Bar Elena Founder’s Dream Restaurant Heads to NoMa

This article first appeared in Eater DC on January 30, 2018

Adam Stein redirects bowling-themed Eleanor from Ivy City to former Union Social spot

Budding restaurateur Adam Stein is installing the bowling lanes, bar, and video games he originally envisioned for Ivy City inside short-lived Union Social instead, telling Eater that his new entertainment complex, the Eleanor, should be here by late spring.

Stein, a hospitality vet who last fall converted H Street’s Boundary Road into game-filled Bar Elena, is excited about remaking the 5,100-square-foot space at 100 Florida Avenue NE into the home he’s always wanted for multi-layered Eleanor. T

The biggest modification: putting in four mini bowling lanes — ”Think ¾ size duck pin-style lanes, from AMF,” Stein says — a renovation that’s projected to take up to three months. He’s hoping the significant remodel will still allow for around 180 seats inside (current occupancy is 250), plus room for 70-odd people on the outdoor patio.

Perks include access to a neighboring parking garage (Stein plans to validate), as well as access to potential customers ranging from residents of the Elevation apartment building up above to the surrounding businesses and government offices.

“We look forward to being the lunch and happy hour spot for the ATF, DOJ, XM radio, and many other office buildings in the area,” Stein says.

No word yet on final menu options — though he previously described Bar Elena’s raw bar-centric food as the “incubator/test kitchen for the Eleanor.” But Stein did share that he’ll have 20 beer taps, many of which are expected to feature local brews.

Raising The Bar-ista: Pouring Over The State of D.C.’s Coffee Culture

This article first appeared in Washington City Paper on January 5, 2017

The District got coffee for Christmas. The Cup We All Race 4 opened inside The LINE DC Hotel on Dec. 20. So did two fresh locations of Compass Coffee downtown. Two days later, the biggest Dolcezza to date opened at The Wharf, and New York-based Gregorys Coffee debuted at 19th and L streets NW on Dec. 12.

The growth in coffee shops D.C. saw in just 10 days in December is not an anomaly. Coffee—specifically third-wave coffee and speciality coffee—is booming locally and the industry as a whole is maturing.

“Seven years ago when I started, people in D.C. didn’t know what specialty coffee was,” says Daps Salisbury, a barista at Georgetown’s Blue Bottle Coffee. Salisbury recalls, while working at Dolcezza back then, coaxing customers out of sticker shock and explaining why pour-over coffee takes time.

Specialty coffee accounts for a small percentage of the java sipped around the world. It’s defined by the Specialty Coffee Association as hailing from geographic microclimates and having unique flavor profiles that score at least 80 out of 100 points in the organization’s cupping test.

After coffee’s popularity spread in the 1960’s with the advent of instant coffee from companies like Folgers, major chains like Starbucks made drinking coffee an experience for the masses with customizable espresso drinks. Following these two “waves,” the third wave brought about heightened interest in quality and artisanship that can be compared to craft beer’s meteoric rise. Professionals today carefully roast and brew specialty beans to draw out the best flavor.

“Now D.C. has become a city for young working professionals,” Salisbury continues. “People flocking to cities have a greater awareness of specialty coffee. They have an idea of what they want when they come in.”

Statistics back the idea that a more youthful population begets better coffee for all. At a 2014 coffee conference, Tracy Ging, chief commercial officer at S&D Coffee & Tea, offered some data: millennials started drinking coffee earlier in life (between 15 and 17) as compared to Generation X-ers, who held off until 19. Those between 18 and 35 also drink more coffee away from home.

The founder of Hyattsville-based roastery Vigilante Coffee agrees with Salisbury. “Before it was like, ‘That’s fancy coffee,’ and now it’s, ‘This is good coffee, this is what I’m going to drink most days,’” Chris Vigilante says. “We pay for great quality beer. We’re accustomed to that. Coffee is more of a learning curve, but you have to think about the labor that goes into it.”

To understand D.C.’s coffee culture, Young & Hungry spoke with a variety of professionals to learn what we’re drinking, where we’re drinking it, and who’s making it.

What We’re Drinking

When the term third-wave was first used in 2002 by Trish Rothgeb, there were three major specialty coffee roasters in the U.S.: North Carolina’s Counter Culture, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, and Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

“When I first moved here, most cafes serving speciality coffee were serving Counter Culture,” Vigilante says. He founded his company in 2012, giving D.C. specialty shops the opportunity to brew locally roasted beans. “At the time it was just me and Joel Finkelstein at Qualia.”

Fast-forward five years and you can find Vigilante Coffee at more than 100 businesses. “We roasted just over 150,000 pounds of coffee in 2017,” Vigilante says. His company gained three new wholesale partners in October alone.

