Bresca: Bee-witching

I have an embarrassing confession. Until last weekend, I had never eaten food prepared by Chef Ryan Ratino. This may be inconsequential to many of my readers, but I can almost hear the gasps among those who keep abreast of DC restaurants.

Ratino was named Rising Culinary Star of 2017 by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) at the RAMMY Awards in July. At the time, he was a chef without a restaurant. But his cooking at Ripple, where he replaced the talented Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley, was admired widely by food enthusiasts. His new restaurant on 14th Street, Bresca, is receiving considerable buzz. Since the word Bresca translates to honeycomb in Spanish, the buzz is appropriate. It’s also well-deserved.

A deluge of Instagram photos and an early review in The Washington Post by Tom Sietsema tells a convincing story of why Bresca is garnering such praise. And when a friend asks me to recommend a hot new restaurant that would impress his daughter enough that she would leave Chicago and move back to DC, my response is swift. Bresca.

The menu at Bresca is modern and playful, with seasonality playing a vital role in the design of the cuisine. The food begs to be photographed.  Dishes double as works of art, each one served on a plate or in a bowl that has thoughtfully been curated by Ratino.  Some captivate with their vibrant colors, others possess a dark and dramatic flair.

For anyone who is accustomed to recording food for the visual consumption of followers, the Bees Knees cocktail is a critical start to the Bresca experience. I spend more time trying to get an appealing photo of the adorable bee vessel than I do sipping the drink made of bee’s wax gin, truffle honey, and citrus. A stronger photographer could produce a stunning photo.  I do my best, but need to move on to a table and dinner.

Bresca is widely described as a venue for “bistronomy,” an appealing blend of bistro + gastronomy.  This trend of sophisticated food with a comfortably casual environment is one which appears to be gaining in popularity. I’m a big fan. A honeycomb theme is woven through the restaurant’s decor, and the back wall is blanketed with eye-catching preserved moss.  Whimsical touches related to bees and nature are scattered throughout the dining room.

Our first dish is delivered without much fanfare, and I encourage our server to provide explanations of the thoughtfully composed dishes. She obliges, commencing with enthusiastic descriptions of the ingredients and cooking processes. I attempt to hang on her every word, but the noise level in the restaurant makes it difficult to hear.  The Bresca buzz is on full display.

Nantucket scallop crudo with paper-thin slices of Asian pear, yuzu, ponzu, and charred scallion is delicate and refreshing. It’s a fine start to the meal, and would also be quite satisfying sandwiched between some of the fuller flavored dishes.

The scent of sea urchin linguini with truffle, basil oil, yeast butter, and porcini is intoxicating. The dish is sinfully rich, and the uni/umami dish is widely reported to be one of the most popular on the menu.

My friend- the one who is hoping to sway his daughter back to DC- texts me during his dinner at Bresca to tell me he finds the rabbit “life-altering.” The dish he enjoyed is no longer on the menu, but rabbit is currently incorporated into chestnut agnolotti with sunchoke, pear, and mustard seeds. Has rabbit at Bresca brought his daughter back to DC. We’ll see.  Will it bring me back to Bresca? Yes.

 

The vegetable dishes at Bresca merit applause. One of my favorite dishes of the night is pineapple carrot salad with grains, curry oil, spicy greens, and dates. The carrots are prepared in a variety of ways: sous vide, pureed, and pickled, with cubes of compressed pineapple providing a pronounced punch.  I can’t help but poke through the carrots and grains, hopeful that another cube of pineapple is lurking beneath the other components.

 

Pastrami beets with whipped feta and dill are scooped atop rye toast. While this doesn’t possess the same level of pizzazz as some of the other dishes, it’s one of the few options for vegetarians/pescatarians, which makes it a must on our table.

Pescetarians who don’t eat shellfish will struggle here. My husband orders poached halibut with squash and kaffir lime, but asks the kitchen to delete the accompanying vadouvan and mussel chowder from the dish.  The result is lackluster.

If octopus floats your boat, the version here is simply fantastic.  It has Mediterranean flair with a breezy smoked foam and elements that include harissa, hummus, tabbouleh, yogurt, and black lime.

 

The Bresca menu includes two large shared dishes, currently honey lacquered duck ($63) and “old a** entrecôte” steak ($68).  The duck serves four people and then some, depending on how many other dishes you order.  It’s a whopper, which comes in three parts.  There’s a platter of sliced roasted duck scented with coriander and lavender honey, accompanied by slices of duck fennel sausage. There’s spaetzel with duck and cabbage in a thick creamy sauce, topped with a duck egg. And lastly, there is a brimming bowl of duck fat brioche with apple butter.  What the duck!

When you conclude your savory courses with brioche, dessert isn’t a must.  Still, it’s difficult to resist foie gras cake pops when you spy servers breezing through the restaurant carrying a ceramic bust with the pops poking through the crown.

It’s another example of Ratino’s playful approach to Bresca. I can hold my head up high now that I’ve been initiated into the world of Chef Ryan Ratino’s food. He’s making magic here, and it’s simply bee-witching.

 

Bresca, 1906 14th St. NW, Washington, DC

 

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