Gastrodome: The Pleasures and Perils of Haute Sports-Bar Cuisine
Who says fine dining is dead? These days, even your neighborhood sports bar is serving tuna tartare. Albeit deep-fried to a crisp.
Behold, the daring tuna tartare spring roll, which sounds a lot like ceviche suicide to me. Here you have raw fish, wrapped in rice paper and dunked into a vat of scalding oil, the very application of heat threatening to ruin the whole point of preparing the uncooked seafood part in the first place. Yet, somehow, it works: warm and crispy on the outside, chunky and remarkably still chilly on the inside.
This kinky hot and cold combo, served with a creamy green edamame puree and a side of the chef’s special sweet-and-spicy dark soy ginger dipping sauce, commands top billing among the various foodstuffs at Redline, the District’s newest sports-themed gastropub—er, “gastrolounge”—located in the former Indebleu space on G Street NW, within view of the Verizon Center.
And rightly so, for it is a notable feat of painstaking culinary engineering. You might be wondering: How in the hell do you throw raw fish in the deep fryer and not singe its delicate flesh?
“You have to be very careful,” explains Redline executive chef Fabrice Reymond, who marinades the uncooked chunks of ahi tuna in sesame and mustard oils, Thai curry paste, soy sauce and various other seasonings, then wraps it in rice paper and sticks it all in the freezer. Later, upon order, the frozen roll is plopped into the fryer for a brief three-minute period, just until the outside wrapper gets crispy. Then it is scooped out, sliced into four lengths and set aside for another few minutes while the fish inside fully thaws out. It’s a delicate technique, requiring almost a pro athlete’s clock-management prowess. “Thirty seconds longer in the deep fryer is too late,” Reymond says. “The tuna starts to overcook and when you cut it, you can see inside, the tuna is already white. You don’t want to give this to your customer.”
Entrepreneurs have attempted various innovations on the traditional spring roll in recent years, with mixed results. The infamous cheeseburger spring roll, for instance, experienced some fleeting buzz not long ago in New York before ultimately settling into its eventual role as the food-blogosphere’s go-to punch-line.
Chef Reymond’s freeze-fried version may not be the first variation to fuse cold tuna with a crispy shell casing. Manhattan’s Buddakan unveiled a similar roll two years ago, constructed with considerably less risk; the chilled fish stuffing was packed into a hollow pre-hardened shell cannoli-style.
But, more than any other dish on Redline’s current roster, the tuna tartare spring roll perfectly embodies the plight of sports-bar fare in an age when even dumb jocks have learned about molecular gastronomy thanks to Top Chef: How to package haute cuisine as comfort food—without coming across as too fancy for the post-hockey crowd that populates a spot opposite a sports arena?
The overall aesthetic at Redline underscores this very dilemma. There’s a tentative balancing act between the macho and the frou-frou. You’ve got scrolling stats and Las Vegas betting odds displayed in multi-color glory on the digital big boards throughout the bar and dining room. But there’s not a whiff of skunked beer, stray urine, or body odor, anywhere. Maybe that’s due to the mango-mandarin air fresheners in the men’s room.
The sounds of Right Said Fred’s 1992 pop smash “I’m Too Sexy” blaring above the sneaker-squeaking Wizards game isn’t doing much to resolve the dichotomy, either.
You can’t fault Reymond, who hails from the more intricate world of fine wines and white tablecloths, for desperately trying to elevate the concept. The sports bar, as a genre, lately seems a bit, um, played out.
Consider the epic collapse of the District’s formerly flickering ESPN Zone, that veritable behemoth of burgers and sports broadcasting, which shuttered this past summer, its overpriced Hard Rock Café-model of service and fanatical devotion to old barroom staples of nachos, chicken fingers and potato skins simply failing to keep pace with a rapidly evolving culinary landscape, a souring economy and an increasingly finicky consumer.
Today, practically every down-market dive in town is showing the game in high definition. It’s what’s on tap and on the plate that sets places apart. Aficionados of televised athletics can find more interesting grub-and-suds options elsewhere.
Last spring, the previous author of this column advised me of a rather artisanal spot to catch the Stanley Cup playoffs: ChurchKey, a refined outpost better known for craft beer and charcuterie than for televised sports. All the same, the highbrow beer bar offered ample views of the icy action, with its fleet of flat-screens floating above a fanciful array of brew taps. Devotees of the Washington Capitals could concede their stunning Game 7 defeat to the Montreal Canadiens in proper Quebecois fashion—over heaping plates of cheesy, gravy-smothered poutine.
