Tucked on a side street in the busy Penn Quarter neighborhood is The Partisan – the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's meat-centric double concept restaurant. On one side is The Partisan, a sit-down restaurant with a bar in the back behind the dark curtains. Led by chef Ed Witt, The Partisan features an extensive menu that will make even the most half-hearted meat eater salivate. On the other side is Red Apron Butchery, led by Nathan Anda. Red Apron's very popular sandwiches and cuts are also available at Union Market and Fairfax's Mosaic District.
While these two guys may share the same workspace, they don't step on each other's toes and even finish each other's sentences. Hear about The Partisan's first year, including the restaurant's ever-changing menu, finding the right meat sources, and what makes a good charcuterie plate "good."
Tell us how you two got together in the first place.
Nathan Anda: I used to sell at the Penn Quarter farmers' market. And I met Ed the first summer he moved out here right before he started working in Georgetown. He and I used to use the same pig purveyor. So over the next three or four years with him working in Georgetown and down in Penn Quarter, we would cross paths again. And where The Partisan and Red Apron is now, this was actually the first lease signed but the last one to open. So during that time, we opened Red Apron in Union Market at Mosaic and it was getting to be more realistic that I wouldn't be able to spend as much time as I wanted to do here. So I needed to find someone who could do the style of food we wanted to do and be here full-time. And just luckily, I saw Ed out one night, and he had just been written up in The [Washington] City Paper, and I thought jackpot.
How has the menu changed since March 2014?
NA: To be honest, there are two items that have never changed.
EW: We put on the carrot fusilli. And that was right after we got the extruder. I was making something for family meal...
NA: That was a mistake of a dish, but it worked. Very rarely do you make something that works for the menu the first time. And then the kale and mushroom salad has been on...
EW: Yeah, we needed another salad and we just kind of came up with it. We didn't expect it to be a hit as much as it was. I wanted it to change it within a month, but I didn't.
And who came up with the fernet ice cream float?
NA: I'm a huge, huge fan of the Eva Peron cocktail, and I was playing around with ice cream. And at that time Tiffany MacIsaac still worked with the [Neighborhood Restaurant Group], and we worked at same production facility where she would prep for Buzz Bakery, and I'd prep for Red Apron. I didn't have an ice cream maker, and with her being more talented with pastries than I am, she was able to fine-tune it to make it — a lot of times you put liquor into ice cream and it doesn't work. But she fine-tuned it, and it worked.
And who was the mastermind behind the triple stack burger?
NA: That was also me. That's the fun part about having the butcher shop and the daytime menu and doing a completely different menu at night. By that time, we had been open for a year at other properties, and the Red Apron burger is still my favorite burger. So we had that on the first draft of the menu, and the night we were set to open Michael [Babin] said we can't have the same burger we have everywhere else. So I went and took the burger, cut it half on the slicer, and in a minute or so, we had the new burger.
How would you describe how the last year has gone?
NA: I'm really happy with the way this has turned out. I'm lucky that Ed came on board when he did, and we've had awesome front-of-the-house staff. The hardest part has been the kitchen staff turnover. And I feel like most restaurants in D.C. have to deal with that.
EW: It was worst in the beginning and then it settled down. Now we just get hit here and there with someone leaving.
NA: Yeah, we were desperate in the beginning. There were Saturday nights with just the sous chef on the line and me and Ed floating between stations. A lot of people open with dinner first and get that going then add lunch, but not us. We decided to open with breakfast and then lunch and then add dinner two weeks later. And it wasn't that bad until The Partisan opened, and the reality of being open at 7:30 in the morning until late at night.
Does the layout or double concept confuse people?
EW: Sometimes it takes people a couple of minutes to figure out there's a bar in the back. They'll come into Red Apron and not look at the back of the space.
NA: In the beginning, we didn't open up the curtains that separate the bar from the rest of the space. The curtains would stay closed and people would only eat out front. Eventually we opened the curtains because we needed more seating space.
Were you guys concerned about opening in Penn Quarter as opposed to other neighborhoods that tend to have more residents?
EW: Well, I was familiar with the neighborhood having worked next door for two and half years.
NA: When we signed the lease, we were super excited. This is one of the areas of town with day and night food traffic. We're right across from a Metro station [Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter], so you have people going to work, which makes for a great breakfast crowd.
