Young and Hungry

Frank Morales Has Left Rustico Behind, But Not Beer-Friendly Food


Former Rustico chef Frank Morales told Tom Sietsema on Friday that he left the Alexandria gastropub because he had done everything he could at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group property. What Morales apparently didn’t tell the Post, though, is that he still has much more to accomplish in the area of beer-related food.

"Rustico gave me and a way to cook, and I'm going to continue that," Morales told Y&H this afternoon.

Birch & Barley, the NRG property near Logan Circle, was supposed to be the place where Morales, as partner and executive chef, would really put his stamp on this still-evolving cuisine that pairs food with the unique hop and barley elements of beer. But for reasons that Morales can't get into, he had to walk away from that project, too, although with no hard feelings toward his former employer.

Morales just feels that at this point in his career — he's in his early 40s — he needs to be careful about his future moves. He feels like he doesn't have time to waste if he wants to accomplish all the many things left on his agenda.

"Whatever I do next is going to define, for me, what my legacy is in D.C.," Morales tells me.

Which is why he really wants to put together his own project, from the ground up. He wants to build the concept, the team, the investors, the whole shebang. He even has some neighborhoods where he would, personally, like to open his restaurant, whether the thriving 14th Street NW corridor, Cleveland Park, or Friendship Heights.

Wherever he opens a restaurant, assuming he does, he plans to showcase not only his beer-friendly food but also his bread-making skills, which he developed at Rustico as well. It's a career move that, on some level, seems to surprise even Morales, a classically trained chef who worked previously at the Oval Room and Zola. But Morales sees lots of opportunity here to step outside a chef's comfort zone — otherwise known as food-and-wine pairings — and develop a cuisine that pairs with the trendiest of drinks these days: beer.

"It's a dining phase that I think will be in a very long time," he says.

Image courtesy of Rustico

  • monkeyrotica

    Except for the pizza, the fries, and the burgers, I can't think of a single dish at Rustico that I liked. The pork "ragu" was dry, the mac and cheese was greasy (yet dry), and the fish dishes were just odd (Lime and vanilla? On fish? If I wanted a fish daiquiri, I'd throw some Mrs. Pauls in a blender with some tequila.)

  • JAY W


  • Simon

    the anchovy pizza was hands-down the best in NoVa.

  • SG

    Tim, be honest, does this not bode well for the future of Birch & Barley? It sounds almost as though that project will be sidelined. That might be the most highly anticipated restaurant in DC.

  • Tim Carman


    In fact, I heard from NRG this morning that B&B is full-steam ahead; they're just beginning to look for new chefs, but they could (and I repeat could) be open this fall. Don't forget, they still have Greg Engert, who is one amazing beer director.


  • monkeyrotica

    You know what goes great with different kinds of beer? Burgers, fries, and pizza. So why not just stick to the basics, but offer some upscale options, like everybody's favorite seared ahi tuna sliders, or gourmet pizza toppings, or moulles frites? Because if the new chef is just going to recycle the same old Rustico recipes, I'll continue to drink there but eat elsewhere.

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  • Tim Carman

    C'mon, Monkeyman, I've never known you to be so retrograde. Beer cuisine is still a new field, with lots of ideas yet to explore. Do you really want to suggest that chefs stick with the same old, same old?

    Rustico did indeed have its ups and downs. But Morales constantly looked for ways to combine beer with food, sometimes even beer IN food, like with the infamous Beer Pops and his housemade bread with beer yeast starter. I suspect there's much more to come from this cuisine.


  • monkeyrotica

    What do you mean "new field?" Different cultures drink different beers with different foods. None of this is new, but a lot of it has been forgotten and needs to be rediscovered. Ever heard of "cock ale?" Back in the day when, if you wanted beer you had to brew it yourself, farmers would slaughter an hold rooster, beat the crap out of it, and put the carcass in a muslin bag, then add it to the fermentation barrel. Why does every oddball flavor combination have to be heralded as a Great Leap Forward? I have a feeling that a lot of this exploration is going to end up in culinary dead ends, or at least a few back alleys littered with cliched foodie dustbins like lime foam.

    Anyway, he's free to make whatever godawful combination he wants, but some of us don't want to pay for the privelege of turning our upper G.I. tract into a private laboratory. Why is it the best meals are always the most ridiculously simple? Hot chefs are always trying to out-do eachother with ingredients and spices and going ape$h!t with the squirt bottle. But check the techniques on older chefs who've seen these trends come and go. They spend most of their time stripping down recipes to their basics; Pepin's last book is a prime example of this. At a certain point, these convoluted flavors just become a mess that no amount of lambic ale can wash away.

  • Tim Carman

    Monkey, now you're just being purposefully bullheaded, which is fun for people to read, perhaps, but not very stimulating to engage in. I don't think there's any question that chefs, American chefs in particular, have just begun to scratch the surface on building a cuisine around beer and creating particular dishes with it. (Which is different than merely finding the right dubble to drink with your moules frites.) I was just talking with someone who has been researching U.S. chefs who design menus around beer and with beer. Her list is up to three. Last year she found only one.

    Will it go too far? Maybe, but it's too early to tell. And I think saying that someone like Morales (or whoever) is was putting together "oddball flavor combination(s)" is just one of those classic Monkeyisms: It sounds funny, but it's not based on any sort of reality outside of your overfevered, grandiloquent brain. Morales used beer in his food in subtle ways. Most people wouldn't even notice it, I don't think. It takes creativity to think outside the box. It takes a small mind to beat up these folks up in online comments.

    And dude: The best meals are always the most simple? Again, there's truth to it, and there's not. French haute cuisine didn't become famous because it tasted like oven-roasted turkey breast. And have you ever tried to make real Indian food and build your curries from scratch, toasting and grinding the spices and all? It's a long, painstaking process. The result? Heaven.

  • monkeyrotica

    At this point, we're kinda talking past eachother. We both want Morales and Rustico (and beer-centric restaurants) to succeed. All I know is, after a dozen visits, I end up getting the pizza, burgers, or fries, and it's not for want of trying. And I'm not the only one, either. I'm as beer snobby as the next guy, and my hat's off to anyone trying to build a beer-centric menu (or indeed anyone insane enough to open a restaurant in this economy. I can't imagine having to deal with the exponential increase in cheap bastards trying to get their meal comped because they only have two icecubes in their water and their salad fork wasn't chilled properly.)

    I guess what I'm trying to make is a business argument: sure, Proof and Vinoteca and Veritas are packed every weekend, but wine bars already have a built-in snob appeal. For most people, beer is still something you use to choke down your leftover pizza or Cheesesteak Hot Pocket. It's an uphill battle convincing people to (1) pay $7 for a pint of beer and (2) $24 for a plate of food designed specifically to go with that beer. Yet people will continue to line up outside the latest trendy burger joint that the trained seals of the foodie establishment annoint with their magic bloviation wand.

    The line between cuilinary sophistication and pretentiousness is a Wustof's edge. And the more sophisticated the palate, the greater the need for simple food.

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