Thursday, February 05, 2009

Chef Rock rates high at DC's new NEXT DOOR

What does one do after being the winner of the heinous TV competition HELL's KITCHEN by the even more heinous Gordon Ramsey. Well, Chef Rahman "ROCK" HARPER took the job offered in Vegas for a year, made lots of "star" appearances" and the returned home to his roots and opened a great new truly American bistro NEXT DOOR (1211 U St, NW) to Ben's Chili Bowl, another true dining classic here in Washington. We were headed to a show at the Lincoln Theatre (also next door!) and popped in for a quick meal to find Chef Rock in Los Angeles (star chefs have to go to LA, don't they?), but leaving his barely opened restaurant in the best of hands. His manager, Rob, who also hails from near Fredericksburg, VA, Chef's grooming ground, gives a southern lilt as he welcomes you into the long narrow and slightly noisy rooms. At the front is a long bar with five flat screen TV's (alternating between sports and CNN last night) as well as tall tables with stools. All the tables and chairs are simple dark woods and the decor is not remarkable, this is a food and bar destination. The bar serves the regular menu as well as some items off the menu from Ben's Chili Bowl next door, should you be in the mood for a chili dog and want to be with a larger group with places to sit.

The rear room is not too large, and only reservations for groups are accepted at this point, so do plan ahead. I think the best spot if you want a bit more quiet is the small raised mezzanine at the rear perched above the kitchen. The kitchen is below this a la "split-level" and can only be seen through the swinging door by several tables at the rear of the lower dining area.

Our server, "T," was a gem. He told us we were in good hands and would make our 8pm curtain (we sat down at 645pm) with NO TROUBLE. He was right on all counts and exuded friendliness and was a great help as well. He recommended the superb MENAGE A TROIS (red blend of Zinfandel, Merlot & Cab) 2007 from Folie a Duex Winery in Napa that had a distinct burnt caramel flavor from the Zin (think of Tofanelli Vineyard Zins); it is not a spicy, but a smooth wine that goes quite well with many dishes.

"T" recommended the CREAMY CRAB CHOWDER with Potato, Sweet Corn, Carrots, Cajun Spice and Beef Bacon that packs a slight punch from the spice to my great delight. It is far from bisque or too creamy, which I loved, somewhere between a medium bodied soup and chowder with a very light cream base. There were chunks of crab and the beef bacon was oh so tasty.

Will opted for ROCK's CRAB CAKE which was a deliciously cooked crispy topped version made of virtually 100% crab and came with a SOUR CREAM REMOULADE which Will wished for more of! This may be a big contender for DC's top ten crabcake list!

For my main course, I followed "T's" lead and chose the ROASTE CHICKEN with ROSEMARY MAPLE SUACE, Caramelized Shallot QUINOA and GREEN BEANS. It was a thigh and leg cooked perfectly and oh so moist with the tastiest of crunchy maple-y skins, but not a super exciting piece of chicken overall. The moist quinoa and perfectly herbed and cooked beans were absolutely perfect and made the dish a BIG HIT with me. Will hit the jackpot with the DUCK FRICASSEE with Roasted Mushrooms, Shallots, Parsnip & GNOCCHI which actually is more like a southern style stew with tasty herbs and yummy gnocchi; think southern fricasseed duck confit.

"T" insisted we had to grab a piece of COCONUT CREAM CAKE before we left, so we split the superbly created 4 layer cake loaded with fresh coconut, white icing, lemon curd, and a small circle of creme anglaise and red fruit puree dots on the plate. The cake was moistly divine and was just the right size for two people as we headed next door for our show right on time!

We look forward to returning to see our friend Chef Rock in action in the kitchen when he returns from his whirlwind of engagements! Until then, it looks like the U Street revitalization is doing quite well restaurant-wise, even in this poor economy as NEXT DOOR was jammed last night!