I have been an unabashed fan of Top Chef since season one, day one. I have steadfastly pursued opportunities to eat Top Cheftestants’ food whenever possible, because I believe that it is one thing to be a fan of a TV personality and another to be a fan of a chef’s cooking. I strive for the latter. But in the interest of full disclosure, I have also relentlessly pursued interactions with the Top Cheftestants simply because it gives me a thrill. (see my blog post on Spiaggia in Chicago for an example).
It is no secret to people who know me (or read my blog) that I am an avid fan of Bryan Voltaggio (Top Chef Season Six) of Volt. I have dined at Volt on several occasions including a turn at Table 21 in May and in the main dining room in June. My only disappointment is not having any interaction with him at Table 21 and not seeing him at all on my subsequent visit. The food, in my opinion, is beyond reproach.
Similarly, I have proudly declared my affection for Mike Isabella (Top Chef Season Six, Top Chef All-Stars). I will confess that I was rooting for Bryan to win season six, certainly over Mike who was depicted somewhat as the villain and certainly as a crass Jersey boy. But Mike’s image greatly improved in Top Chef All-Stars, and it was clear his cooking was soaring as well.
When Mike announced his plans to open Graffiato, I avidly followed his progress online. I made a reservation for a few weeks after the opening, thinking I would give the food and service a chance to mature. But within days after Graffiato’s opening, stellar reviews began pouring in. I couldn’t stand to wait. I decided to take my chances as a walk-in and headed to Graffiato with my husband barely a week after the opening. I was anxious to go again with friends as planned a week and a half later. And quite honestly, I would happily dine at Graffiato again next week.
Graffiato is an Italian-inspired restaurant with seasonal small plates. What makes Graffiato so great? It’s homey. It’s comfortable. It’s a neighborhood kind of place. It’s got a happening vibe. The service is attentive. (although I wish they wouldn’t keep trying to take our plates when there is a bite left. We want that bite!) Oh, and the food is terrific!
When we arrive for our second visit, my difficult decision is whether to order some of the dishes I had the first time around (hello, chicken thighs with the famous pepperoni sauce that made “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons positively ecstatic.) This is a fabulous dish. The skin is crispy and the sauce is bursting with flavor. I love it, but I decide to move on to some new things this time around.
We start with an order of bread, which is an extra charge, but worth it for the accompaniments alone- fresh ricotta and an olive oil gelee. The raisin-nut bread is my favorite and I don’t even like nuts. Sometimes it’s worth making an exception.
The hand stretched mozarella cheese is next. It’s fresh, it’s simple, and it’s darn good.
One of our favorite dishes is the roasted baby carrots. The dish comes with lardo, but we ask for it without it as I am the only lardo eater at the table. The server assures us it’s not essential to the dish. He is right. This is one beautiful plate with carrots and slightly crunchy farro and dates adding a sweetness.
The honey glazed cippolini is another winner. We also get an added bonus of spiced pistachios, which I don’t recall receiving on our first visit.We rave about these as well.
The only vegetable dish that we find less than perfect is the wood roasted mushrooms, which all four of us find a little too vinegary.
There are two dishes from our first visit that we can’t help but order again. The sweet corn agnolotti with chanterelles and pine nuts is not to be missed. It’s hard to explain how much flavor there is in each and every bite. This is a dish to be savored and I almost feel sad when its gone. The good news is that I still have the Countryman pizza to conquer.
I wanted to try a different pizza this time, but my husband is intent on eating the pizza with black truffles, fontina, and duck egg one more time. I am picky about my pizza. I like a thin, charred crust. Soggy crust is not okay with me. Graffiato’s pizza is a shining star here. I hope to wrest my husband away from the Countryman next time though, as I have to dodge the pieces with the runny egg. Why is it that Graffiato keeps getting me to eat things I don’t normally like? And I end up liking them!
The only real misstep is that our server forgets to bring the tuna crudo. By the time we realize it, we’re ready for dessert.
We end with three desserts, because we are trying our best to conquer as much of this menu as possible. First are the zeppoles, which is the “secret” dessert not on the menu. When I ask for them the server remarks that I “must be an insider.” Anyone who reads blogs or reviews should know that these warm dough balls with strawberry powdered sugar are another must have to your visit. Don’t think about the calories. It’s too late at this point.
Do not skip the nutella cookies with sea salt! I read that Mike’s wife Stacy makes them. They are heavenly. Sorry, we devoured them before taking a photo. We also have a chocolate torte with bittersweet chocolate. I am not a fan but the others like it very much. I’m too busy with the zeppoles and cookies to care.
We finish our meal and are reveling in the after-glow. Mike is making his way through the room, stopping at various tables to chat. I know I won’t be completely satisfied if I don’t say hello. I’ve met Mike a few times now, including on our last visit to Graffiato. But it doesn’t really seem to register with him. My friend encourages me to wave him over. I do, and Mike tells me I look familiar, which is nice. We start to chat and that’s when I see Bryan Voltaggio heading towards us, looking more relaxed and smiley than I have ever seen him on television or in his restaurant. Can this really be happening? I can’t help myself, so I tell Bryan that I won a City Paper contest for my review of Volt. “Was it a good review?” he asks. “Great,” I reply. “Except you didn’t say hello,” I continue. “Oh, I read that,” he says smiling.
I can’t let this moment pass without a photo. I’m with two of my very favorite Top Chefs. How happy am I?
It’s true… I am a Top Chef fan and always have been. But, Graffiato is so much more than a restaurant for Top Chef fans. If you’re a fan of great food- and who isn’t- check it out. You’ll be back for more, I promise you.
Graffiato, 707 6th Street, NW
My rating (on a 1-5 scale): 4.8
Don’t trust a superfan? Here are links to some other reviews.
Todd Kliman of The Washingtonian declared the food “a knockout” in his early review.
Lisa Shapiro of Dining in DC said “After just one dinner, I can confidently say that Graffiato has not only lived up to all the hype, but has exceeded my expectations.”
Josh Novikoff of DCist said: “each bite is better than the last. The place is a real winner.”
Washingtonian 100 Very Best Restaurants 2015, #41