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Bone-in short ribs

Where There’s Smoke and Fire

by David Hagedorn | Photo: Greg Powers | DC magazine | July 1, 2013

It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at a menu and been intrigued by practically every item on it. But that’s the feeling that overtook me when I first glanced at Del Campo’s menu—every item has been touched by the grill. It’s fresh, appealing and straightforward cooking, but deceptively so. What seems simple, in fact, requires extraordinary talent.

That talent, in this case, belongs to chef Victor Albisu, who first caught the attention of DC diners as the chef of BLT Steak. It’s the sign of genuine aplomb when you can overcome the constraints of working in an upscale steakhouse and still manage to make a mark. Albisu applied a Latin palate—his heritage is Peruvian and Cuban, and he has a weakness for Basque cooking. A favorite ingredient of his at BLT was decadent iberico pork.

Fast-forward to Del Campo, the result of a dream Albisu, a Virginia native, began to formulate while working at his mother’s Latin grocery in Alexandria and toiling alongside the South American butchers there.

The realization of this dream came on the heels of the implosion of someone else’s: Albisu took over PS7’s, the Penn Quarter restaurant that Peter Smith closed last winter.

Albisu’s first order of business was to make the space feel roomy. So, he removed walls within the 172-seat restaurant and took advantage of the room’s soaring ceilings. The dark blue and chocolate brown walls are gone, in favor of ecru ones with burnt orange accent panels. Some walls are textured with plaster, into which a Moorish pattern has been stenciled. Cut glass globe pendants, suspended from velvet-sleeved chains and two enormous crystal chandeliers, make a formal lighting statement. The feel is decidedly masculine, though, as if you were at the estancia of a noble cattleman of the Pampas. It’s also worth noting that the tables are set with tablecloths, a real relief in the era of bare tables and dish towels as napkins.

It comes as no surprise that the focus of Albisu’s menu is asado, the popular method of barbecuing meat in South America. The asado section of the menu lists intriguing meat options (prime bone-in short ribs, teres major steak, tomahawk rib-eye, hanger steak, lamb shank and skirt steak), plus head-on prawns, sweetbreads and four kinds of chorizos (house, Argentinean, Colombian and Morcilla). The idea is for diners to order various things a la carte and share them. Grilled meats arrive on a large cutting board; wisps of smoke from charred herb branches waft from a drip pan underneath and perfume the dining room. It’s a little exotic and abundantly fun.

Albisu brushes all the meat with seasoned South American olive oil, seasons it, marks it on a wood-burning grill and then transfers it to an intensely heated broiler. When it gets to the proper temperature, he rests it in a smoker with smoldering dried thyme, rosemary and oregano. The short ribs, loaded with prime-grade richness, are sublime.

Alongside the meats are two kinds of chimichurri, a condiment usually made with chopped fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Perhaps the best match for the asado is one of the many fine South American wines on the list, especially the Mendoza varietals of Argentina.

Unlike the sides at steakhouses, the ones at Del Campo are not sodden and bloated. Winners include grilled asparagus with tapenade and are topped with a fried egg, charred cauliflower with salsa verde, grilled spinach and chard, and smoked mushrooms. Each side complements the meats nicely and retains its healthful quality.

Fabulous starters include a section of crudos and ceviches—all grill-kissed. Cubes of tuna with grilled avocado, olives and pistachios turn brilliant, thanks to the smart insertion of a shard of sizzled shallot. Barely grilled scallop slices dressed with smoked uni? More, por favor!

Seafood empanadas with squid ink aioli (a special) boast a delicate crust; the filling is chunky and abundant. Not to be missed are ultratender tentacles of grilled octopus laid in between two neat stripes of mashed potato—one vibrant yellow and one bright green—and topped with chunks of tuna confit, ramps, avocado and deviled quail eggs.

In addition to the asado centerpiece, Albisu offers other house specialties, such as an enormous pastry pie stuffed with Swiss chard, spinach, bechamel sauce and fried egg. Peruvian chicken is irresistible, its brine lightly permeating the flesh and its skin smoky and crisp. Whenever a server walks through the dining room with a chivito sandwich, heads crane to marvel at the tower of seared rib-eye, mortadella, ham, hearts of palm and fried egg stacked within a bun.

For the meat averse, the Del Mar section of the menu shines. A casserole of prawns, scallops, crab, clams and mussels in rich seafood broth is a pleasant, hearty cross between grilled bouillabaisse and Portuguese seafood stew.

If you can manage dessert, lemon pound cake with marshmallow ice cream and grilled strawberries is fine, but I’m not convinced Albisu really needs to push the grill theme all the way to the finish line. I’d opt for the dulce de leche trio of a milkshake, panna cotta and a crepe.

End your meal at Del Campo with a French press coffee or espresso drink. The baristas here are eager to show off the sip options, and they demonstrate a real passion for the craft. You’ll need the energy to carry home the doggy bag.

Del Campo
777 I St. NW

Dinner: Mon.-Wed.,
5:30-10:30pm; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm
Lunch: Mon.-Fri.,
Appetizers: $11-$16
Entrees: $16-$36
Desserts: $10

The nine-seat Asado bar is an Argentina-style version of Minibar. Reservations are required and highly prized. Watching the asadors in action is actually quite mesmerizing. Grill them, so to speak, about their craft—they are a passionate group and adore performing cocktail miracles all night.

Drink List
Pisco (Peruvian grape brandy) figures prominently, which is a delightful revelation. Among the early favorites are a pisco punch with grilled caramelized pineapple, the Encanto Del Campo (pisco, lime juice,
rocoto syrup, allspice dram, mint), Muchas Uvas (pisco, white grape juice,
agave nectar,
lime juice, malbec syrup) and a seasonal fruit-infused pisco with ginger syrup, lime juice and bitters. Pace yourself—it’s going to be a deliciously good night.