Memories: Menomale and Jont

Been There, Eaten That turns eleven years old this month.  Emphasis is on the word “old.”  I’m feeling it people.

Aging comes with inevitable memory loss. Do I walk into a room to retrieve something and forget why I’m there?  Check.  Do I occasionally have trouble remembering someone’s name? Check, check. Do I remember what I ordered at a restaurant last week? Probably not, but thanks all the photos I take, at least I have instant recall at my fingertips.

The enjoyment of food is intrinsically linked to memory, which has something to do with a part of the brain called the hippocampus. I take satisfaction in the knowledge that when I’m really old, food memories can still be triggered.

I will never forget the first time I tasted Fisher’s Popcorn on the boardwalk in Ocean City. There is an instant attraction. It doesn’t feel like summer unless I have an opportunity to acquire a plastic tub filled to the brim with warm caramel corn. The sticky, sweet, crunch conjures up trips to the beach spread out over decades- first with my parents, then with friends, and later with my children. Anyone who has accompanied me to a Maryland or Delaware beach can attest to my obsession with Fisher’s and my inevitable recollections.

Memory is integral to my recent experiences at two vastly different restaurants. Menomale features pizza. Jônt offers an exceptional tasting menu. They have nothing in common, yet they both elicit memories and transport me far beyond their DC settings.

Menomale

If you utter the word pizza to my husband, he launches into a monologue about Bonci Pizzarium in Rome. We were there in 2011, and he still gets a gleam in his eye as he reminisces about their famed pizza al taglio.

Pizza al taglio is baked in a cast-iron rectangular tray and typically cut into pieces and priced according to weight. At Bonci, you stand in a line out the door and wait for your turn to ogle the display cases and perseverate over your choices. I wrote about Bonci when they opened an outpost in Chicago- much to my husband’s delight- and you can read about it here.

I share my husband’s fond memories of Bonci, although long-winded tales about the experience are his domain. One Friday morning as I sit reading Tim Carman’s column in The Washington Post, I nearly fall out of my chair. I excitedly recite his words aloud to my husband.

“My memories of Bonci came rushing back the moment chef Ettore Rusciano said he and his wife, Mariya, were serving the same kind of Roman pies at their second location of Menomale.”

Menomale in Brookland is known for well-crafted Neopolitan pizza, but the Roman-style offering at the NoMA location is news to me. Tim Carman’s words often steer me to restaurants, but this time we are literally propelled.

An Italian-accented server smiles knowingly as we tell him what brings us here. Moments later we hear Bonci mentioned at the table next to us. We are members of a local fan club we didn’t know existed.

Our visit to Menomale is a wonderful memory jog, even though there are no display cases or pricing based on weight. This is about the resulting joy from what’s described on the menu as Pizza In Teglia Alla Romana or “hand-made pan Grandmother pizza.”

Why do people love this style of pizza? It’s mostly about the crust, which looks like focaccia and tastes like sourdough, due to a long fermentation process. Built to withstand an array of toppings which cover the entire surface of the pizza, there is no buckling under the pressure.

We are smitten by Menomale’s chef special, which arrives on a metal tray and is cut into slabs. The white pizza has a pesto sauce base and a very generous blanket of smoked salmon, fresh cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and arugula. The first bite produces an audible crunch, and just as we hope, we are launched us into a time machine back to Bonci. Pizza can be ordered as a full, half, or quarter try.  Order extra. This makes a fabulous breakfast.

Menomale Chef’s Special Pizza

Quattro Formaggi Romano has red sauce and a layer of DOP San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte mozzarella, goat cheese, parmigiano, gorgonzola, and fresh basil. There is less nostalgia associated with this less-festooned pie, but it enables us to focus more fully on the distinctive crust.

We supplement our pies with a bright seasonal salad with strawberries, feta, and a shake of paprika. We’re eager for a return visit to sample more of the extensive menu, which includes pastas, sandwiches, appetizers, Neapolitan pizza, and more options of the Roman-style that brings us here.

Trips to Rome are off the table for now.  Fortunately, we can still bring Rome to the table.

Menomale NoMa, 33 N St NE, Washington, DC

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Jônt

Some meals are about recreating memories, while others are about making new ones.  Chef Ryan Ratino of Bresca debuted the fine-dining Jônt smack in the middle of the pandemic. It’s an elevated experience in many ways, including one that is quite literal.

Patrons enter through Bresca and are escorted up a dimly lit staircase, through a sultry bar and lounge area, and finally to the reveal of Jônt. The contrast between dark and light is notable. The sleek, well-lit room features a gleaming white counter flanked by twelve seats offering an intimate view of a confident and focused culinary team.

Greetings from staff to guests are enthusiastic and warm. Despite face masks, there is clearly pride in the expedition they are about to lead. Jônt is the recent recipient of two Michelin stars, and loads of word-of-mouth praise, which causes my heart to race as I take a seat at the counter.

You won’t find the word jont in the dictionary, but if you look it up, it’s clear why Ratino settled on this as the name for his restaurant.

jaunt

/jônt/

noun

      1. a short excursion or journey for pleasure.

Time and place slip away as the 16-course tasting menu progresses. One dish has a French accent, another showcases ingredients shipped in from Japan. Seasonality is a driving force. Caviar, foie gras, and truffles make a requisite appearance given the $305 price tag for the meal. They aren’t just here for show. Every ingredient has a mission and serves to bolster its companions on the plate.

Dinner takes flight with artfully composed small bites- charred eggplant with fava bean and preserved black truffle, fermented potato pancake with smoked onion marmalade, a tartlette of summer squash topped with a heaping spoonful of caviar.

Jont Courgette Tart. Photo by Holly Barzyk

We take a voyage to the sea with stunning plates showcasing uni, bluefin tuna, and Dungeness crab. The vibrancy of smoked amberjack with stone fruit and mini-cucumbers leaves a long-lasting impression.

Jont bluefin tuna chutoro. Photo by Holly Barzyk

Jont Smoked Kogoshima Buri. Photo by Holly Barzyk

 

Jont Hokkaido Sea Urchin

The bridge from fish to meat is sungold cherry tomatoes with raspberries and lemon verbena. The dish sounds straightforward, but I’m taken aback by the intensity and layered flavors. And it screams summer.

Jont Tomato & Raspberry

As we progress to the meat courses, I remark to my friend that the meal is moving too quickly, thinking we’ve been here only for an hour. It’s been two.  I’m reminded of multi-course tasting menus where I grow bored midway through, glancing at my watch and silently counting how many courses remain. I’m so immersed in this experience, that I lose track of time.

Jônt has risen quickly to a level that puts it on par with the nation’s top fine dining establishments. I’m not surprised. Innovative, technique-driven dishes, with ingredients that may take a turn in a wood-burning oven or pass through an antique duck press is one reason. (Lovers of Bresca’s duck a la presse take note.) There is an attention to detail that is evident in every serving piece and utensil. Introductions to dishes let the food do most of the talking, unless there’s a question from the diner. And this may not be noticed by all, but if you leave your seat, you return to find a brand new napkin. Every detail can make an impression.

Jont Kagoshima Wagyu. Photo by Holly Barzyk

Jônt provides a much needed escape from the outside world. While my short and long-term memory may be compromised, this restaurant is truly unforgettable.

Jônt, 1904 14th St NW, Washington, DC

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