Were any other neighborhoods being considered for The Partisan?
NA: Not really. We looked around for a long time. We looked at a spot on 14th Street, but that was in 2009.
So the search started that early?
NA: Yeah, the search started summer of 2008. I started making the majority of the products Red Apron carries when I worked at Tallula [closed as of October 2014]. And it was never the plan to take five years to open your first spot, but I mean, no one planned on the recession in 2008 happening either. But I was able to do a lot of R&D and traveling and all kinds of stuff, which only created more products for me to make during that time.
Charcuterie is a big part of coming to The Partisan. What's good charcuterie? And what's bad charcuterie?
NA: You have to turn off your recorder. [Laughs.] There's something we always said when we opened. If we're not 100% confident in our product, then it doesn't come out. For us, that's hard because I never wanted us to be a spot that makes the same exact stuff over and over again. That's how we're able to have a 35 piece charcuterie board that keeps evolving. But we've always taken it as a hint if it didn't work. We'd throw it away and not think about it. Sometimes other places will still sell stuff even if it didn't work exactly perfectly. And lot of times, many people don't have the opportunity to experiment and experiment until you find the right things. That's as far as I'm going to go talking about good charcuterie. Oh, and garnish. A good charcuterie plate needs something to allow you to consume the amount of salt and fat you'll be eating.
EW: When I was in New York, I was at the beginning of the whole trend of curing and everything. I think sourcing is definitely a huge issue when making a good charcuterie plate. A lot of people just get whatever and throw it on a plate. In the beginning, getting the sourcing was so much harder than it is today.
NA: That being said, sourcing is a lot easier now, but you don't want to be the one sourcing the same thing that someone else is sourcing. So as easy as it's gotten for some people, it's become a lot of harder for us to find something unique. I mean, we work with a group of hog farmers down in North Carolina, and we actually drive down and pick the pigs up and get them ourselves. They're are awesome pigs, and one of the best parts about them is that no one else has that pig up here. That farmer isn't working with other people up here.
What have you guys learned from each other over the last year?
NA: Ed learned to smile. [Laughs.]
EW: I think we both have a lot of experience and we both come from things in different directions. Many of the dishes will happen because Nate has to get rid of something or he has a lot of this ingredient.
NA: Ed has an awesome palate. There are four years separating us. And his experiences in San Francisco and New York, which was right when I was getting out of culinary school, just to see his experience how he uses certain ingredients and how he pairs certain things, it's just been really cool to see.
If you could change one thing over the last year, what would it be?
NA: I'd hire another chef. [Laughs.] No, just kidding. It's hard to say. I believe we opened at the perfect time. Yeah, it took us too long to open, but we opened right at early spring. So we were able to take advantage of late winter ingredients and then we rolled into spring with all the good ingredients. And we've now experienced all four seasons. If I could change something, the menu was huge we started.
EW: It just kept on growing.
NA: At that same time, every single member of the kitchen went through a burnout stage. In the beginning, we said that the turnover would be so bad. I'd go to the commissary at 6:30 in the morning. Get here at 7:30 and make sure breakfast was set. Go back to the commissary and come back for lunch. And then go back to the commissary and return at 5:30 to get ready for service. And I still had the other two Red Aprons to think about too. And Ed would get here right at breakfast, oversee lunch, and oversee dinner – it was a beast. And we had an awesome sous chef Chris Morgan who would made a lot of things possible and has a heart of gold and an awesome work ethic.
For the next year, what do you guys want to do?
NA: We're doing brunch now. And maybe a year from now maybe we won't be doing those. [Laughs.] Yeah, there's not really much more services to add except maybe extra-late night!
EW: We should just start doing catering out of here.
NA: I think we've done everything we wanted to do this first year here. We got to see what foot traffic is like in the morning and in the afternoon and how the seasons change. We know what really sells to certain people and what doesn't.
EW: We figured out with the menu what sells and what doesn't and what people people. And the service has caught up to that. Not that it was behind. But it's a different concept so everyone was feeling it out to see how it could run. After the first few months, timing got smoother and made more sense.
Could there be another The Partisan?
NA: The Partisan is a monster. It's huge. The kitchen's bigger. Ed is here.
And this last question is for Ed. Any new tattoos in the last year?
EW: I've only gotten tattooed once in the last eight or nine years and only once in D.C. And I don't have any food tattoos.