The D.C. area is now home to several additional local roasters, including Compass Coffee, an offshoot of Peregrine Espresso called Small Planes Coffee, and Rare Bird Coffee Roasters.

Chad McCracken, who co-owns The Wydown on 14th Street NW and H Street NE, is happy to have variety. “Five or six years ago it was a Counter Culture heavy town,” he says. “Having more diverse options in terms of roasters is really nice.”

“Specialty coffee is booming in the region, but is still way behind other cities,” argues Bruce White. He owns Baltimore-based Perfect Brew Services and has been the main coffee equipment supplier and mechanic in the Mid-Atlantic for a decade. “There are lots of people starting to do their own roasting nationwide. Lots of people can make green beans brown, and some are pretty good, but the challenge is how to make it consistent.”

D.C. is also experiencing an influx of major out-of-town roasters. Philadelphia’s La Colombe already has five D.C. locations and the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee planted a cafe in Georgetown.

“It’s not quite validating, but it recognizes that there’s a specialty coffee market here in D.C. that’s been overlooked for a long time,” says Reggie Elliott, the coffee director for The Cup We All Race 4 and A Rake’s Progress from Spike Gjerde inside The LINE DC Hotel.

Where We’re Drinking It

“Over the past five years there was a boom of shops,” says Potter’s House barista Adam JacksonBey. He’s worked in coffee for six years and plans to launch two coffee businesses this year—Avalon and Tell Coffee. “You see a lot of shops clustering in an area. The biggest example is 14th Street [NW].” The corridor has The Wydown, Colada Shop, Peet’s Coffee, Peregrine Espresso, Dolcezza, and Slipstream.

“There are plenty of neighborhoods in need of specialty coffee,” Vigilante says. “There are coffee shops, but I don’t think there is world-class coffee on a widespread level yet.” He points to Colony Club in Park View as an example of a shop that took a chance on a neighborhood instead of only eyeing established coffee hubs.

Because it takes significant capital to open a coffee shop, there are very few proprietors who can make decisions free from investor input, and the result is areas cut off from specialty coffee, according to JacksonBey. “Investors will want you to put it somewhere with quick growth potential,” he says. “Maybe the second or third shop, you take a shot somewhere.”

McCracken set out to open both locations of The Wydown in dense neighborhoods with foot traffic and a mix of commercial and residential surroundings. “The affluence of the population is also a possible factor,” he says. “Our coffee is not cheap. We know that.”

Who’s Making It

Just as bartenders gained name recognition and new career opportunities with the craft cocktail movement, baristas are finding their way to financially viable careers within their field. Competitions, educational opportunities, and the diversification of the profession are contributing factors.

When Salisbury started as a barista there was a high turnover rate. “Back then there was no career path, so you had to cut your own,” says Salisbury. “As the industry has grown and demand for skilled baristas has increased, many experienced coffee pros won’t stick around for a job that doesn’t provide a living wage. It’s an employee’s market.”

There are also now jobs outside of the traditional coffee shop, including consultant gigs or positions within full-service restaurants. “Restaurants give baristas another avenue for expanding our skill set,” Elliott says. “With the cocktail and food scenes reaching out to the coffee scene more, that will help the coffee scene grow.”

“I’ve been able to live in D.C. for six years on a barista salary,” JacksonBey adds. “More people will be able to do that.” The coffee shop boom has created hundreds of jobs and most major cafes have a dedicated staffer to swiftly train-up new employees. McCracken says 80 percent of people he hires have no coffee experience. “I can teach you how to make coffee,” he says. “I can’t teach you to be nice and kind.”

Diverse baristas make D.C.’s coffee culture distinctive. Take the U.S. Coffee Championship preliminaries that were held in September in D.C. as a litmus test. “There’s women and queer people and people of color,” Salisbury says. In contrast, Salisbury noticed that heterosexual white males dominated winners circles in other cities. Men made up the top eight in both Colorado and Seattle.

JacksonBey, who is African-American, plans to compete in New Orleans this year. “Traditionally it’s been a lot of white males that have won or done really well for reasons like money,” he explains. Those with the funds can hire a coach or afford better beans. “When two or three points separate 3rd from 4th place, that all comes into play.”

The tightly bonded D.C. barista community is on display at monthly Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) events. Elliott, JacksonBey, and Salisbury are the current organizers of the decade-old, monthly latte art competitions. The next one is Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. inside Takoma Beverage Company.

“Looking at the baristas I interact with at TNTs and other events, there is no typical D.C. barista,” Dawn Shanks says. She’s the head coffee quality manager for Peregrine Espresso. “A lot of baristas are focused on inclusivity in a way that I used to take for granted.”

