Mike Isabella's Fast Cooking The Top Chef star and Graffiato founder could soon have four D.C. restaurants. Is his empire expanding too soon?

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On a recent Friday night, Isabella is making the rounds in his trademark gray coat, briefly greeting customers during a pop-up event in Penn Quarter. A Jimi Hendrix guitar solo is blaring over the sound system. The chef is clearly trying to keep his interactions short and get back in the kitchen. But many patrons are begging for his attention. One guy reaches out and grabs a room divider to keep Isabella from escaping so quickly.

The online deals site LivingSocial is hosting the series of dinners over four nights to show off its new headquarters on F Street NW. Previewing Bandolero’s menu, Isabella is the inaugural attraction. The tickets sold out in just eight hours.

This is the crowd that’s not worrying about Isabella’s business plans, or his quality control, or the possibility of his turning into a culinary Icarus, or any of the other things food insiders talk about. They just want to see a God that walks among us. And, of course, to eat his food. “When I saw on LivingSocial that Mike Isabella was doing an event here, I thought it would be fun to come check it out,” says Kat Danziger of Columbia Heights, clutching a champagne flute in the lounge area while waiting to be seated. “I ate at Zaytinya when he was there and I’ve seen him on TV.”

Danziger and her friend, Andrew Holmberg, both thought the now-famous chef came off a bit too cocky on Top Chef, but they’re impressed with his impact on the Washington dining scene. “He’s a great chef and really bringing credibility to D.C.,” Holmberg says.

In a way, the evening offers a peek at the future of the dining business. Any schlub can make a restaurant reservation, but only the cognoscenti know about special, private events. It’s only natural that Isabella is front and center. “I think it’s a cool idea, a pop-up restaurant. You get to preview it before anybody else,” says Drew McKechnie of Arlington, who bought tickets as a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend, Rebecca Marvin; she’s a big Graffiato fan who raves about Isabella’s pizza topped with quail egg. Marvin was thrilled to actually meet Isabella at Graffiato. “It adds to the experience when you get to meet and interact with the chef,” she says.

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“Frankly, I don’t know that much about this restaurant,” McKechnie says of Bandolero. “I’m really glad it’s not another cupcake place.”

The sopes with lamb and goat cheese were pretty good, too.

Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of Graffiato General Manager Tiffiny Dunn.

Photo Slideshow: Preview of Bandolero

Our Readers Say

A shame that Isabella's not going to Chicago. The city's got some of the best Mexican food in the country! A walk down 26th on the South side would give Isabella the flavor he seeks AND the proper musical influence.

Only like 20 songs?!? Isabella needs more Latino friends. It's called "Rock en Español." Guys like Juanes sound basically like the Rolling Stones but in Spanish. Satelite radio stations all have a spanish rock station, and ALL of it sounds like either classic rock, 80s rock or ska.
I really dislike Graffiato (overpriced, way too loud), but anyone who refuses to serve tableside guacamole gets bonus points in my book. It's just guacamole. I don't need to see it made, seriously. It's a waste of time and a good server.
You would think one trip to Mexico City would Mike a some ideals. Mexican food in the states is very different from what is actually served in Mexico
Props to this guy for getting investors. For every one of him there are 4 more yet unnoticed to take his place.
How about a trip to Puebla or Oaxaca or even Mexico, DF, if he wants to know what Mexican food is like. Even better, travel between these cities by bus and eat near the bus stations.

I don't want New Jersey style fake Mexican any more than I want yet another Salvadorean interpretation of comida tipica mexicana.

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