Craft Work: H Street NE’s Original Culinary Gentrifier Reinvents Itself
All sorts of foods go well with beer, and all sorts of brews pair well with food. Spicy hot wings and lukewarm lager? A classic combo. But, chocolate stout-flavored chicken wings? The District’s craft beer craze has officially hopped the suds shark.
The dark chocolaty poultry stands out like a greasy black thumb from even the heavily beer-focused menu at the recently reopened Argonaut, the pioneering dive bar turned brunch spot at the rapidly gentrifying intersection where H Street NE meets Maryland Avenue and Benning and Bladensburg roads.
You’ve probably heard of beer-can chicken. This is something else entirely. A little sweet, a little bitter and more than a little dry, the bits of bony bird are bathed in hot sauce, butter, and Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout, then served with the standard sides of celery and blue cheese dressing. On visual inspection, the blackish wings look like they were marinated in used motor oil, or perhaps just left on the curb to collect grime overnight. Maybe this is what the locals mean when they say that H Street hasn’t completely lost its grit.
Luckily, they taste a lot better than they look.
“We’re still trying to perfect the recipe,” says Demetrios Recachinas, the Argo’s interim chef, kitchen manager, and part-time bartender. “Stout is a great flavor, but when you’re working with it, if you try to reduce it or anything like that, it gets super, super bitter.... We thought if we could control the flavor of the chocolate, then it would be a good combination.”
It’s an ongoing experiment that Recachinas, the former food manager at the D.C. Central Kitchen and one-time sous chef for American cooking dominatrix Carole Greenwood at Buck’s Fishing and Camping, isn’t quick to claim as his own. He inherited the recipe from a previous chef, who quit one day after the restaurant’s January grand reopening. The hasty exit was just the latest in a series of calamities—including fire, theft, and tax troubles—to befall the beloved boîte.
Even my server seemed skittish about the wings, a surprise at this time of mass obsession with all things malt- and hops-related.
Other local eateries have employed similar stout-based recipes. At Chinatown’s brew-centric Regional Food and Drink, for instance, there are no fewer than three menu items infused with chocolate stout, all of them desserts: a decadent brownie, a cleverly titled “bieramisu,” even an ice cream float.
The Argonaut’s unique approach (what is this, chicken mole in a pint glass?) flips this convention on its clucking head. Is this supposed to be an appetizer? Or a dessert? Either way, it makes sense mainly as a gimmick to impress the beer geeks.
In fact, the Argo, now fully recovered from last summer’s devastating kitchen fire, is poised to woo brew enthusiasts like never before. Re-launched with 24 shiny new taps (up from just four), the joint has a beer list that’s harder to navigate than the Symplegades. Call it the Quest for the Golden Yeast: The overhauled menu includes micro-brews from California, Colorado, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, and even Florida.
Adventurers beware: As the multiple asterisks on the menu suggest, the venue’s actual stockpile of beers changes a lot faster than its printing capabilities. Also note the disclaimer that certain varieties are “limited in their yearly availability or production, so we’ll rotate our selection often.” In fact, weeks after reopening, the Argo was already out of several stellar drafts, notably Gonzo Imperial Porter, Flying Dog Brewery’s potent (9.2 percent) tribute to the late Hunter S. Thompson.
There are still plenty of high-octane options, of course. And the folks in the kitchen tend to incorporate ingredients from the bar into other food items, too. In addition to the dubious stout wings, both the Argo’s honey-drizzled onion rings and its crispy fried cod, served with fries and a tasty lemon curry sauce, are brewski-infused. The batter is made from the light-colored medium-bodied house IPA, which, in keeping with the eatery’s nautical theme, the staff calls “booty beer.”
“We’re very beer-heavy here,” says Recachinas. “Adding it to the batter basically infuses another layer of flavor.”
Back in 2005, the Argonaut was one of eight properties snatched up as part of prolific D.C. restaurateur Joe Englert’s effort to “clean up” H Street, as Englert described it: “to recruit just not restaurants, but bakers, chocolate shops, museums, flower shops and more to the strip.” The local trade journal Foodservice Monthly dubbed it the “Joe Englert Entertainment District.”
In a part of town previously known for carry-out dispensed from behind bulletproof glass, the ensuing culinary gentrification involved places that served Moroccan tapas, German wursts, and Japanese sushi served with an ironic side of tater tots. Today’s H Street corridor offers duck confit at Smith Commons, Philadelphia-style hoagies at Taylor Gourmet and the uncomfortably named “white trash crème brulee” from Dangerously Delicious Pies.
If you buy the notion that today’s young professionals regard food and drink the way their parents approached sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, then consider H Street a burgeoning Haight-Ashbury—albeit one promising a better kind of crabs.
By those standards, the old Argonaut might today seem pedestrian. The reinvented one, though, keeps pace with the neighborhood’s increasingly baroque tastes.
Proprietors Scott Magnuson and Shaaren Pine bought into Englert’s vision early on. The affable couple serves as the public face of the Argonaut. (Englert remains the principal owner; Magnuson the managing partner.)
“We opened in ’05 as a dive bar with very little food and that worked really well...until it didn’t,” Pines notes. Much like the couple (now doting parents) and the surrounding residential areas (now settling into comfortable yuppiedom), the Argo has since opted for a more family-friendly vibe. “We needed to become more of a restaurant and less of a bar, so we hired a chef and managed to change our entire direction—and double our business!—in two months.”
For Act III, it seems, the restored Argonaut has managed to step it up on both fronts.
Its renewed focus on domestic crafts, in particular, seems a direct challenge to H Street neighbor Granville Moore’s status as the neighborhood beer mecca. The culinary recalibration, meanwhile, includes a concerted effort to hop aboard the locavore bandwagon. That’s where Recachinas, with his nonprofit background and his penchant for sourcing fresh local ingredients, comes in.
Argonaut’s pasta du jour, for instance, is handmade at Floriana in Dupont Circle. Over the past several weeks, the restaurant has advertised artisanal raviolis stuffed with short rib, lobster, and curry chicken, among the featured proteins. But for all three of my recent visits, it was the same entrée every night: green pillows of spinach pasta, stuffed with ricotta, swimming in a creamy soup alongside floating chunks of garlic, mushroom, and cherry tomato, sprinkled with parmesan shavings.
Recachinas wasn’t immediately sure how well the localized ethics would sit with fans of the Argonaut’s original fish tacos, still the venue’s signature dish. Lightly breaded in cornmeal and flour, the flaky fish comes served on warm flour tortillas, topped with cheddar, diced tomatoes, and a crunchy slaw of cabbage, red onion, and carrot. The new morality threatened to upend this tradition, calling for the elimination of the house’s standard tilapia, with its origins in far-flung East Asia, in favor of Atlantic mahi-mahi. “We were expecting a little push-back from our customers,” the chef says, “but no one said a word.”
Perhaps the pièce de résistance, menu-wise, comes courtesy of an upgrade in kitchen equipment, namely a newly installed triple-decker steamer machine, producing piping hot pots of seafood and vegetables.
There is nothing little about the Virginia littleneck clams, hauled in from the Chesapeake and steamed in white wine, butter and herbs, which came out quite large, in fact, meaty and delicious, alongside Pacific Dungeness crab legs and whole Gulf shrimp with heads and antennae intact. Maybe the tastiest part of the entire steamer pot combo, though, was the corn on the cob, which seemed to capture the flavor vapors of the various shellfish while everything was stuck in the sauna together.
Between the porters and the steamer, there’s a lot to like about the resuscitated Argonaut. Maybe more if Recachinas can figure out a winning formula for stout wings.
“It’s a fun project to perfect,” he says.