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Monday, April 4, 2016

Another Khachapuri Please - A Review of Compass Rose DC

So a few months ago Mark and I were in DC and wandering around the Guppie (Gay-yuppie) wonderland that is the 14th Street corridor in NW DC. Mark marveled at how much the area had changed; no longer a waste land punctuated by the Black Cat and the Elizabeth Taylor Center for Gay Men, but instead a posh and bustling pedestrian boulevard, replete with myriad dining and shopping options. As he gawked, I kept my eyes peeled for an acceptable brunch spot where we could enjoy the scene and a little sunshine. The over-abundance of choice was obviously making me crazy, as was the fear that as every second ticked by the likelihood of scoring an outdoor table was becoming slimmer and slimmer, so I was nearing meltdown by the time we approached the corner of 14th and T. 

We had almost resigned ourselves to brunch at a pizza chain when Mark spotted Compass Rose, tucked away in a brick town home, half in shadow a few hundred feet from the corner. He reminded me of his personal connection to the place, a colleague’s cousin opened the spot early in 2014, and he’d been wanting to check it out but wasn’t quite sure if they served brunch. Decision made we approached eagerly only to find out not only did they serve brunch, but this day was actually the inaugural service. We happily took a spot outside, and enjoyed one of the best, most interesting brunches we’d had together. I nearly licked the bowl on my Jok, a porridge based dish from Thailand featuring meat balls and snow peas, flavored with traditional fish sauce and soy, and finished with a runny quail egg, breakfast perfection. Mark, not normally the breakfast food type, made quick work of his Chivito, essentially a chimmichurri cheese-steak sandwich that is known as the national dish of Uruguay. We rounded out the meal with warm, delicate, and melt in your mouth Italian Zeppole, fried dough balls filled with ricotta and finished with cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla-lime syrup - literally finger-licking good. Despite a few service hiccups (which we forgave in the name of first brunch service ever) we soon realized this place was going to be a new favorite. The menu is a diverse array of authentic dishes from around the world. Inspired by the owner’s experiences traveling with her husband while he was a foreign correspondent for a national media organization (30 countries in 3 years according to her count), it offers up truly the best of global street-food derived cuisine in a straight forward and genuine manner. There is 0 affectation in the description and execution of the dishes and cross referencing my own travel experiences, I can say those of which I am personally familiar, are truly representative of the culinary traditions from which they come, so I have to believe the principle extends across the global menu.  We left raving and instagramming about the experience, determined to go back as soon as possible for dinner and the full Compass Rose experience.

We returned to DC one weekend recently and once again, due to the generosity of a good friend, found ourselves staying on 14th street. We checked out a few museums and reconnected with  several friends during the day, eventually making dinner plans with a college friend of Mark’s, and based on her mutual love of the place, decided this was the perfect opportunity for us to return to Compass Rose. Now, Compass Rose’s popularity and renown has continued to grow since our first brunch experience. Burgeoning coolness aside, it was a Saturday night and they do not take reservations, so I fully expected that getting a table might present a challenge. Due to this potential we planned to eat a little earlier than we might usually, and arrived at the restaurant at 6:15pm.

The place was a zoo, borderline chaotic. The door was slammed and the bar was no respite. The scene was somehow good, however, regulars planning on enjoying dinner at the bar and others simply happy to wait for their tables and enjoy the famous cocktails despite the clamor. Despite the good energy, my patience didn't last long. I was getting hangry and don’t generally have an appetite for waiting (just ask Mark). I tried my usual tricks of being pushy with the hostess and trying to trip her up by getting her to make impossible promises about seating order, but she was a professional and did not break, despite my best and most underhanded efforts. Truth be told, there was no injustice occurring, the place was legitimately packed. I have to give some credit to the kitchen, because it was apparent they were managing to turn tables quickly despite the lingering nature the foodie illuminati are prone to in places like these. Ultimately, the wait was over an hour and was excruciating, not just for me, but for those who had to deal with me, so consider this my apology. During the wait we’d called around and stopped in various nearby places, but as the hour had approached 7 and prime dining time, the other waits were even more abysmal. Eventually a large table got up, and our moment had come. As we took our seats, the question loomed; "Would it be worth the wait?".

