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The dining room evokes South American, meatcentric themes with a tent-like feel.

High Society

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | September 5, 2014

Who knew that when Victor Albisu opened chic Del Campo in Penn Quarter last year that upscale South American asado would suddenly become the next big thing? Cases in point: Richard Sandoval’s Toro Toro pan-Latin steakhouse, which opened in the spring, and Rural Society, which was opened in July at the Loews Madison Hotel by James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Garces. It’s the latest in a bevy of restaurateurs expanding into Washington with thoughts of culinary gold. Rural Society is Garces’ 17th restaurant. Louis Goral, 31, who has been working for Garces’ company for six years, most recently as executive sous-chef, was chosen as chef de cuisine for the restaurant.

The 150-seat Rural Society definitely has a chic steakhouse feel, its showpiece being a hickory- and oak-fueled grill. The 10-footer, replete with a collection of pulleys, grates and crank wheels, was designed by Grillworks, maker of the Maybach of grills.

In the main dining room, jute ropes drape from the center of the rectangular ceiling, and duck draperies hang on the walls, giving the space a tent-like feel. A cast iron-gated wine room lends a Spanish feel, as does the echo of tango music.

To begin the meal here, a bread assortment (a sesame knot, whole wheat roll, jalapeno cheddar bread, country loaf slices) seems a bit pedestrian, but the accompaniments—mauve malbec and sea-salt, chimichurri sauce (parsley, oregano, olive oil, garlic, vinegar) and criollo sauce (minced red and green peppers, onion, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar)—add flavor and appeal. The sauces are traditional condiments for the parrilla and remain on the table throughout the meal. Use them with abandon.

Among the starters, fiambres (charcuterie) include Argentine-cured meats and ham, but also more unusual selections, such as pickled veal tongue with grape mustard and octopus carpaccio with tomato escabeche and malbec chips.

A sleeper on the menu is a rich chicken broth studded with tender braised leg meat, delicate marble-size masa, Parmesan cheese dumplings and charred corn kernels.

Empanadas, two generously proportioned half-moons per order, are a must at Rural Society. The pastry is rich and flaky, and the fillings are full-flavored. One pair is spinach and Swiss chard seasoned with salt-rich provoleta cheese; the other pair is stuffed with braised wagyu-beef belly whose rich juices gush forth with the prick of your fork.

A plate of roasted red peppers, anchovy fillets, airy whipped eggplant puree and herb-tinged oil turns into an excellent sopping opportunity for focaccia.

As a nod to Argentina’s Italian ties, Rural Society’s menu features a section of pastas and fugazza, the South American country’s version of pizza. Saffron taglierini—rife with tender rock shrimp, cockles and blanched cherry tomatoes—shine in a light seafood broth accented with grilled lemon and hints of bottarga. The crab-stuffed squid-ink cannelloni that rests on a zesty sauce of tomatoes and baby squid is sophisticated and lush.

Margherita fugazza (fior di latte buffalo mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil), served right from the oven in a cast-iron pan, is appealing in its cheesy gooeyness, but doesn’t thrill. Another, with roasted corn, crabmeat, roasted red pepper and asiago, registers higher on the flavor scale.

Make no mistake, it’s all about the parrilla at Rural Society. You’d be a fool to pass up the sausages here. Chorizo gaucho bursts with garlicky juices, and morcilla (blood sausage) is laced with allspice, pine nuts and raisins.

If you’re not into beef, you’ll miss the best part of Rural Society. When is the last time you savored grass-fed Uruguayan bife de chorizo (rib-eye) or tenderloin? The Snake River wagyu picanha (rump) steak is perfectly cooked to medium rare from edge to edge and is the tenderest piece of beef I’ve eaten in a long while. The meat possesses the slight funkiness that is the hallmark of quality beef, in which the flesh, rather than the fat, is the nexus of its flavor. Double cut lamb chops from Colorado’s Pioneer Creek Ranch are also superb, with the imparted sweetness of hickory smoke providing a nice counterpoint to that meat’s tang.

If red meat isn’t your bailiwick, grilled Maine lobster or wood-roasted jidori Japanese free-range chicken will be more to your liking.

Robust Argentinian malbecs are de rigueur with parrilla cookery, and Rural Society’s wine list delivers. Tierra Divina from Uco Valley in Mendoza is a good choice at $12 a glass or $48 a bottle, as is Luigi Bosca DOC, single vineyard for $16 a glass and $60 a bottle.

Aside from the resto’s creative selection of potatoes, try the humita, a pillowy steamed corn tamale—its sweetness is balanced by the saltiness and bite of sardo cheese.

Dulce de leche fans have two noteworthy options for dessert: dulce de leche flan with mango sorbet and shaved chocolate, as well as thick crepes liberally slathered with the same, then rolled and served with blackberry ice cream and fresh blackberries. As far as ending a meal goes, that’s la dulce vida.

Loews Madison Hotel, 1177 15th St. NW

Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $24-$55; desserts, $9-$11
Breakfast, 6:30-11AM; lunch, 11:30AM-3PM; happy hour, 4-6:30PM; dinner, 5-10:30PM

Desayuno Perfecto
Rural Society’s breakfast flat-iron steak and eggs get dressed up with chimichurri and come with a side of potatoes dusted with merkén and smoked red chilli powder. Order a dreamy dulce de leche waffle to share and, for your hot caffeinated beverage of the day, an herb-rich steeped maté prepared tableside.

Prelude to a Bliss
If you adore bourbon, Rural Society has devised a lovely oasis for devotees. Once you’re in the alcove in front of the restaurant, order a flight of four bourbons for $25 per person. There are many creative flights among the restaurant’s collection of more than 75 whiskeys, and the ritual will likely become the perfect way to begin or end a steak dinner at the restaurant.