In the 1980’s my office was around the corner from the Iron Gate Inn. I recall eating lunch there a few times, but my memories are more of the appealing outdoor courtyard than the food. What I do remember vividly was a movie shoot that took place on the street where Iron Gate Inn is located. The film was “St. Elmos’s Fire.” I spent my lunch hour watching as they shot and re-shot a brief scene with Andrew McCarthy. It was time to return to my office, so I regretfully proceeded back down N Street, where I spotted actor Rob Lowe headed in my direction. My heart stopped, and he must have seen the stunned look on my face. He flashed a grin at me, and I believe I melted right into the sidewalk. To this day when I see Rob Lowe on television or film, I have to stop myself from saying “he smiled at me once.” Although, if you ask my husband, I don’t stop myself.
Somehow in the past 30 years, I never made it back to Iron Gate Inn, even as it went into the record books as one of DC’s oldest restaurants. I always meant to, but a shiny new restaurant always got in the way. Then in 2010, Iron Gate Inn closed and I lost my chance. Until now. Iron Gate Inn has been reopened by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, owners of Birch and Barley, Churchkey, Blue Jacket, and others. Chef Anthony Chittum is an award-winning chef, who comes to Iron Gate from Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria. As noted on the website, “Anthony Chittum is known for modern American cuisine, infused with Italian and Greek influences.”
From the moment my husband and I approach Iron Gate, it is clear we are in for an unconventional experience. We take a mystical stroll through a pathway of dimly lit lanterns, then through a bar area, where I make note of the à la carte menu for a future visit. Next we are led through the outdoor courtyard and into a vestibule, until finally we are in the dimly lit, cozy dining room. In Tom Sietsema’s glowing First Bite in The Washington Post, he calls Iron Gate “the most romantic restaurant of this year’s crop of fresh faces.”
We are joined by friends, who are equally excited about the journey into the unknown. For once our expectations are not heightened by reviews. We dine here before the “First Bite” is published, and while early social media reports are positive, details at this point are scarce.
Iron Gate offers a four course tasting menu for $50, or a six course for $75. We opt for four courses. Our meal begins with The “Taste,” a parade of seasonal plates to share. Pork and chickpea fritters are a preview of the full flavored dishes that lie ahead. An assortment of original and beautifully executed dishes follow. This includes crispy house-made foccacia with olives, grapes, and ricotta; roasted purple cauliflower with grapes; baccala (smoked cod) with saffron aioli, and gala apples with radicchio. The portions are plentiful and each dish strikes a fine balance between savory and sweet. Foccacia is the standout for me, although I could be easily persuaded that another is better.
The second course is from the “Garden” with a choice of Path Valley baby beets or autumn squash tortelloni. The tortelloni with crispy sage, pumpkin seed oil, and almond cookies are exquisite. I am particularly smitten with the crunchy sweetness of the amaretti.
Main dishes can be selected from the “Water” or “Pasture” sections of the menu. I glimpse the Pennsylvania lamb tasting as its being delivered to another table, and my mouth waters. My expectations are exceeded with a trio of lamb preparations. There is a lamb chop encrusted with a Dijon coating, spicy lamb sausage, and a ragout with lamb. Shell beans and braised colllards round out the flavors.
My husband’s options are limited as the “water” dishes all feature shellfish, which he doesn’t eat. He selects garlic crusted rockfish with celery variations and dippy egg, minus the clams. The four ounce piece of fish is well prepared, but would be better suited for the six course tasting menu rather than as a solo entree. It’s a dainty portion, particularly compared to the lamb tasting. Our friend’s entrees mirror ours, as do their conclusions about the dishes.
Before desserts are delivered we are treated to an extra special delight, gasp-inducing crispy Greek doughnuts with orange blossom syrup. I smile contentedly before moving on to the smooth maple brown butter semifreddo with cranberry and poached seckle pear and a currant macaron. The gianduja terrine with hazelnut ice cream and frangelico caramel also brings forth a round of grins.
Enthusiastic service and adept guidance from sommelier Brent Kroll make the evening complete. Everything is so smooth and efficient, it’s hard to believe that this is a newly formed team. My friend concludes that it’s one of the best all-around restaurant experiences she’s had.
An approach to the Iron Gate Inn will always evoke fond memories of my brief encounter with Rob Lowe. I have a feeling, however, that the eager anticipation of the food will really be what puts a smile on my face the next time around.
Iron Gate Inn, 1734 N Street, NW, Washington, DC
Washington Post review by Tom Sietsema