisee mizuna salad, cucumber rounds, and taro chips on the side. Use the crunchy shards to put together a memorable bite: crackly and smooth, zingy and soothing. By contrast, the six-pack of briny Wellfleet oysters with a crowning jumble of roe smacks of salt. To add complexity, Henry lightly torches the bivalves for a smokey sensibility and dabs on a little mound of pickled cucumbers, onions, and chilies similar to a Barbadian souse, a nod to her mother’s homeland.
Henry’s father hails from Jamaica, famous for its oxtail stew, a starting point for her tea-steeped, bone-in oxtail nestled in house-made pappardelle, a sumptuously rich entree. Plant-based eaters will hone in on couscous, its giant pearls cooked in a Guinean sauce with arbol, Aleppo, and bird’s-eye chilies, as well as tomato sauce and mirin. Arranged on top, like it’s a Zen rock garden, are lightly seasoned grilled Japanese eggplant, kale, and broccolini. A bigger blast of flavor comes from the grilled sea bass, butterflied to showcase an escovitch-esque salad of shredded carrots and green papaya pickled in rice vinegar with chili peppers to create a sweet-spicy-tart accent.
Desserts show restraint. Though the menu bills it as a doughnut, a puff of pate a choux arrives instead, split open to accommodate a dollop of guava whipped cream. The riff on the popular Caribbean guava cheese dessert is not too sweet. Neither is the rooibos tea-laced yogurt topped with a rivulet of passion fruit and kumquat sauce, a nice comedown after the intensity of the meal.
On the beverage side of the equation, renowned sommelier Nadine Elizabeth Brown, former wine director at Charlie Palmer Steak for more than a decade, presides over a globally minded list, including bottles from throughout Europe, South Africa, South America, and the States.
The bar is overseen by master mixologist Al Thompson, a veteran of barmini and the Gibson. The first half of his cocktail list includes several whimsical creations attempting to transform iconic songs from artists such as Sun Ra and John Coltrane into liquid counterparts. “Every once in a while, there’s a serendipity moment that happens,” says Hughley. “Someone will be drinking the Lush Life cocktail while Coltrane’s ‘Lush Life’ is playing.”
The second section, “The Most Known Unknowns,” highlights unrecognized Black bartenders, such as pre-Prohibition bar star Tom Bullock, thought to be the first Black American author to publish a cocktail book.
One quibble: When I went last month, there was only one nonalcoholic cocktail on the menu, which the server said was a Dry January option. It would be better to have several permanent selections on hand for those opting not to drink.
As I sipped my gingery, pomegranate-laced beverage, I had a lot to take in. The 5,300-square-foot restaurant designed and built by Drummond Projects is spread across three floors, each with its own sensibility. The dusky “pre-Earth” ground floor where I was sitting is home to a 12-seat bar and seating for 45 guests at tables and booths adorned with mushroom-y lamps, the walls dotted with art from D.C.-based multidisciplinary visual artist Franklin Thompson and Ghana-based Afro-surrealist David Alabo.
Earth is the guiding theme of the more expansive second level with high ceilings, wide-screen windows looking out on the street’s bustle, and seating for 45 more. The story of Alonzo Bronze is addressed with six portraits of his compatriots commissioned from Nigerian artist Alabi Mayowa. There are other art nods to award-winning science fiction writer Octavia Butler, producer-rapper Flying Lotus, and neo soul performer Erykah Badu.
The “celestial” 30-seat Crane Room bar on the third floor won’t be open for two months; its cocktail menu is inspired by ingredients Alonzo collected on his travels, complemented by a small selection of seafood-centric small plates. In addition, the restaurant will roll out brunch this spring, keeping the offerings in a similar vein to the dinner menu’s mission statement. Think cassava flapjacks and French toast accented with sorrel, a hibiscus-centric, ginger-infused Jamaican beverage. The plan is for a pair of 20-seat patios to debut this summer.
As the restaurant continues to unfold, Hughley continues to explore its namesake. He is working with South African-born Rob Rutherford of RUNT, a New York-based creative agency, to expand and publish the story of Alonzo Bronze, a project that will include recipes from the restaurant.
Bronze, 1245 H St. NE. bronzedc.com