There’s a new lunch deal to be found just North of Pennsylvania Ave, at NoPa (Kitchen + Bar) that is! The newest D.C. venture of restauranteur Ashok Bajaj, NoPa opened in May of 2013 and is still in the process of growing into its idealic Penn Quarter location. Elegant and impressive with a rustic-industrial décor, the restaurant faces the monumental Old Patent Office Building, which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Rays of sunshine stream gently in across floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the lounge-y 24-seat dining room adjacent to the bar. There is also a more spacious dining room graced with a working fireplace, as well as private spaces with just as much aesthetic. It’s a wonderful place to meet a friend for dinner, which is just what I did last week. What drew us was NoPa’s executive lunch bar menu, available in the lounge on weekdays between 11:30 and 3:00pm. The menu includes 6 entree options from which guests are invited to choose one to pair with a glass of wine for $17 (tax and tip excluded). A sandwich off the regular lunch menu goes for $12-$14 and a more substantial entree can cost up to $26, so with a glass of wine included this is a nice deal. But it’s really all about wanting that midday glass of wine, a lunch time happy hour of sorts. Otherwise the bar menu is pretty much the average price for a dry lunch at NoPa. But who wants a dry lunch anyway?
Rarely do dinner rolls mute the chatter of two ladies who have not caught up in weeks. These did. They were fresh, warm and absolutely saturated with butter… in the best way. The thing was swirled around itself, easily torn into fluffy mouthfuls. The exterior became firm and golden brown in the oven, while the inside yielded a yeasty, soft texture. The crust was spotted here and there with flakes of sea salt that melted against the heat of the bread. Steam flooded out when the roll was ripped into, steam smelling strongly of rosemary and other herbs that seasoned it. I truly had no shame in smearing frothy butter onto the moist, hot flesh of the bread. We both ate our entire roll; it was impossible to resist doing so.
The bar lunch menu includes a Cobb salad, a signature burger, a chicken salad sandwich, a Croque Monsieur, a fried fish sandwich and a mushroom gnocchi that seems to be reviewed pretty frequently. Having come across mixed reviews of the Sautéed Gnocchi, we decided to order it along with a sandwich to share. I chose the King Estates, “Acrobat” Pinot Gris from Willamette, a light bodied, dry white that went exceptionally well with the buttered bread. My friend chose the Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma, which matched up more readily with the gnocchi. It’s been a long winter, though, and I’ve grown weary of red wine, so white it had to be. The gnocchi was wonderfully soft and airy, as if whipped or frothed before being thrown in hot water. It was almost not chewy enough to have been made of potato, in which case it can’t fairly be called “gnocchi” by the traditional Italian naming of the dish. But whatever it was, it was delicious. An assortment of wild mushrooms were mixed in with the little dumplings of dough, providing a slightly chewy though never too gummy texture to offset the lightness of the gnocchi. A creamy, smooth white wine sauce complemented the woodsy funk of the mushrooms and bright, salty asiago cheese rounded the whole thing out. It was a deeply satisfying spoonful of creamy, light pasta. I only missed something crunchy over the top to offer textural contrast.
We also ordered the Fried Codfish Sandwich, which came with a lightly dressed side salad that surpassed a garnish in definition. One juicy, tender piece of cod was coated in a thin cornmeal crust and fried to a nice, dark color. The flesh flaked into its milky white fibers immediately when bitten into. It was lain between two slices of fluffy white bread that were smeared on the cut side with a house-made, mayo-based remoulade. The fish sat atop a few sheets of thinly sliced radish glued together with remoulade, which added a great snap as well as some freshness to the bite. The slices were just thin enough to retain a cool, firm crunch (which I confused with that of kohlrabi), but not thick enough to take textural control away from the fish. There was also a substantial layer of bright green watercress salad between the fish and the top bun; the leaves were tossed in more of the citrusy remoulade. A solid fried fish sandwich and large enough to share, especially with the salad included.
Having heard good things about the resident pastry chef at NoPa, we also decided to go beyond the restrictions of the special and order a dessert to share. We got was the Earl Grey Pot de Crème, which was served with a sugar-dusted butter cookie, a citrus salad and a quenelle of blood orange sherbert. I enjoyed the delicate, very mild tea flavor of the custard and the way in which the sweetness of the latter was balanced out by the acidity and bitterness of the citrus (grapefruit, blood orange, orange rind). There was also good textural complexity in the dish, with the smooth cream, juicy wedges of fruit and crunchy wafer. I enjoyed the velvety cool sherbet, though it was a tad on the sweet side for me and reminded me more of strawberry than the intense blood orange I was anticipating. Nevertheless, it was a strikingly colorful dessert which provided a light finish to a very substantial midday meal.
At one point we got to meet Executive Chef Greg McCarthy, who came over to the table to say hey. McCarthty began his career at Jean Gorges in NYC after graduating chef school in Toronto. Later, he worked under Chef Vongerichten at Dune restaurant in the Bahamas and took over as Executive Chef after 6 years. Having gained plenty of experience (and, no doubt, a tan) McCarthy moved back to NYC in 2005 to open Nobu on 57th, which has been hugely successful. We chatted about the sandwiches he’s made for friends that have become especially popular among them and how these have influenced what he puts on his lunch menus. He seemed like a pleasant and genuine character all around. While nothing on NoPa’s simplified bar lunch menu blew my mind, the dishes I did try turned out to be well-done versions of classics served in a substantial portion.