Timing is Key at Open Kitchen
By Warren Rojas / Photography by Kate Bohler
Maintaining an air of mystery can be advantageous in the hospitality trade. Keeping paying customers guessing as to whether you will actually be open—the case during a handful of fruitless visits to Open Kitchen—not so much.
Newish restaurants often undergo identity changes as they try to find their professional way. Chefs pop in and out. Menu formats submit to retooling. Suppliers are systematically and constantly reevaluated. And theme nights and dining specials routinely get tweaked to better reflect that which is working (or not).
Open Kitchen, a for-rent kitchen space, a recreational cooking school—and a bistro—officially came online in late September 2009. OK co-founder Hue-Chan Karels makes no bones about the fact that her nascent, multi-use organization is still actively trying to figure everything out.
“There have been fundamental changes … but we’ve stayed somewhat true to our beliefs,” Karels says of her fluid dining operation.
When they first opened the doors, the plan was to ease into the dining game. “It was not in my original business model to have a restaurant,” Karels states. The haphazard scheduling of dining service proves her point.
All of which were, unfortunately, subject to unscheduled change if a corporate client or private party cut a big enough check.
Karels offers a few explanations. The ill-fated attempt at all-day Sunday breakfast, Karels admits, was “to appease some of our neighborhood friends.” Karels calls the experiment “too-avant garde,” which seems just the opposite, as diners have been pushing 24-hour egg and pancake dishes since New Jersey became a state.
Weekday lunch was abruptly shelved last May, a casualty, according to Karels, of their hidden-in-plain-sight locale and the massive disruptions caused by surrounding transportation initiatives (e.g., Interstate 66 widening, Metro’s Silver Line construction).
Crippling congestion aside, the most frustrating thing about evaluating Open Kitchen proved to be their wildly arbitrary schedule. Granted, the bistro touts its availability as a venue for corporate team building and recreational cooking demonstrations, but several lunch and dinner outings never materialized after we arrived at the restaurant and locked doors greeted us with unannounced private bookings.
Regulars, of course, knew the best times to attend: Thursday night’s half-price bottles of wine promotion.
“You can always cork it and take it home with you later,” one sly server suggested as we mulled the conservative carte. The master wine list, roughly two-dozen selections, is easily digestible: individual glasses skew just under $10, while most bottles can be had for under $50. California gets some major play (about a third of the list), but there are plenty of boutique productions from across the globe, including: sparkling pinot noir from Austria, fruity malbec from Argentina, robust garnacha from Spain and dry but fresh primitivo-negro amaro blends from Southern Italy.
Executive chef Kenneth C. Hughes took command of the fledgling bistro in August 2010. A Northern Virginia native (his family hails from Falls Church), Hughes learned his craft on the West Coast, collecting wisdom from classically trained, as what he calls, “European types” and holistic-minded, raw food enthusiasts.
After logging untold hours in kitchens from Napa Valley to Casanova (he had nothing but good things to say about his time at Poplar Springs’ Manor House) the chef helped launch a few local ventures (The Wine House in Fairfax and the now-defunt Blue Gin in Georgetown).
Though no stranger to fine dining, Hughes is most interested in “a little more of a slow-food approach” to cooking. He touted his roast chicken. “I have folks coming in at least once a week to eat that chicken,” Hughes says of the succulent bird’s cult-like following. Seared sea scallops draped in charred red pepper reduction, and their signature white chocolate bread pudding hold as the cornerstones of his epicurean philosophy.
“I don’t have a brigade of people making this stuff. It’s made by just a few bodies. It’s very approachable,” Hughes asserts.
While the gravelley voiced toque—Hughes perpetually sounds like he just finished chomping on a pack of Marlboro Reds—claims to enjoy total autonomy from the companion cooking school, at least a few of his most popular perparations have thus far been co-opted. Karels acknowledges that the culinary side does delve into the Bistro’s revered roast chicken; a prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin featured this winter also recently migrated to the restaurant’s course catalog.
Hughes and his crew excel at embellishment, but sometimes lack finesse, electing to follow the more-is-more route when less would most likely have worked.
New Mexico-style chili gets a shot in the arm from stewed-until-drippingly tender lamb. But the lackluster chocolate braise left us all longing for a fully realized mole.
Puff pastry succumbs to a cornucopia of grilled squash, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, sliced mushrooms and captivating cambozola. Shift this garden medley to a crackery flatbread, and we would be the first in line for another gustatory go around.
Squishy Yukon Gold gnocchi were overwhelmed by rosemary cream sauce, the aromatic reduction totally drowning out the companion prosciutto, sundried tomatoes and borderline-pasty potato dumplings.
Hughes may not be on the vanguard of the gourmet baked noodle movement, but his adult mac-and-cheese was the real deal. No shredded or runny cheese sauce here; the long, thin, spice- and bread crumb-encrusted noodles are tossed with buttons of nutty gouda and robust gruyere. It’s plenty big to share, but just as easy for solo pasta fans to dispatch with abandon.
An unabashedly French cassoulet is masterful, weaving together duck leg confit (crispy, herb-crusted skin; juicy dark meat), creamy white beans, yielding root vegetables with a bonus wedge of lusty Explorateur, letting the velvety, triple cream cheese inject a little decadence into the countrified feast.
Karels hopes to turn around what she admits is a “struggling” kitchen rental business by courting culinary professionals and visiting media to use the space as a staging area. Improving the restaurant side of the business, she suggests, is less worrisome.
“We will just hone in on what we do really well: cooking and serving our public,” Karels reckons.
7115 Leesburg Pike, #107, Falls Church; 703-942-8148; www.openkitchen-dcmetro.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$).
Hours: Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.