Confession: I don’t watch television. I survived the last year without owning one. Now that I do, once every few months, I’ll sit down and watch a movie. But, reality tv? Never. Everything I know about what’s happening on tv, I learn from friends or Twitter. That means, despite my inability to sit still on the couch, Top Chef’s Mike Isabella has long been on my radar because everyone was buzzing about him.
First, it was a visiting friend going all boy-band crazy after spotting Isabella at Artini. Then, the Interwebs would just not stop twittering about the impending arrival of Isabella’s new restaurant, Graffiato. Finally, Becca and I met Isabella at a Smithsonian Gulf and Its Seafood event in April. The chef was kind and unassuming. Little did we know (or care) he was a reality tv celebrity. (Because, clearly, we care more about the food).
Last weekend, I headed to Graffiato for dinner, where, thanks to a friend’s great rapport with the restaurant, we received the royal treatment–we were pumped full of pink prosecco, sampled the majority of the amazing menu, and chatted with Isabella. I was in heaven.
Both the beginning and end of the meal had special, personalized touches that really made the experience memorable. We began with several types of bread served with butter and an olive oil jam, which had a consistency not unlike honey. Also on the table were spicy sweet-and-salty pistachios that were beyond addicting. I munched on these pistachios throughout the meal, despite the abundance of delicious dishes and an extremely full tummy. From the vegetable portion of the menu, we had a bowl of gigantic, multicolored olives, marinated in citrus, chile, and herbs, and imported from Italy. I love olives almost as much as I love cheese, and these were simply delicious.
Also off the vegetable menu, the marinated snap peas topped with tomato pesto and goat cheese were a hit at the table. I eat snap peas regularly but usually in Asian dishes, and I was pleasantly surprised by Isabella’s Italian rendition. I didn’t think I’d like peas covered in tomato sauce. Instead, I loved them, vying for the last morsels with the other girls.
We also sampled the Ceasar salad, which was topped with breaded, fried cream cheese croutons. “The cream cheese croutons were a really fun surprise, and something I’ve never seen before. Gooey cheesiness always wins with me,” says Lacy.
Next came the octopus, cooked in the wood oven and served over a chickpea artichoke polenta. It was perfectly prepared– not too rubbery– and the polenta added a smooth, creamy component that tasted spectacular with the savory octopus.
We had three dishes off the pasta menu– gnocchi, risotto and sweet corn agnolotti. The asparagus pesto risotto was my least favorite of the three, despite my love for risotto. By contrast, the potato gnocchi, served with burrata and braised pork shank, were to die for. “They’re like little clouds,” said Lacy of the creamy, fluffy melt-in-your-mouth balls of potato. However, my favorite pasta by far was the sweet corn agnolotti, a style of ravioli filled with a sweet, creamy corn filling and served with chanterelles mushrooms and pine nuts.
On special that night was the crab salad, served cold with julienned cucumbers. Also in the bowl was a heavenly cucumber, watermelon, fig combination– a unique blend of flavors that came together in an exquisite combination.
James, the general manager, explained that he heads to local farmer’s markets every week to pick up the best of what’s in season . “I love that James personally goes to the market to select fresh produce – it really made a difference in the flavors, especially of the cold dishes,” adds Lacy.
Near the end of the meal, when I was so full I might burst, they sent out a pizza, claiming (and rightfully so) that we could not leave without trying a slice. This particular pie was the “countryman,” made with black truffles, fontina cheese, and topped with a duck egg, which the waiter cracked onto the pizza as it arrived at our table, allowing the yolk to spread across the top of the pizza. I love truffles, and as James explained, the restaurant uses actual black truffles, rather than the synthetic truffle oil that is used by many restaurants. What’s more, you could both see and taste the chooped truffles, as the flavor took over most of the pie.
Five hours after it began, our meal concluded with pistachio ice cream, more pink champagne, and hand-made cookies baked by Isabella’s wife Stacy. The cookies, the signature conclusion to all meals at Graffiato, are thin, crispy chocolate wafer cookies with nutella sandwiched in between and topped with sea salt. I’m typically not a fan of wafer-style cookies, but these were amazing– somehow managing to be moist while crumbly. The sea salt really complimented the rich, creamy nutella well.
While we don’t grade dinner, but leave the Bitchiness for brunch, Graffiato is clearly a gem. The restaurant definitely lives up to the hype. I can’t wait until Isabella and the Graffiato gang launch brunch.