Graffiato, Chinatown

I don’t watch TV except for a few times a year. When it comes to popular culture (at least, culture that’s made popular through television), I’m as out of touch as anyone. This is neither a “bragging point” nor an “admission of shame” so much as it is a preface to this post.

About twenty years ago, a friend of mine I worked with accused me of being “anti-pop.”

“Not anti-,” I said. “a-” (as in asymptomatic, apathetic, etc.), meaning that I’m not “against” fame; I merely couldn’t care less – it means nothing to me. I would just as soon meet a third-year music student as I would Lady Gaga, and I don’t mean that to be snotty; that’s just the way I am. And I would judge them both on their musical skills alone.

This having been said, there was enough internet murmur about Graffiato that I was really looking forward to trying it, and went into the restaurant with a childlike enthusiasm – my preconceived notion was that I was probably going to really like it, and I was pretty excited at the prospect.

But I must add that I got a text message a couple weeks before from a sommelier friend of mine that said, “Graffiato: DC’s newest idiot wine list. Have you seen it? Composed entirely of wine no one wants.” I purposely did not look at the list.

Early on a Sunday evening, there was an hour wait for reservations, and the restaurant was packed. We stood behind the crowded, impossibly noisy bar and ordered a couple of drinks – my friend a Bluecoat Gin & Tonic ($8), me a Montelvini Prosecco ($7) on draft. Right away, there were several problems: the chalkboard was listing wines by the glass that were so eye-poppingly expensive that I thought they were by-the-bottle prices at first. They were out of their Bluecoat Gin & Juice Tonic ($9) cocktail (probably ran out of lime-quinine ice cubes, because the ice cubes we got were plain old ice cubes), and the drink my friend got ($1 less than the craft cocktail) was in a glass so small that it made us laugh: it looked like someone took a standard pint beer glass, and cut off the top with a machete, and just used the top part for the drink. My Prosecco – and I don’t care how much positive press this cool, hip drink is receiving, bordered on being undrinkably bad. I finished the glass, but I sure didn’t order a second one, nor will I ever.

After about ten minutes, two bar seats opened up, and we nabbed them. I turned toward my right, saw a pizza sitting on a rack in front of another couple, then turned back toward my friend and said, “the pizza isn’t any good.” I understand how prejudiced that sounds, especially since there was a beautiful wood-burning oven roaring not far from us, but I didn’t feel comfortable investing $15+ on what I saw, at least not on this visit. (Read on before you judge me too harshly on this.)

The menu was very simple (wood oven, cheese, hams, salads, pasta, pizza, vegetables), but intriguing, and we decided to try things from various sections.

From the Vegetate section, Marinated Snap Peas ($6) served alongside a Basket of Bread ($5) which had better be good at that price. I took one bite of the snap peas, turned toward my friend, and said, “these are really good.” And they were – served with tomato pesto and smidgens of goat cheese, the tomato being a recurring theme in this restaurant. Unfortunately, the bread was not good, managing to be both dry and oily at the same time, and it wouldn’t have been particularly compelling regardless. But with the sauces at Graffiato, it seems like you’re held hostage to ordering bread service because they merit being swiped up instead of remaining on the plate, so you’re out five bucks whether you like it or not.

I didn’t see any way that Roasted Baby Carrots ($8) from the Salads section would be less than pleasant, but they managed. The carrots were over-roasted, and the intriguing combination of dates, farro, lardo, and radicchio formed a busy plate that, unfortunately, was dominated by farro which was over-marinated in some sort of sweet, pungent red-wine-like vinegar, and farro acts as a sponge for this type of thing. This was, by far, the worst dish of the evening.

Compare and contrast with the Hand Cut Spaghetti ($9) from the Pasta section which was so “hand cut” that some of the noodles hadn’t even fully separated. A tiny portion, served with olive oil, poached cherry tomatoes, and basil, this was a wonderful little plate of spaghetti, as simple and as good as I can ever remember having. Okay, I get the “small plates meet New Jersey” thing, but please, Graffiato, offer something four times this big for three times the price and I’ll be standing in line to buy it.

Out of four courses (including the bread service), we had begun to notice the Lilliputian portion sizes, and the virtual absence of protein on the plates (tiny dabs of goat cheese in the snap peas, postage-stamp lardo in the carrots, none at all in the bread or the spaghetti) – yes, we ordered largely vegetarian to this point, but where was the food cost coming from?

We had ordered, from the Wood Oven section, Chicken Thighs ($10) in pepperoni sauce, and while we waited for it to arrive, we were joking around that we’re going to spend $100 here and leave sober and starving. In the interim, my (106-pound) friend had a glass of 2009 Van Duzer Pinot Gris ($8), and I said “to hell with it” and essentially ordered a can of swill: the Schlafly Summer Lager ($7) which just seemed fitting.

A runner came up from behind us and said, “here are your chicken thighs,” putting the plate in front of me. At this point, I just broke out laughing, and said, “thighS?” Yes, there were three pieces of chicken sitting in front of me, but I’m not sure whether or not this was a single, boneless thigh, cleaved into three pieces, or if they’ve invented a new clone of midget chicken. Was I really paying ten dollars for this dish?

