122 Blagden Alley, NW, Washington, DC 20001 (http://thedabney.com/)
When my wife and I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina (a post is still in the works, promise!), one of the meals that I was most excited about was Husk. Chef Sean Brock’s restaurant did not disappoint, and I look forward to returning again soon. So when word first got out about the opening of The Dabney, a restaurant helmed by one of Brock’s protégées, Jeremiah Langhorne, my interest was peaked. When I read that Langhorne would, as his mentor did for Southern foods and crops, be sourcing and spotlighting ingredients from the Mid-Atlantic, I was intrigued. And when I heard that Langhorne had found a local friend and teacher in Baltimore’s Spike Gjerde, I knew I had to go. The Dabney, I’m happy to report, lived up to and exceeded my lofty expectations.
The Dabney can be a tough find. Tucked on Blagden Alley between 9th and M Streets between the Shaw neighborhood and the Convention Center, the restaurant is nondescript save for a small sign. Once inside, the unknown gives way to the homey: warm wood floors, a large, welcoming bar, and friendly servers and bartenders. That warmness continues to the kitchen, which is open to the dining room, and where a large, custom-made hearth is front and center along with Chef Langhorne.
We arrive early for dinner, and settle into the bar. Craft cocktails like the Rooftop Swizzle, which pairs vermouth with house-made lemonade and herbs grown on the premises, are a must. Light and refreshing, the drink deftly balances sweet and sour notes from the
lemonade, freshness from the herbs, and roundness from the vermouth. Summer in a glass. As we move to a table to join our friends, a quick glance at the menu reveals
four categories: Snacks, Small Plates, Family Style, and Sides. And it’s clear from the descriptions that the Mid-Atlantic is front and center, with plenty of blue crab, Chesapeake seafood, and local farms highlighted. Naturally, our group decides to try as much as possible. We start with Smoked Catfish Dip, which brings depth to the smokey fish in the form of heat (cayenne, perhaps) and tartness (pickled red onion). It’s deeply satisfying and delicious. And BBQ-Flavored Pork Rinds are exactly what you want in a snack: bites that are light, crisp and savory. A perfect beginning to the meal.
For dinner, we span the gamut of the menu, with our friendly
server always ready to provide descriptions, explanations, and suggestions. Hearth Roasted Vegetables are given a beautiful char from the hearth and savoriness from benne seeds. Vegetables are seasonal, and our dish found carrots, ramps, sorrel, and asparagus, to name a few. Served alongside whey and farro, the dish is fresh, earthy, and fantastic. Mackerel Escabeche is given a bright citrus dressing, cutting right through the dense fish. The dish finds balance for mackerel’s “fishy” reputation. Similarly, Grilled Lettuces utilizes a benne-herb dressing to give a zippy tang to the greens and the crisp and gamey pheasant confit. Caesar salad, elevated.
Bringing some heft to our meal, we order both the Spicy Pork Sausage Toast and Autumn Olive Farm Pork Belly. The toast, topped with well seasoned pork, charred spring onions, and umami from the grana padano, is tasty. The pork belly, though well cooked, is outshined by its [admittedly delicious] sides of cucumber and both green
and black garlic. Less meaty, but even more delicious, is the Pan-Fried Chesapeake Blue Catfish. The fish is beautifully cooked (seared exterior, moist interior), with brown butter and hot sauce served alongside. Calypso beans add nuttiness and texture, and make for a complete dish. But my favorite of the night, by far, is the Softshell Crab. Rice flour gives the seasonal crustacean a light, but uber crunchy coating. A well constructed, and rich, hollaindaise is balanced with unctuous calypso beans, fresh ramps, and tart pickled strawberries. One of my favorite dishes of the year. Given all the successes, our only question mark of the evening is the Bloody Butcher Cornbread. While the interior is moist, and the exterior is given great texture from the skillet, the cornbread lacks flavor. It seems a little lacking as compared to the well executed gratis ciabatta and the must-have sorghum butter it’s served with.
A commitment to locally sourced products is an all-too common trend for restaurants these days. And Langhorne, pushing forward a predominately Mid-Atlantic region sourced menu could easily have been a gimmick. But with Sean Brock as his original mentor, and Spike Gjerde, as a local inspiration, Jeremiah Langhorne is doing his teachers proud. While hype can overwhelm, and expectations can lead to disappointment, The Dabney lives up to its billing. Bottom line: Langhorne’s pride in Mid-Atlantic ingredients is admirable, but his execution of the menu is what shines through brightest. In what was the best meal of 2016 for me, The Dabney is a place I cannot wait to return to.
Atmosphere: The Washington Post did a 10-part series on the opening of The Dabney, which included some background on the selection of the Blagden Alley location – in the ever-growing hip neighborhood of Shaw – and the construction to include the custom hearth at the center of open kitchen. The restaurant uses plenty of warm colored woods for the dining room and bar, and the hearth plays to that homey feel. Like his friend-mentor Spike Gjerde in Baltimore, Langhorne utilizes a plaid-wearing staff, and herbs grown in a garden upstairs. And rumor has it that an outdoor area on the roof is in the works. Service is knowledgeable without being overbearing, friendly, and prompt.
Noise: Moderate-High. Given the sheer number of diners flowing throughout the room, our party of four mostly managed to hold a conversation without shouting. The wood flooring and tables did little to dampen the noise, but we were sat in an area with some walls which helped somewhat.
Recommended Dishes: Smoked Catfish Dip, Hearth-Roasted Vegetables, Grilled Lettuces, Softshell Crab, Pan-Fried Chesapeake Blue Catfish, Autumn Olive Farm Pork Belly
Reservations: Recommended. I made reservations several weeks in advance and there were still limitations on the time slots. The restaurant was packed for most of the [Sunday] evening, although the restaurant features a sizeable bar that is full-service for food.
$$$ – $50 to $100 for dinner for two