Young and Hungry

Can Del Campo’s Vegetarian Tasting Menu Convert a Meat Fanatic?

Victor Albisu is an accomplished chef and I am not, but we do have one thing in common: Most people believe they have us pegged as bearded, smoke-shrouded cavemen who sit around fires all day eating charred hunks of meat.

Albisu takes some responsibility for the stereotype, although he doesn’t love the fact that he’s been referred to as “scruffy” in the press. (I haven't done him any favors in that respect.) Meanwhile, I have complete strangers regularly reaching out to me on Twitter and Instagram to see how my cholesterol levels look. Can’t say I blame them, given every third post I write is about smoked pig parts.

I didn’t expect for the meat-lover stereotype to erode for either of us when I visited Del Campo, Albisu's South American grill in Chinatown, where I was looking forward to trying the restaurant’s asado (Argentine barbecue) menu full of steaks and sausages.

But at the last minute, I did something out of character: I ordered the “Veg Asado” tasting menu ($72) rather than the “Del Campo Asado” meat circus option ($92). (The vegetarian option was $42 at the time I had it, but the restaurant has since added three new plates to the tasting and hiked up the price.) Both now include five large courses and a parade of in-between dishes, plus optional wine pairings, that can be enjoyed at the restaurant’s nine-seat Asado Bar with a view into Albisu’s kitchen.

Could the all-vegetarian menu satisfy a meat fanatic like me?

The meal began with a board of three pieces of grilled bread with various meatless toppings. I listened to the server tell my dining companion to try her meat version on the board piled with grilled foie gras, plums, and truffles. I was having second thoughts—until I bit into a fabulous crusty, crackly number with roasted chickpeas, smoked morels, and summer truffles.

The grilled bread was followed by a crispy, light, and flavorful empanada with salty cheese and wild greens. The trio of salads that came next might have even outshone my neighbor’s plate of grilled prawns, sweetbreads, and salmon. A bite of grilled burrata with burnt and shaved beets was full of sweet subtleties and blackened accents. The deceptively simple salad comprised of a burnt artichoke heart topped with bitter microgreens and a citrus chimichurri might have been my favorite bite of the night.

I’ll admit that the main portion of the tasting was slightly less dynamic, but I enjoyed the rich, earthy flavors of smoked gnocchi with grilled rapini and smoked tomato. By that time, though, the meat-eating devil on my shoulder had won and I was stabbing pieces of protein off of my neighbor’s plate. The Wagyu skirt steak rolled around blood sausage, Manchego cheese, and other goodies was over-the-top good. The ruby rare, local Piedmont Ridge sliced rib was among the best bites of beef I’ve ever had, anywhere.

We finished with a parade of desserts that was highlighted by a board of three burnt cheeses and a trio of dulce de leche preparations. With the latter, my neighbor turned and asked me what I thought, only to laugh and notice that my plate was clean almost before it was set down.

As I sipped a dessert wine chosen by wine director Morgan Fausett, Albisu pushed back a bit on the carnivorous stereotype. His Cuban father was a vegetarian who munched on yucca while the chef and his grandfather pit-roasted pigs in the backyard on summer afternoons. From time to time, Albisu takes long breaks from meat, both to rebalance physically and find fresh perspective in his cooking. He’s also quick to point out that vegetables are an integral part of asado. In fact, next time you’re throwing a backyard barbecue, steal one of Albisu’s secrets and rub your hot grill grate down with a half onion, before throwing a whole head of garlic, herbs, peppers, corn, and scallions on with your meat.

“The Veg Asado tasting is about dispelling misconceptions of this being just a meat-centric restaurant,” says Albisu. “It’s a grill-focused restaurant, for sure, but we need bright salads and vegetables to provide a good experience for all types of people.”

My experience was more than good, and I turned out not to be the only one in the restaurant who was there for the vegetables. White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses was across the way dining with a table full of vegetarians.

Del Campo, 777 I St. NW; (202) 289-7377; delcampodc.com

Photo by Sam Hiersteiner

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