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BEARDWORTHY Hearth-roasted seasonal vegetables with ewe’s dream, whey and allium

South by Northwest

by Nevin Martell | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | April 5, 2016

Forget New American cuisine. Chef and co-owner Jeremiah Langhorne plans to revitalize and rethink Mid-Atlantic fare at The Dabney, a Southern-styled charmer tucked away in Blagden Alley in the heart of Shaw.

Bethesda-born and raised in Northern Virginia, Langhorne returned to the area after making a name for himself as the chef de cuisine at Sean Brock’s highly regarded McCrady’s in Charleston. The native son’s menu is tight—just a dozen intended-to-be-shared plates ranging from appetizers to full entrees, plus a quartet of sides—and it rotates regularly. Melding timeworn tastes and techniques from below the Mason-Dixon line with modern thinking, Langhorne forges his dishes with ingredients impeccably sourced from the rich farmlands, forests and blue waters of the Mid-Atlantic region.

A colonial aesthetic is an apropos backdrop for the neo-vintage fare. Bathed in sepia tones from the overhead lighting and flickering tabletop candles, the exposed brick dining room is lined with pine floors and outfitted with gorgeous reclaimed-wood tables. There’s a comfortable feeling to the 55-seat restaurant—as if it has been planted here a long time—though it only opened late last fall.

Along its eastern wall, the open kitchen showcases a custom-built grill above an open hearth, where most of the cooking is done. Sparks fly and the crackle of popping embers intermingle with the clatter and conversation. Look to the chalk wall between the kitchen and the back to see what ingredients are in season and on hand, and the dishes in development. Many recipes incorporate wild plants the chef and his staff foraged from the woods of Virginia and Maryland, as well as unique housemade components, such as preserves, pickled vegetables and vinegars.

Diners get a first sense of Langhorne’s vision when the bread service arrives. Triangles of fire-kissed ciabatta are accompanied by smoothly sweet sorghum butter pepped up with Aleppo chile flakes and fennel seed. Next up, a bowl that holds slender slivers of grilled duck heart—offering the texture of pastrami—and crunchy pickled onion crescents is filled with velveteen-potato soup hiding a hint of horseradish. The decadent richness of a foie gras and chicken-liver parfait bar is offset by a tart trio: candied orange peel, fresh orange supremes and a capelet of orange marmalade gelĂ©e.

A lacquered quail with a traditional oyster stuffing tastes like a delightful combination of Peking duck and Thanksgiving turkey. It’s served with its claws on. Sitting on a hearty sunchoke puree, the slow ’n’ low braised short rib comes apart with the slightest touch of a fork. There’s a welcome biting note to the rich dish courtesy of a wood-fired endive. That last component is key for Langhorne, who enjoys wielding bitterness to bring balance so much that he chose a sprig of the wild-herb bittercress as the restaurant’s logo.

Columbia Room vet Tyler Hudgens serves as bar director and handles the well-plotted cocktail list. The perfectly balanced Bamboomerang—a winning mixture of Madeira and white vermouth—finishes with a light hit of acid, thanks to a touch of lemon oil. A server describes the Homestead as “boozy walnut pie in a glass.” She’s spot on. Thankfully, the rye-powered sipper is well-restrained, so the flavors are aptly echoed without a bombastic sugar overload.

Speaking of sweets, Langhorne’s desserts are pleasantly uncomplicated and crafted for comfort. A favorite is a half-baked rye blondie accompanied with a round of slightly tangy buttermilk ice cream, though sweet-potato doughnut holes complemented by sweet-potato ice cream and starbursts of slightly torched marshmallow are perfect for couples who don’t mind clacking spoons in the duel for the last bite.

It’s difficult to be both timeless and timely, but Langhorne has artfully succeeded at creating historically evocative cuisine that feels right at home in a contemporary context. The Dabney is a portal to the past and a picture of the present, a place where traditions live on, evolve and move forward.

122 Blagden Alley NW

Dinner: Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat, 5:30-11pm; Sun., 5:30-9:30pm

Bar snacks, $4-$18; shared plates, $14-$28; desserts, $9

Spring on High
Look up as you walk into the resto, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the rooftop garden in bloom. The 250-square-foot plot is home to a variety of familiar herbs—sorrel, basil, coriander, chives and more—and lesser-known wild species, such as anise-like sweet cicely. Langhorne harvests daily, using the homegrown bounty to add flair and flavor to his dishes.

Perfect Prequel
Show up before your reservation to sit at the bar and sample its exclusive menu of small snacks. Three-bite pork belly sliders lavished with deeply sweet watermelon molasses are a Southern-style revelation; hearth-charred radishes with miso butter balance crunch and svelte smoothness; and the cheese plate showcases standout small producers.