By this time I was sufficiently buzzed, really just an attempt to prevent wait-rage, so I was eager to begin the feeding frenzy. I ordered a light red from Italy, a craft cocktail would have been lost on me by that point and any additional hard liquor on my empty stomach would have spelled disaster for Mark and my other company. The wine was good (I do not recall the maker or varietal), easy drinking, perfect for what was to be wide variety of dishes and flavors.

Once seated, the ambient noise level suddenly felt more tolerable (or maybe it was the promise of food to come). The restaurant’s aesthetic is at one time both part Bedouin tent and another part Parisian apartment. There are touches of metals and textiles that evoke the far reaching locales from which the menu comes, yet somehow it avoids the bohemian cliché. It’s not stunningly beautiful or breathtakingly unique, it’s pretty, comfortable and I imagine it’s evocative of the owner’s experiences living and collecting items from around the world. Perhaps it’s a cliché just to say it, but it feels authentic, there is no Pier 1 chintz factor or heavy handed design theme, it's sexy, understated and relaxed. The space, the lighting, it’s a nod to the true star of the show, the food and the culinary traditions from which it comes.

We ordered dinner in several rounds, wanting to explore as much as what the small plates driven menu had to offer. Drawing on market-place and street-food traditions the world over, the selection is wildly diverse yet cohesive in inspiration. While waiting, we had seen several tables get the dish that Compass Rose has become famous for, serving over 10,000 in their first year by some accounts. What we witnessed is essentially a Georgian cheese pizza, a staple in the cuisine of former Soviet republic country nestled between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, that goes by name of “Khachapuri”. By our initial observations we gathered that it is a shallow bread boat filled bubbling cheese and topped with an egg. We HAD to have it. When we ordered, however, the server suggested he bring it out last, as it tends to be heavy and he didn’t want to ruin our appetite. Now I appreciate the consideration, and his commercial interest in ensuring he didn’t temper his future sales potential, but this guy clearly didn’t know who he was dealing with. We thanked him for his concern and his implication of our delicacy as diners, but assured him it would be a non-issue and in fact the bread boat should come to the table as soon as possible. He obliged, and the table was soon full of half a dozen fragrant and enticing dishes. 

I’ll come back to the Khachapuri don’t worry, but for now on to the rest of the food. One of the first plates to hit the table was the grilled duck hearts in a Peruvian preparation called Anticuchos – essentially heart kabobs or brochette if you’re fancy. These were accompanied by Huacaina, boiled potatoes in a creamy sauce, a simple yet satisfying accouterments. The hearts, on the other hand, were intense and gamey in flavor, and perfectly cooked, no small feat, I must note, considering the potentially tough nature of the organ. Now I am a bit biased in that I love organ meat categorically. But this dish played on the qualities I prize in wonderful ways. The flavor was deep and “livery”, brought about through the char of the grill and a deliberate lack of seasoning. I could have snacked on those little tickers all night.

Another favorite dish was the Chincharron. Prevalent in many Latin American culinary traditions, and one of my favorite street foods and taco fillings from my time in Mexico, I had high expectations. As was becoming the trend at Compass Rose I would not be disappointed. These slabs of friend pork belly were melt in your mouth delicious, buttery fat layers and crispy skin heaven. They were served with fried yucca, a favorite amongst Mark and our friends, so clearly this dish didn’t last long in the table. Continuing the Latin theme, we also ordered some lamb Arepas. The masa base was a little soggier than I like, and that would be my ONLY criticism. The meat was tender and had a delicious, almost herbaceous, depth of flavor I didn't expect but found quite pleasing. I am not sure where they get their cotija chees, but it must have a high moisture or fat content, because it lent an incredible creamy mouth feel in additional to the savory flavor the cheese is known for. Needless to say, we ended up ordering several plates of these. In additional to our Central and South American inspired selections, we also enjoyed a fresh and bracing Fattoush salad punctuated by mint and a pomegranate-sumac vinaigrette, a welcome change among the richer dishes.