Of course, not every Francophone delicacy works so marvelously in a sports setting. It’s hard to imagine the average American spectator finding the same comfort in tuna tartare no matter how crunchy its covering.
Reymond, for instance, would be wise to devote more ingenuity to his burger—the most obligatory element of any sports-bar menu, but an element that Redline inexcusably ran out of during my first visit—than to his more extravagant offerings, such as the Peruvian-style roast chicken, with its overpowering lemony flavor. My server glumly admitted the glaring beef-patty gap was becoming a common problem. When we speak later, Reymond dutifully takes full responsibility for the gaffe: “I had to take care of so much other stuff in the kitchen, I made a mistake on my order,” he says.
On my second visit, the missing Redline burger miraculously reappeared. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was its size—a modest eight ounces of black angus beef, barely an inch thick, cooked to order and topped with shredded lettuce, diced onion, tomato and two tiny pickles beneath a sesame-seed bun. For most mouths, it’s entirely manageable—a far cry from the gargantuan, jaw-breaking Strasburgers that have lately come to exemplify D.C.’s sports-burger scene. And that’s the whole point. Nothing spoils the luxury vibe faster than a chin dripping with ketchup. “You can eat it with your hand and not have sauce everywhere,” the chef says.
Reymond insists he isn’t done tinkering with the burger. For one thing, he intends to make the bun “more shiny,” he says. How glamorous!
Even the fries veer toward the high-end. The hand-cut potatoes come sprinkled with parmesan shavings and a hint of truffle oil.
But if the fries and spring rolls, prove surprisingly tasty, other attempts to advance the traditional sports-bar diet are just puzzling. Reymond’s conservative take on chicken wings—lightly sauced to the point where my dining companion complained that they tasted “too much like chicken”—seems simple enough. Then you get to the stuff on the side. Instead of stringy celery stalks, Reymond serves a plate of fresh-cut jicama, which left one doe-eyed bartender struggling for explanation. A responding manager likened the jicama to a “Japanese pear,” though Reymond later clarified the legume as more of a “Mexican turnip.” If nothing else, it’s a conversation.
“A lot of people ask, ‘What is this?’” says Reymond, who considers the watery vegetable a better palette cleanser than the typical stand-by, allowing diners to transition from buffalo-style wings to barbecue chipotle wings without mixing up the flavors too much. “It is an interesting choice,” he says.
Interesting? Maybe in terms of semantics. But jicama is perhaps the only food on earth more bland than celery.
Other venues around town have managed to up-sell the spectator-sporting experience with less explanation. At Public Bar in Dupont Circle, you’ll find a similar palette of sleek furnishings and entire walls of televisions, but the menu sticks to basics like chicken strips, sliders, and chili fries. The biggest innovation may be the three separate dipping sauces for tater tots.
Thankfully, jicama sticks aren’t Redline’s only interesting gimmick. The biggest selling point is possibly the promise of self-service. Eight booths are outfitted with shiny built-in beer taps, allowing diners to pour pints at will. Customers are charged per ounce; the scoring is continually updated on tiny video screens embedded into each table.
These personal table taps are billed as a “revolutionary and engaging adult beverage dispensing solution” on the venue’s website. But Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights has two booths equally equipped with table taps—and a much more eclectic selection of beer. Redline subsists on mostly mass-market brews, with the exception of Dogfish Head and Sam Adams seasonal varieties.
The real selectivity comes in terms of pricing. My friends and I were already 43 ounces into our first Redline personal pouring experience when the server abruptly informed us that the quoted price of Sam Adams Winter Ale at 55 cents per ounce had suddenly dropped to 40 cents. Or something like that.
Turns out, some wise guy at the next table had complained about the high cost of self-service, estimating he could drink more cheaply by ordering from the bar ($6 per glass) than by pouring it himself. Arguing over prices and the actual volume of so-called pint glasses ensued.
Quick! Someone call the D.C. Office of Weights and Measures.
In the end, despite all this fuzzy math, Redline still charged me the original 55-cent rate. Crunching the numbers, it now appears that sitting on my ass and pouring my own suds cost me about $6.60 per glass. That’s 60 cents extra! One whole ounce of suds and change.
Talk about a luxury tax.
Redline, 707 G St. NW, (202) 543-1724
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery