The first Monday of each month, Graffiato turns into a kind of war-zone. A stainless steel counter and U-shaped pizza bar serve as the trench line, behind which chefs hurry-scurry, stuffing fried chicken into buns, grating daikon over pasta, piling freshly fried donuts onto serving plates. Across enemy lines, hoards of curious gastros push forward to see what new dishes come down the line. The more tactful inch ahead gradually, using clever strategies to stealthily maneuver their way to the bar and then hover over the plates until they are checked by the rest.
At 10 p.m. Graffiato turns its stoves over to guest chefs and good friends of Owner Mike Isabella. Industry Takeover Night brings together food and nightlife journalists, radio personalities, restauranteurs, chefs and struggling bloggers in an event which showcases both signature dishes and new projects of the featured food artists, while providing a great place to network, fried drumstick in hand. The May event boasted a parade of dishes from Birch and Barley’s Kyle Bailey and his wife, Executive Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac. The latter two are the flame that fuel GBD, whose approachable and delicious fried chicken and gourmet donuts won my affection a few weeks ago. Mark Rosati of Shake Shack also made an appearance (to me, in the form of vanilla custard with sesame and peanut brittle). While the majority of the kitchen was taken over by the pop-up chefs (reminiscent of a culinary trend among expats in BsAs), Graffiato’s wood fire oven was left burning late as it is every evening in the latter half of the week, springing forth roasty-toasty, charred til crisp, bubbling thin crust pies. Special $5 drinks of the night included a punch, some local beers and prosecco (which the place has on tap, anyway).
One of the earliest dishes to come forth was this crudo of kampachi, garnished with paper-thin veggie shavings, crunchy pea shoots and served with a light yogurt favored with togarashi spice. The delicate, springy kampachi was brought to a higher plateau of freshness with the accompanying tangy yogurt. Some other appetizer dishes included skewered chewy duck hearts and multicolored pickled quail eggs, which weren’t too inspiring.
One of the stars of the show was this vibrant green goat cheese cavatelli which breathed forth spring time in every bite. Big, beautiful fava beans and plump little peas were mixed up with the chewy, gummy pasta whose narrow grooves helped soak up a beautiful green sauce intensified with the addition of white truffle fonduta. Some daikon grated over the top for extra measure.
Another popular one was Kyle Bailey’s fried chicken, bite-sized, juicy bits of buttermilk-soaked meat coated with that magically crispy, fluffy baking powder-and-cornstarch coating. It was drizzled with spicy sambal mayo and sprinkled with slices of crisp cucumber and carrot. This beauty was served with a beastly looking plate of cooked-down swiss chard in a savory sauce, with its bright purple, still firm stems peaking out from a mess of deliciously mushy greens.
And then came the Fried Chicken Bao, the one I had wanted to get at GBD but that they had run out of by the time I got there. Just so happened, I got to try it fresh. A chewy, fluffy, spongy, light as a feather steamed bun stuffed with a crispy GBD-style fried hunk of buttermilk-soaked chicken tender, drizzled with some sambal mayo for hydration and creamy mouthfeel, layered with pickled cucumber and thin pickled carrot shavings for crunch. Mint and cilantro to garnish.
At some point a whole roast suckling pig head appeared on a wooden cutting board with some fixins all around it, a deep, dark glaze drizzled over its snout. Crispy ears and cheek and an element of theatrics surrounding. Still don’t really understand where the beast came from, since it doesn’t seem to appear either on Graffiato’s usual dinner menu, or Birch and Barley’s. A nice touch to the evening, though.
Breaded and panko-fried ponzu-soaked chicken tenders offered a great alternative to the deeply satisfying but heavy buttermilk fried stuff. The chunks of boneless breast were smooth, creamy almost, with juice from the meat bursting forth from the flesh when bitten into – the wonders of non-overcooked chicken! The coarse breadcrumb coating scraped the tongue pleasantly, adding textural intrigue and a delicate crunch. Some heat from squeezed-on sriracha mayo sauce, white and black sesame and angle-sliced chives sprinkled over the top.
On the Graffiato side of things, my favorite pizza of the night was the Luigi, a veggie specialty. The vibrant green hue and rustic unevenness of the thing drew me to it, even after already having eaten way too much of everything else. The littlest slice did no harm, as the pizza was very thin and as light as a giggling cherub. It was topped with a very thin layer of tangy pesto, some withered leafy wild greens, ramps, a touch of sharp pecorino cheese to bring out the caramelized, smokey sweetness of the charred greens, and some lemon for acidity. The crust was crispy and chewy, with an elegantly tan bubble breaking out – good enough to eat all of, even after swearing not to have another bite.
If folks were just slightly pushy for everything else, they turned downright maniacal when Tiffany’s donuts came out. Milliseconds were not allowed to pass between plating and disappearing from the plate. Hands twice the size of mine came reaching from all directions, like those of blind zombies grasping for something they know they need. I asked Tiffany across the bar which one was her favorite and her reply was “Tres Leches or the Key Lime.” I must admit she knows her babies well. The Key Lime Curd Filled Brioche, sticky from a vanilla lime glaze and topped with ground gingersnaps, is filled with a surprisingly tangy, rich key lime curd that makes the lips pout, pushes the tongue right up to the palate and cuts the fried character of the donut. There’s also the powdered jelly donut (square shaped for a twist) and a peanut butter and jelly donut, topped with crunchy peanuts, which is a bit too rich for my blood. There is the Barbie-pink Grapefruit Campari old fashioned with its slightly bitter aftertaste balanced with sweet crystal sugar, and the Chocolate Cream Filled Brioche with crunchy cocoa pebbles contrasting against creamy smooth semi-sweet and sweet chocolate.
My favorite of the night would definitely have to be the Tres Leches old fashioned, in tune with its creator. Back when I tried this at GBD, I wrote, “I’ll need to get a super-fresh one of these…one of these mornings.” The donut had dried out a tad by the time I got to it at 8pm, and this left me yearning for a fresh one, in which the dough would still seem “soaked” in the milks. And, as fate would have it, I got what I wanted. The outside was deliciously moist, spongy and sticky sweet, with the still soft shreds of coconut inundating it with flavor. The inside was a bit doughier, but not chewy or tough. The Bourbon Butterscotch Bacon donut continues to elude me but, well, what can ya do?
Throughout the night, I had many of those cliche, dragged-out conversations you kind of expect to have when you enter a room full of food enthusiast and chefs performing live. I discussed whether using panko in a Western dish automatically makes it fusion. I discussed the definition of fusion and how it affects authenticity. I discussed the definition of authenticity. I discussed whether fusion was okay or not. I discussed whether authenticity is necessary. All that…
But I also chatted with the owner of an Adams Morgan Mexican joint about the rainbow of moles they offer and met D.C.-based food writers who talked my ear off about the culinary scene of the city. I learned about websites and blogs to keep an eye out for, trends to anticipate. I was, at some point, also introduced to Mike Isabella who seemed like a good dude. June’s event will feature Jamie Bissonette as one of the guest chefs, which is pretty exciting, because I love his work with Coppa and Toro in Boston. Guess you’ll know where to find me, come June 3rd!