For the second round started with lip-smacking Korean ribs. They were straightforward, well seasoned and as someone who doesn’t typically love ribs, I'll admit I enjoyed them thoroughly. The smoky glaze was perfectly balanced, not too tart or sweet as this preparation can tend to be, and the berkshire pork ribs themselves were generously meaty. We tried a bright and citrusy squid salad that spoke perfectly to the seafood of the eastern Mediterranean, and like the earlier Fattoush, served as a refreshing interlude for the palette. We ordered their take on Currywurst, and to me this was the dish that fell most flat. Currywurst is the ubiquitous dish of Berlin, but it’s admittedly rather basic. Sausage served with ketchup infused with curry, decent foundation yes, but Compass Rose’s take didn’t accentuate or heighten the dish and it ended up just feeling very, well, basic. The twist, if you can call it one, was that the Flying Dog IPA brats were tossed in the curry ketchup, thereby forcing the incorporation of flavors. I am not sure what I expected, but I wanted something more, maybe some unexpected heat or a particularly flavorful wurst, but this was neither. They didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, just do it well and I was underwhelmed with what tasted like hot dogs in ketchup that smelled like curry - very concession standesque. That might be harsh, but sausage is one of my favorite things so I had high expectations and was disappointed.

What didn’t disappoint, however, was the Jamaican Goat curry. Served with rice and shado beni, an herb reminiscent of cilantro and a traditional ingredient in Caribbean cooking, the meat was once again perfectly cooked and fall apart tender. The best part was the incorporation of scotch bonnet peppers. This very hot variety could have easily overwhelmed the dish, but instead the heat was exactly what was needed to punctuate the dish and allow the curry and the gamey qualities of the goat shine through. I would love to try to make a version as a soup.

And now, the coup de gras, the Khachapuri. So picture an oblong pizza with the ends twisted into points and the sides rolled up slightly, making a kind of pizza boat. Then fill it with butter, feta, (mozzarella and ricotta I suspect), herbs and finish with a fresh farm egg. Baked until bubbling hot, then all the filling scrambled together and allowed to congeal just slightly once it hits the table. I don’t know if I am wooing you or not, but one bite and you lusting for more. The egg and butter takes the richness of the cheese to new heights (right up there with my cholesterol) and the edges of the crust have just the right chew and char to balance out the texture. Cut in into strips, the cheese is just dripping off the crust as you raise it to your mouth, it’s almost an erotic experience, the sexiest version of pizza I have ever had. Now, despite the server’s warnings, we made quick work of our Khachapuri and you guessed it….ordered two.

By the time we’d finished the smorgasbord we had perused nearly half the menu, leaving a few dishes to entice us to go back, but had absolutely no ability to attempt dessert. We were totally sated, service had been seamless, informative and un-intrusive. In the end we all decided dinner had been well worth the wait.

In writing this review I did take a moment to reflect on the overall experience and this is what I will say; Compass Rose is outstanding. The dining experience is satisfying, exciting, and intriguing, each bite leaving you wanting more and yet wanting to see what is to yet to come left to explore. The dishes themselves recreate that feeling during travel, that moment when you taste or see something new, unexpected, maybe even transcendent, something that imprints itself on your memory and you carry it with you for years to come. It is as if the proprietors and chef want to create that "best thing I ever tasted" moment, over and over and over again, recalling and sharing the experiences through the authentic interpretations of the global cuisine, a travelogue in food. In this, Compass Rose succeeds brilliantly. I left wanting to cook, to travel, and come back again next week to explore more of the menu and savor my new found favorites.

With an ever changing menu, and an uncharted dessert list, we are definitely looking forward to going back. In the mean time I will be recommending Compass Rose to anyone and everyone I deem worthy of such an epicurean adventure, the long wait notwithstanding.

Dinner: 5PM - 7 Days (til’ 11 MON-SAT, 10pm Sun)
Bar: 5pm- 2am 7 days
Brunch: YASSSS (Sunday only 11 – 3pm)
Price Point: With drinks ran about $55 with tax/tip (no dessert), most items between $8 and $20, small plates to share (2-3 per person)
Reservations: No reservations – Got busy on a Saturday around 6

You can eat at the bar and I would recommend it
Lots of gluten free options
Recently began offering a private dining menu in their garden courtyard called “The Bedouin Tent” – can someone please have a birthday dinner there?!?

Location: 1346 T STREET

Contact: INFO@COMPASSROSEDC.COM - – 202-506-4765

Photo copyright Tim Robison from Food & Wine:

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