I haven’t been to the DC area in over 7 years. It’s always been for business, but I always remember eating pretty well. Not to mention after watching Top Chef over the years, it’s become apparent that DC has a thriving restaurant scene that I have been curious to explore a little more. Coincidentally enough on a recent trip, I was able to meet up with my cousin and her husband who live in the area and they made reservations at Graffiato, which is an Italian small plates eatery from Mike Isabella, former Top Chef contestant and All Stars finalist.
I was immediately taken with the casual vibe of the restaurant which shouldn’t be too surprising, but most of the restaurants from Top Chef contestants/winners that I’ve visited have skewed a little nicer, not fine dining necessarily but more of a special occasion type of place. Graffiato, however, felt more like a great place to go with your friends after work for drinks and dinner.
The meat and cheese platter was somewhat unmemorable, not that it was bad. In fact, I enjoyed the cured meats even though I’m not totally sure what they were exactly, whether it was a prosciutto or salami or what. The pickled vegetables were fine, but the cheeses weren’t very good. It just tasted like a very typical tasting starter plate to any Italian-themed meal.
The Compressed Asian Pear dish was actually more interesting. It seemed like an East meets West concept with the use of Asian pears and yuzu against a background of olive oil and stracciatella cheese, but the flavors were not as notably contrasting. In fact, I think the pears had a more neutral flavor, so with each bite of the pear, the juiciness served as a light complement to the stringy mozzarella like flavor of the cheese.
When you consider that the beets were supposed to be smoked, the Smoked Beets dish was a rather mediocre execution. There was no smokiness whatsoever which I really found disappointing. I can’t quite recall what the pureed stuff atop the beets were, but it obviously didn’t seem to add much to flavor profile of the dish. In spite of all that, I have to say that I still enjoyed the actual beets because of their nice, natural flavor.
The Caesar Salad was one of the better-conceived dishes. It had all the elements of your typical Caesar salad, lettuce, parmesan cheese, anchovies and croutons, without overwhelming your palate. Some might find the flavors to be lighter tasting, but I enjoyed it, particularly the cream cheese filled croutons. It was an unexpected addition that added a rich creaminess without being heavy.
The Broccolini and Brussels Sprouts were both pretty solid with the Brussels Sprouts winning out slightly mainly because it is much harder to prepare these little vegetables well. They were cut and in half and tossed in a salty sweet mix of pancetta, maple sugar and yogurt which surprisingly disguised its characteristic bitterness very well. The Broccolini was sautéed and topped with a red pepper relish, walnuts and feta cheese with the last ingredient probably representing the main reason these greens didn’t speak to my taste buds.
The Countryman pizza was definitely a highlight of the meal which is amazing coming from someone who really doesn’t like pizza. The thin crispy crust was topped with black truffle, fontina cheese and a soft, slightly boiled egg. The most interesting aspect was the crushed egg releasing its warm yolk across the entire pizza, but the most delicious part was the aromatic truffle oil flavor. All together, the pizza really became the memorable dish of the evening.
The seafood dishes were split. The prawns were prepared in a garlic and scallion flavored butter, and I think they might have been grilled, but the smokiness was pretty undetectable. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed these juicy critters. The garlic flavor was quite distinct but there were some accents of chili and lemon. I had such high hopes for the lobster and scallop pasta special, but unfortunately, it was by far, the failed dish of the night. The pasta was sorely undercooked. I’m talking borderline crunchy undercooked which completely ruined the basis of the dish. The shrimp and lobster was pretty well-cooked in a light cream garlic sauce, but neither the seafood or sauce could really save this dish from utmost disappointment.
The Hanger Steak was good, but I found the crispy toppings and wild mushrooms to be the most interesting part of the dish. They were nice touches that brought some life to the salsa-like topped hanger steak which in of itself, was well-cooked, but some what plain.
I can’t recall what flavor the ice cream was but it really made this dessert complete and surprisingly enough was probably the best one of the trio we were served.
There were high hopes for the panna cotta but it ended up falling flat. The consistency seemed a little thin and grainy, not as dense and creamy as I would expect a panna cotta to be. In fact, it reminded me more of a parfait and hence, not particularly interesting. The bread pudding was pumpkin flavored as it seems everything is this time of year. Admittedly, there was only a hint of pumpkin which made it more enjoyable, but it seemed like a misnomer, because it was more like a cake than bread pudding.
The restaurant is spread across two levels with the downstairs mainly housing the bar and kitchen, and the upstairs area having a mix of booths and tables. The place was packed and it did feel a little bit cramped, but I guess when you have some Top Chef cred behind you, you’re going to be able to draw a strong following. I’m glad to see the concept is a simple one though as opposed to fancy schmancy. The ambiance is quite casual and like I said, seems great for groups and meeting up for a quick bite. The wait staff was somewhat attentive although I have to note that even though we told her that we didn’t want any kind of goat cheese, they still brought out several dishes with goat cheese.
Overall, I was pleasantly pleased with the meal and experience. Everything from the ingredients, the food, the vibe of the restaurant really makes it very accessible to the mainstream. It is kind of nice to see that Mike Isabella’s arrogance is actually backed up with some cooking chops, and it was even nicer to see that he was actually in the kitchen when we first arrived. Unfortunately, I didn’t capitalize on the opportunity and missed taking a picture of him, because he ended up leaving by the time we finished dinner.
707 6th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
PAFO Ratings for Graffiato:
Ambiance 3½ stars
Food 3½ stars
Overall rating 3½ stars