Shanks wears a special “Force Majeure” pin at work. She and two other baristas, Sarah Rice Scott and Lenora Yerkes, made and sold them to almost 150 coffee professionals in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. “It’s a statement pin worn by baristas who oppose the SCA’s decision to hold a competition in a country where some participating baristas may feel unsafe,” Shanks says. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is the host of the 2018 World Coffee Championships. “Of course we all think this is wrong and we want to brainstorm a solution,” Shanks says.

The SCA is moving ahead as planned, but adding an option for competitors to defer. JacksonBey says the backlash they got was important. “It got a lot of voices heard that wouldn’t have been heard two or three years ago.”

JacksonBey, Salisbury, and Elliott argue the next important step is promoting LGBTQ baristas and baristas of color into positions of leadership. “We need a wider range of people who run these shops,” Elliott says. “There’s more to coffee than tattooed white guys, and with D.C.’s gentrification issue, it’s even more important to embrace diversity.”

 

dining-trends-restaurant

New Year, New Food Trends, No Poke

As Mothersauce wraps up its first calendar year of operations, I am looking back with pride at all that we have done, but I am mostly looking ahead to what we are going to do. Our future is very bright, and I will soon announce some incredible projects for 2018.

In the meantime, I get asked a lot about trends—what is the next one, which one is a fad, what’s my favorite. Occasionally, I get asked a better question—where do I see the food and beverage business going? While that question is mostly tailored to DC, it is always valuable to think more broadly and ask also where is the business going nationally?

This seems like the perfect topic for my end of the year blog post.

Thinking about where the food and beverage business is going is critical to deciding where to invest my company’s resources.

There are trends that I don’t think have any staying power (I love poke, but…), and there are trends that seem to be holding on and even growing (cider). Instead of exploring them all, l am looking at one that will continue to have a major impact:

Food halls.

Not food courts, of course. A food court is the place in Pentagon City where I get my hair cut and NEVER, EVER go to Panda Express. Especially not for beef with broccoli.

Dammit.

A food hall, or sometimes a food market, is a curated collection of vendors under one roof that eschews the traditional one building, one concept model. The key is a multitude of offerings, but not too much overlap (think of an all hamburger joint food hall. Overkill. And, gross). Like many things, the model is simple but not easy.

In our area, we are fortunate to be punching above our weight class (like we always do in food) by having two food halls in the nation’s top 20, Eastern Market and Union Market. Union Market, in fact, is in Bon Apetit’s top 5.

Newcomers like The Block have added more flavor and penetrated the suburbs, and there are so many more variations on the theme on the way, it is hard to count. Mike Isabella is claiming 40,000 square feet in Tyson’s (it is in a mall, but it is NOT a food court—got it?). Notable chef Jose Garces is opening a 20,000 square foot Latin-themed food hall around the corner from Union Market, and developers know that to offer the latest to their tenants, they need to get in on this—Forest City is planning to open “Quarter Market” as a part of their remodeling of the Ballston neighborhood in Arlington. Will Ballston finally be a cool place to go? Doubt it, but it’s a start.

There are many more, and there are some interesting twists. Incorporating retail not just for F&B, but clothing and home goods is an interesting way to create stickiness and offer vendors a platform other than a traditional shop. This winter, The Block borrowed from an Asian tradition, huge in LA, to open a “night market.”

What is consistent is the customer’s desire to access many different options in a setting that is cool, informal and easy. Everyone gets what they want, the experience is seamless and fun, and you want to go back.

But, how do they work for the partners involved? The landlord, the management company, and the vendors themselves? Hard to say, but what seems like an amazing thing from the customer’s perspective is rarely as clean and smooth behind the scenes. The logistics and the economics are far more complicated than with a traditional restaurant setup. Figuring that out will be the key to long term success for all the partners involved.

And if they do figure it out and pack the places, will they kill restaurants? No, not at all. But it is already having an impact on the food and drink scene, and it will continue to do so.

The real interesting question is how will they evolve. Right now, a food hall is basically a mixed-use development with tenants paying rent and sharing some amenities. Simple.

What more could it be? Is there an evolution that truly creates a win-win-win for the property owner, the customer AND the vendors? Perhaps someone out there is already working hard on that model…

Ahem.

The New Grandmothers

Last night I had the great honor to meet world-renowned Chef Massimo Bottura. Chef Bottura is much more than a perennial winner of Michelin stars, best restaurant awards and every other accolade that can be awarded in our business. He is in fact a transcendent figure with a vision that goes far beyond his restaurant in Modena. I encourage everyone to watch his episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix to see what I am talking about.

Chef was in town at American University to promote his new book, Bread is Gold, a collaboration with other chefs of great renown. It is a recipe book, but it is also a vision for the future. In Chef’s eyes, the key to providing food for those who need it lies not in increased production, but in decreased waste.

As part of a panel discussion with local thought leader Chef Spike Mendelsohn, the notion that culinary traditions—and guidance on how to appreciate and not waste food—is less and less a thing passed down from grandmothers or others in our families. Our society, particularly in America, lacks that generational connection in many ways. And so, who is there to replace them? Who can carry on the legacy of appreciating that food comes from effort, from the earth, and it must be savored when eaten, cared for with love, and least of all, wasted?

Perhaps chefs?

Moderator Mitchell Davis from the James Beard Foundation threw out that notion acknowledging that concurrent with the decline in family traditions, there is a rise in the celebrity status of chefs. No longer in the back of the house, they are now front and center on panels, at the White House, on TV and in every conceivable venue for influence that exists.

They wield great power in influencing our culture, especially the younger generations, on how to treat food. They can act as thought leaders and shape generations and perhaps solve this great problem in our world as we race towards a more crowded—and hungry—planet.

Quite a responsibility indeed. Especially when many of these men and women have responsibilities to their businesses and families. However, what an extraordinary opportunity. And it can be done in a granular level by showing people how to prepare food for themselves, in their homes, with love and care for the ingredients. Just like your grandmother might have shown you.

Chef Bottura’s career has been defined by bold—and perhaps reckless—visions that he makes into reality through a singular combination of passion, drive and savvy. And of course, with a tremendous team to support him. This latest vision represents just the latest move for a man who seems hellbent on leading the way and creating change. From Parmesan 5 Ways to making Cacio e Pepe a rallying cry for earthquake victims to driving our world to think differently about how it eats—and wastes—food.

Just another crazy idea. One that may be gold.

Grazie, Chef.

Bar Elena Opens on H Street With Arcade Games and Two Happy Hours a Day

This article first appeared in The Washingtonian on November 9, 2017

Chef Adam Stein is an H Street hospitality veteran, having opened the Queen Vic and the Big Board and been a regular at Boundary Road. When the latter seasonal American restaurant closed this summer, owner Karlos Leopold (Nido, Mola) asked Stein to create a new concept for the space. His idea, now come to life: Bar Elena, a neighborhood-oriented spot with daily happy hours, arcade games, kids’ menus, and a few splurges like raw bar platters and lobster pasta.

We’re really trying to carve out multiple niches over here,” says Stein. “Not everyone can be Rose’s Luxury. I feel like it’s super important to offer several different kind of things for people.”

Bar Elena still looks a bit like its predecessor—all that exposed brick hasn’t gone anywhere—but the team created a larger bar area, plus space in back for two skeeball machines, pinball, arcade games, and tabletop Pac Man. Two televisions were added above the bar, and there’s a large projection screen for showing major games or events. Stein says the concept is like a miniature version of the Eleanor, a bar/restaurant/bowling alley he’s opening next year in Ivy City.

Even more diverse than the games is Stein’s menu. The raw bar—a first for the neighborhood—offers fresh-shucked oysters and clams, head-on shrimp cocktail, and chilled lobster. Many appetizers are hybrid snacks, like elote-style hushpuppies showered with chilies, crema, cilantro, and queso fresco, or “clam chowder poutine,” where fries and curds are smothered in chowder-gravy. Patrons will find both seafood and snacks discounted during daily happy hours, which run early (4 to 7 PM) and late (11 PM to close). Drink specials include $5 wines, beers, and cocktails.

Games are intended for the young and young at heart alike. Stein says he’ll launch a children’s menu in the coming weeks and that kids are welcome to play while their parents eat; he expects an older crowd later in the evening. There’s a nod to his own childhood on the menu: a pasta sandwich. 

“Both of my parents worked long hours, so we ate spaghetti a lot as kid,” says Stein. “I remember splitting rolls, jamming a pat of butter in there, and stuffing it with spaghetti.” 

Toddler tributes aside, Stein also offers a few chef-y entrees like shellfish stew or that same spaghetti dressed up with lobster and brown butter. Still don’t expect the dishes to get too precious.

“The mantra is, ‘We make it in-house if it’s better than what we can get.’ But I always tell the staff: no one wants the chef’s version of ketchup. We have Duke’s mayo and Heinz.”

Bar Elena. 414 H St., NE; 202-450-3265. Open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 4 PM to 2 AM; Friday and Saturday, 4 PM to 3 AM. Weekend brunch starting soon (11 AM). Closed Mondays.