And the damnable thing is that it was one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever eaten! The chicken meat was fantastic – crispy, juicy, flavorful – and the pepperoni sauce lives up to all the accolades. Similar to the way I felt about the spaghetti, I wish I could pay three times as much and get five times the portion.

Our meal had closed in on three digits at this point, and we were both still hungry. We decided to cut our losses, watch a movie, and have a late-night meal elsewhere.

Out of five dishes on this evening, three were compelling (snap peas, spaghetti, chicken thighs), one was mediocre (bread), and one was a failure (roasted carrots). Quality-wise, I left fairly impressed with what Graffiato’s kitchen can put out, but value-wise?

My friend, a restaurateur, walked out saying that this was the only time she could ever remember feeling ripped off in a restaurant. We tried, desperately, to come up with how five orders of food (totaling $38) could have cost the restaurant any more than $10, and honestly, neither of us could even get close to that figure. Since then, I did a little research, and have heard (but have not confirmed) that Graffiato is paying $4 a pint for their (very good) grape tomatoes which permeate the menu, and $3.95 a pound for boneless, local chicken thighs. Again, I heard this from a knowledgable insider, but have done no independent confirmation, but this might explain why I was also told that Graffiato is running a food cost of … drum roll … over 30%.

When I heard this, I said, “Yeah, right – maybe if some farmer is hand-picking individual sugar-snap peas and delivering them one-by-one on his Ducatti.” But, I have to say that I have a great deal of confidence in this source, so … it looks like my impressions of their food costs are wrong.

But I can tell you with confidence that the wine markups are extremely high. Here are some clickable links to Wine Searcher retail prices, by the bottle, for some of Graffiato’s wines:

2010 Casamatta Vermentino (Graffiato’s price: $8 by the glass, $30 by the bottle)

2009 Chateau Montelena Riesling (Graffiato’s price: $13 by the glass, $52 by the bottle)

2009 Patricia Green Cellars Pinot Noir (Graffiato’s price: $17 by the glass, $70 by the bottle)

2008 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon (Graffiato’s price: $25 by the glass, $100 by the bottle)

I could go on, but you get the picture.

So here I was, left with the feeling that while Graffiato was doing some good things, it was largely an overpriced, overhyped boom box. And then I started to feel guilty, thinking that I’m probably going to write about it. Do I really want to give my honest impressions of this wildly popular restaurant after just one meal, especially when those impressions had such a strong negative component?

Nine days later, I was back. I didn’t want to go back, but I thought I “should,” so I did.

Once again, this place was packed and incredibly noisy – so noisy that my bartender and I had to yell at each other to be understood even though we were only about four feet apart.

I didn’t need to explore the wine program any further, so I stuck with my¬†Schlafly Summer Lager ($7). Honestly, even though I don’t really like the beer, it sort of puts me in the right frame of mind to eat here. My (swamped but friendly) bartender asked me if I wanted a glass. Nah.

This was pizza and beer night, and I wanted a side salad to round out the meal. A Green Salad ($7) was, not just good, but bordering on being great, with a brilliant combination of apple, radish, mint, and ricotta salata. The little cubes of apple just took this over the top, and the mint pushed it even higher. Get this salad.

At this point, I was patting myself on the back for returning even when I didn’t want to. This meal was going to kick some ass, and I was going to tell the entire world that they’re right for flocking to this place.

And then the pizza arrived.

I had seen earlier that a restaurant critic had raved about the Jersey Shore ($15), and ordered the pizza based on his glowing recommendation. It arrived, and I didn’t quite know what to think: rounds of fried calamari sitting atop a pie of tomato, provolone, the whole thing squirted with cherry pepper aioli. I picked off a piece of fried calamari and tried half of it – wow! Then I dunked it in the aioli squirt – wow!

Then I ripped off a piece of the crust on the outer periphery of the pizza, and smelled it … nothing.

And then I tasted it … nothing. Almost no smell, almost no flavor.

Next, I picked up a slice, bit into it, and knew that this was probably going to be the last time I came to Graffiato for awhile. This was an ugly, ugly combination of flavors, and I spent too much time trying to figure out what, exactly, was so ugly about it.

The pizza tasted bad with the squid, and it tasted bad without the squid, so it wasn’t the squid.

I believe it was the combination of provolone and cherry pepper aioli that clashed, and the provolone with the squid didn’t help matters any at all. It was a hideous taste – are people really ordering, and enjoying, this pizza? I was hungry (I hadn’t eaten the entire day), so I choked it down, but I couldn’t finish the last piece – I picked the last couple of squid rings off, dunked them in the aioli, paid my check, and bid Graffiato and its raucous crowds adieu for the time being. I wish them well, and have no desire to fry this fish further when there are so many other fish more worthy of frying.

Graffiato, at its best, is putting out some great plates of food. I had a total of seven plates in two visits, and four of them were delicious. And in case you think this is a trashing, I have initiated coverage of Graffiato as the Best Restaurant in Chinatown in the donrockwell.com Dining Guide (free, but only to participating members). If that sounds contradictory, it isn’t: Graffiato has shown me that it is capable of executing dishes at a level no other restaurant northeast of Verizon Center can (but if you think about the restaurants northeast of Verizon Center, including Verizon Center itself, that isn’t saying much).

Is it worth the hype, the crowds, the prices, and the noise? Hell no.

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