Amid the constant restaurant openings on 14th Street and the trendy crowds waiting for tables at the latest hot spot, Chef Jesse Miller of Bar Pilar and Café St. Ex has strived to, and has succeeded at, keeping the restaurants the neighborhood gems we continue to love. On any given day you will find both restaurants filled with regulars lingering over a meal and drinks thanks to their laid-back and welcoming atmospheres.
The menus frequently rotate thanks to the creativity of Chef Jesse and his passion for mastering different types of cuisine. While almost all of his dishes can be classified as standouts, recent brunch favorites have included local classics like the half-smoke and Baltimore Bomb (crab cake sandwich topped with shrimp salad), their twist on an authentic Thai chicken salad, and pork hash with sofrito. We’ll be heading back soon to soothe our winter blues with a bowl of their recently added ramen, banter with the outgoing staff, and groove to their eclectic and always fabulous, playlists.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?
My favorite place to brunch is probably Vinoteca. Lonnie [Zoeller] is killing it over there. Last time I was there, I got their smoked trout omelet and toast, which was really nice. I really like their brunch menu. It’s made up of classic dishes mixed with new stuff.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
Good question. I’d probably say pancakes. There’s something satisfying about watching them rise when they hit the griddle.
Do you prefer to brunch in or out?
It depends how hungover I am, but I’m usually motivated to get out because there’s alcohol involved.
What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?
I’m addicted to Huevos Rancheros. Give me eggs and salsa and I’m done. Oyamel has a really great version of the dish.
What is your favorite item on any of your restaurants’ brunch menu? What is the most-ordered?
Most ordered is a dish that I didn’t come up with. It’s from the original chef, Justin [Bittner], called the hangover cure, with biscuits and sausage gravy. My favorite is probably the pork hash with biscuits. The pork has sofrito, salsa verde, queso fresco, and sunny side up egg. Sofrito has so many ingredients in it so it really pops.
Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?
I prefer straight tequila. Either that or a beer—but usually tequila.
If you had to invite a group of local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?
It would probably just be other chefs around town. I guess you could say they’re my celebrities. Haidar Karoum (Doi Moi, Estadio, Proof) is one of my favorite people. I’d also invite Danny Lee from Mandu—he comes in to eat every once in a while.
Bar Pilar and St. Ex are the pioneers of the super trendy 14 street corridor but have managed to retain their neighborhood charm. What’s your secret?
I think we just try to keep it as it is. We don’t try to change too much. Well, we change the menu a lot but we’re not trying to be a bar that’s just competing to be fine. We just try to do what we do and have people hang out. We want to make it personal so that it has a little soul. We play the music we want and continue to be who we are and don’t change that pace.
Both restaurants have distinct feels. Does your cooking philosophy differ between the two? If you could combine the two menus for the perfect meal, what would it be?
They’re definitely different. It gets challenging to not use the same dishes on both menus but I have great help like my mom and the staff, so they contribute to dishes just as much as I do. St. Ex used to be more fine dining but now it’s more friendly no the everyday patron now. At Bar Pilar, we use ingredients that scare people like monkfish liver and cook different dishes to see if people check it out and, eventually, they trust us and come back for it. The two menus crisscross a lot. It would be interesting to do a dinner between the two of them. I’m a sucker St. Ex’s burger as sad as that is. Even for brunch, it’s fantastic. We add a little more fat to the eggs over at Bar Pilar so I’d want those eggs. I’d go with St. Ex’s desserts. They’re having a little fun with desserts and their house made ice cream is fantastic.
You followed fellow chef and friend Justin Bittner as executive chef. What is the most important thing he taught you?
He’s still teaching me, honestly. I have a head for creativity and will do a dish that I love and he’s taught me to refine the technique to make it even better. He’s a stickler for cooking things the right way before you move on. He’s pushed me to refine my technique and never skip steps.
Bar Pilar hosts tons of events and specials like your delicious happy hour pizzas. What else do you have in the works?
One of things we have been most excited about is our ramen, which is going on the brunch menu. We’re making our own noodles and using complicated ingredients to make the broth. It’s probably one of the better ramen broths I’ve had in a while and we’re not a ramen shop. Not a lot of people know about it yet, but it’s a special dish.
We are big fans of your bar programs at both restaurants. What is you ideal cocktail and food pairing from either places?
I’m such a simple eater. People are always really surprised. Justin [Bittner] makes fun of me because sometimes I won’t even heat anything up. At Bar Pilar, it would be the ramen with the beer. At St. Ex, I would probably get the Huevos Rancheros over there, which is just solid. We do it with a pupusa instead of a tortilla, with salsa, eggs, and queso fresco. If I’m eating that, I’m gonna have a Bloody Mary because you’re already eating tomatoes.
We love the new American cuisine at Bar Pilar and St.Ex. What is your inspiration for the two menus?
I think the whole idea is we don’t hold ourselves down to sticking with one genre, which is really nice. Even before I was an investor in the restaurants, the owners never held us back. They never told us what to cook and what cuisine to do. The trick is to read different books and learn constantly learn—whether it’s Asian, Italian, or Peruvian cuisine. I think what pushes us is our freedom. We get to come to work and cook what we want so we better do a good job.