By the time it closed in December 2006, Red Sage was running on the fumes of past glories. Mark Miller, the anthropologist/chef who injected Southwestern culture directly into the veins of the downtown restaurant, was long gone; so was Morou Ouattara, the Miller acolyte who would take his game to Jack Abramoff’s ill-fated Signatures before opening his own place in Alexandria.
But during its heyday in the 1990s, Red Sage ran hundreds of diners through its doors on a daily basis and inspired one of Phyllis Richman’s more daring (if qualified) comments during her tenure at the Washington Post: “Red Sage will feed you things you probably haven’t tasted before.”
Is it any wonder that Ouattara would like to resurrect the glory days of Red Sage with his planned new downtown restaurant?
Technically, the chef and owner of Farrah Olivia isn’t reopening Red Sage. He doesn’t own the name. Miller still has the rights to that handle, and the Star Restaurant Group, which operated Red Sage in the District, has not ruled out the possibility of re-launching the eatery, says Star president Dan Mesches. But even if Ouattara can lay no official claim to Red Sage, he does have tons of institutional memory. He worked there for nearly a decade, and he recalls those years with the kind of romantic nostalgia usually reserved for childhood.
“I loved it when I was doing it,” Ouattara says. “I’m sure a lot of people miss Red Sage.”
Ouattara is making a play for the old Butterfield 9 space, which closed earlier this year, an apparent victim of the sagging economy. No lease has been signed yet, but Ouattara says his broker is in negotiations with the owners. The location holds a lot of attraction for Ouattara: It’s right across the street from the old Red Sage on 14th Street NW. “That would get me back where I was and where I started,” the chef says.
It would also give Ouattara some benefits that he currently doesn’t enjoy at Farrah Olivia, namely foot traffic, office buildings, and access to a flood of international tourists who could be sympathetic to the chef’s innovative techniques and international flavors. In Alexandria, Ouattara’s place is located several blocks from the main King Street drag, and the restaurant’s relative isolation has resulted in at least one casualty: the death of Farrah Olivia’s lunch service, which has, predictably, cut into revenue.
Still, Ouattara says he has no plans to close Farrah Olivia whenever the new place opens. He plans to stay at the Alexandria operation and hire Eddie Marine, the executive chef at Red Sage at the time of its closing, to run the new downtown restaurant. Ouattara imagines the menu will be a “cowboy steakhouse,” featuring wild boar, bison, and antelope, along with a variety of Southwestern-style side dishes.
Given how quickly Ouattara built out Farrah Olivia once he signed a deal—it was opened in just two months, a half-second in restaurant-construction time—he hopes to have the new place open by the end of the year. And what will he name it? Well, let’s just say this: Farrah Olivia is named after the chef’s 4-year-old daughter. Ouattara has a 2-year-old named Kora with no restaurant of her own. Yet.
I was sitting upstairs at SOVA Espresso & Wine on H Street NE—sucking down another $8 glass of mediocre juice, by the way (Young & Hungry, “In Weenie Veritas,” 8/29)—when I heard some tasty gossip: that Ann Cashion would be involved in creating the Mexican menu at the forthcoming H Street Country Club. Frankly, I had a hard time believing that Cashion, the eminence behind such stately Southern operations as Johnny’s Half Shell and Cashion’s
Eat Place, would lend her name to this hipster-cornpone project boasting indoor miniature golf.
Well, it turns out she isn’t—exactly. Think of her Country Club association more like three degrees of Ann Cashion. Owner Joe Englert has placed Teddy Folkman, his chef at Granville Moore’s, in charge of the Mexican menus at the Country Club. One of Folkman’s earliest’s gigs was as a commis at Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan. “She’s been a mentor to me all these years,” Folkman says about the James Beard Award-winning chef.
As such, he’s been consulting regularly with Cashion, who last year opened her own Mexican joint, Taqueria Nacionale, located behind Johnny’s Half Shell (Young & Hungry, “Nacionale Treasure,” 6/21/07). Cashion’s approach to her taqueria is as pure and pristine as a bottle of top-shelf tequila: She avoids the excesses of gloppy Tex-Mex cooking and instead focuses on the simple preparations of Mexican street food. She also buys the best ingredients she can get her hands on, from Bell & Evans chicken to chufa nuts from Spain. “I’d like to channel what she does over there,” Folkman says.
Within reason, of course. The Country Club, after all, will be catering to the late-night revelers on H Street NE, not the buttoned-down gummit types who act like they own the streets around Nacionale. Drunks only care so much about fine ingredients. “We’ll have to see what my budgetary constraints are,” Folkman says about following Cashion’s lead on shopping. “But that’s my goal.”
The menus at the two-floor Country Club will be different on each level. The ground floor will feature Tex-Mex cuisine—or what Englert calls, with tongue planted in cheek, “North Mexican” food. Compared to cheese-choked Tex-Mex plates, “the food will have more ass,” Englert tells me. His dishes will have “some grit, some interesting twist, not that glop-of-cheese shit that you get in a Tex-Mex joint.” The upstairs menu will feature more traditionally Mexican dishes, Folkman says, including mole and perhaps some lamb and goat entrees. “We’re not talking about Jose Andres here,” the chef says, “but we’re going to see what we can do with it.”
After many delays, the H Street Country Club should open its door late this year or early next year.
Englert and Folkman are also teaming up for another project on H Street NE, a Southern Italian restaurant with the working name of—I shit you not—Vendetta. Englert says the place will be, in some respects, an homage to the old Roma Restaurant in Cleveland Park, offering up a number of pasta entrees on the ground floor and serving traditional Italian desserts and coffee on the upper level.
But Vendetta’s main attraction will be an outdoor garden area, much like the famous back garden room at Roma. Except Vendetta’s garden will be shared with two other businesses along the same strip of H Street: Gallery O (which will feature American folk art and “outsider art”) and Joe’s Coal and Ice House (which will be Englert’s attempt to create a cheap, Ray’s the Steaks-like steakhouse for his adopted neighborhood).
When will this open? Who knows. Englert says in about a year. Then again, he thought H Street Country Club would open in July—of 2007.
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