Washington, DC, has witnessed one heck of a transition over the last 10 years. Trying to find an identity. Desperately trying to move away from its stuffy, conservative, politician-town persona and into something bigger and better. We didn’t have celebrity chefs in this town a decade or two ago. The U Street corridor wasn’t a cool place for which to hang out. Barracks Row was non-existent. Chinatown was where you went if you felt like getting robbed. We didn’t have bars and restaurants on 14th Street even 5 years ago. And H Street? When did that get here?
Where are we going with this? We’re trying to make the point that DC is always growing. It’s growing, because the people who live here actually care about this city’s well being and overall development.
Enter Todd Gray.
Gray, chef/owner of the beloved Equinox near the White House, is taking a big step in a difficult direction. That direction is NoMa (aka the Hilton Garden Inn on First Street, NE). That area is starting to shape up, but, simply put, it’s not a neighborhood where you want to walk around at night, and hailing a cab there is an exercise in futility. The restaurant is perched on the second floor in a snoozer of a hotel, directly across the street from the nightclub Ibiza and sandwiched between fast-food joints and the new Harris Teeter. What we fear is that Gray’s restaurant will struggle at becoming a desirable destination for foodies, not because the food isn’t good enough, but rather since it’s geographically challenged.
As you walk up the stairs, it feels like you’re in a modernized, second-rate hotel. The restaurant is open, and you enter through a lounge/bar area that feels awkwardly, well, second-rate. As we sit down to a rather small three-top table in the bar, the place is beginning to fill up with what feels like a senior-citizen convention.
We start with the East Coast seafood gumbo with oysters, surry sausage and rock shrimp, as well as classic New England-style clam chowder with celery and smoked bacon. The chowder we have is a bit runny. We usually like it thicker, but it has a hell-of-a-lot of flavor, and, in the end, that’s what is important. The best part of the soup is the creative spin on the oyster crackers, which come tossed in Gray’s own secret-seafood spices a la Old Bay. The gumbo is mediocre to say the least.
We move on to the pan-fried catfish sandwich (which looks like it is no longer on the menu, and that’s a good thing) as well as the Carolina-style barbequed shrimp with creamy white grits, andouille sausage, and green-onion butter. The shrimp are definitely steamed and not barbequed, but they are decent in size and quality. The best part of the sandwich is the fresh-cut potato chips that come with it. We could eat bags of those. Overall, the dishes are good but don’t blow us away.
We are lucky enough to chat with Todd and Ellen Gray several times throughout the evening, and they couldn’t be more gracious and friendly. Todd even gives us a complimentary serving of his signature dessert – chocolate chip cookies and milk. They are amazing. We thought we would only take a bite of one, so that we could write about it. We ate two. You can’t go wrong with chocolate chip cookies and milk. Ever.
We can’t say that this is one of our favorite spots. The vibe at a Hilton Garden Inn isn’t really our thing, and, while the food is decent, it isn’t good enough for us to make another expedition to Northeast. One plus is definitely the prices: appetizers and side dishes average $8, while sandwiches and entrees range from $14 to $28.
All of that aside, we’ve lived in the DC metro area most of our lives and always root for local chefs expanding their stake on our home turf. We respect Todd Gray and everything he is doing to try to extend our city’s boundaries. We wish nothing but the best for him.
After all, this is the city that we live in. It’s only going to turn out as good as we all try to make it.
|Address:||1225 First St., NE Washington, DC 20002|
|Serves:||Breakfast (Monday-Friday); Brunch (Sunday); Lunch (Daily); Dinner (Daily)|
|Go for:||New England-style clam chowder; Rappahannock River oyster sandwich; chocolate chip cookies|