The neighbourhoods which radiate outwards in DC’s urban starburst vary wildly, from tony to badlands, from Chevy Chase to South East. It’s not all Escalades unloading bulky men in suits for martini, steak and ketchup: restaurants, diners and food trucks are of every shade and hue.
At the station, I was met by a gentleman of the road, wheeling his worldly possessions by supermarket trolley
If you’re in North West, say reading this in Kramerbooks’ laid back café Afterwords, at Dupont Circle, the new Siren is just a short stroll away. Lit low for discreet tête-à-têtes, chef John Critchley’s knockout fish menu star is Japanese sea urchin with blue crab custard that will put a spring in your tastebuds for the walk home. Or try Johnny’s Half Shell, now shucking and charbroiling oysters back in Adams Morgan after a long vacation on Capitol Hill, having callously forsaken the aforementioned Dupont Circle.
Even Daniel Boulud’s cool, casual DBGB DC has a local vibe among its coffee shop neighbours, despite the newly scaled-up H Street block it inhabits. Cloned from the now shuttered Bowery sibling and as French as a Keith McNally pastiche (oh, the irony) the green omelette is perfect brunch fodder, probably good for you, and, um, actual green. (If nothing else, it’s a short Sunday walk from SAAM).
But when a friend who knows about these things asked me if I’d been to the sizzling hotspot, I had to consult a map. 4th Street north east?? Dear God. Where’s that? No matter, turned out Michelle Obama goes there with girlfriends so sod the early evening traffic. I jumped aboard the Metro Red Line out to NoMa-Gallaudet, intrepid explorer that I am. It’s apparently the second worst hood in DC.
At the station, I was met by a gentleman of the road, wheeling his worldly possessions by supermarket trolley, who politely inquired if I was okay. I said I was, thank you. Out on the street, still baking at 7pm, I was the lone pedestrian among kinda rusty looking traffic. No cabs. Plenty of empty, disused warehouses, plenty of indiscriminate demolition. Not much reconstruction. The occasional human, wandering. Pretty vacant.
East 4th Street may only be ten minutes from the Metro, but it’s a long ten minutes. Closely following my phone map, I began to doubt Google. I walked past the entrance twice: no velvet ropes, no door muscle. The street was as grimy as it was deserted. Then I noticed the three parked cars (the only ones visible) between a truck delivery depot and a goods yard recently visited by the wrecking ball. They were hiding a slim neon squiggle: “Masseria”.
Welcome to NoMa, the hinterland behind Union Market, where industrial units in various states of disrepair mean cheap rents. Inside Masseria, awaiting my date, I told two women sipping rosé I had walked. Their gasps could be heard all the way back to the Oval Office (#fakenews alert!)
An open air courtyard (you can still see the trucks peeping over the wall) is spacious and, given where we are, surprisingly elegant. It’s supposed to signal Puglia (it doesn’t) unlike the menu (which does). The front of house star, who combines wine dispensing with managing the entire operation, steals the limelight with an effortless charm that makes even the most grubby out-of-towner en route to the restrooms feel comfortable.
To describe the kitchen as “open” is an understatement. To get to those restrooms requires a squeeze past waiters at the pass (“Excuse me! Comin thru!”) overlooking the open range. There’s buzz, noise, constant movement and as the heat of the day gives way to cool of the evening, a distinct absence of outside traffic noise.
The spread of dishes, vaguely Apulian, is quite unlike anything else in DC.
Chef Nicholas Stefanelli knocks them out with precision and flair but nothing is overwrought; there is no chintz. A little porcelain casket of Burrata was the closest we got to fancy-schmancy all evening, it’s barely set creaminess sharpened with oyster & caviar in a pretty jewel box of a dish, a dainty mother of pearl spoon the perfect scoop. Spring vegetable salad dominated by peas, beans and spinach was naked by comparison, vivid green and fresh from the market. Tender Mediterranean “flying” Squid appeared simple enough until you trawled through its own ink aioli – a jet black emulsion of outstanding depth and intensity.
There’s wit and surprise. A premature cannoli is no such thing, turns out to be a fegato d’oca savoury in disguise: foie gras with dates and apple held together by a milk jam. Despite being summer (which sweltering DC has lots of!), black truffle is shaved generously over a simple risotto of carnaroli rice and parmigiana.
My companion has been vegetarian for decades and despite a menu rich in beef tripe, sweetbreads, goat ragu, and 30 day aged ribeye, her dishes looked (and tasted) as good as mine.
At the end, a digestif was offered. Not limoncillo, brandy or grappa, but by chance a real personal favourite, Cynar, the Italian bitter amaro made from artichoke which I have drunk neat with ice for years. Cutting edge mixologists aside, it’s a rare treat and, sensing my enthusiasm, an aged bottle was produced followed by, incredibly, a local version being made in DC called C3 Carciofo. My God, three versions on one table – mine!
If Michelle Obama had walked in at that point I would have lingered longer, eavesdropping long enough to risk Uber’s $5 no-show penalty. There was no way I was walking home. C