Last week, Compass Rose hit a big milestone. The restaurant served up its 10,000th order of khachapuri, a classic Georgian street food that has been a must-try since the restaurant first opened a little more than a year ago.
The dish might steal the show, but just wait, says owner Rose Previte. She's working with a new chef, Sam Molavi (previously from Ripple) to add new favorites to the menu. There will be fried plantains (Cuban tostones) and crispy fried octopus fritters (Japanese takoyaki). Call it intuition, or just a hunch, but Previte says she's expecting big demand for the khinkali, a Georgian-style meat dumpling. Expect the new dish on the menu by May 26, Georgia's Independence Day.
Changes come quickly at Compass Rose, and Previte moves and talks at the same breakneck pace. Ask her to sum up her year at Compass Rose, and she just says "emotions." From the pre-opening delays to learning how to balance the books and do payroll, there's been a steep learning curve for this first-time restaurant owner.
Did you always think that this concept [international street foods] would work?
It's funny, I spent so long worrying about my liquor license and the build out that it wasn't until even the week before we opened that I'm was thinking: ‘Are they going to like it? Is anyone going to like this?' I thought — ‘What if they don't come in the door?' So the week before we opened, I was petrified. The D.C. restaurant scene is really tough, and really, we fought so hard to get open.
We had to face a pretty tough neighborhood association. There were people in the neighborhood who were not about the community. They were about themselves. And I think they attacked us because we didn't have enough money and thought we were too ‘mom and pop' to be organized. They were going to try and beat us. I spent about seven months to get a liquor license, and then construction took an insanely long time... Everything that [could happen], happened to us. And, it got to the point where I was expecting all the bad things to continue after opening. But they didn't. I finally, feel like we're starting to win, and that's no small thing because 14th Street is a pretty intense place.
What motivated you to open here?
My business partner [Mike Schuster] owns three other different businesses in D.C. And, he has the experience. He owned Pour House and now runs Barrel, Trusty's and Star & Shamrock. I worked for him for seven years at the Pour House, and then we stayed friends while I lived in Russia. While I was there, I really started to think about what I wanted to do with my life. Three very long and cold Russian winters will do that to you.
This was always my goal. My mom has a restaurant at home. I worked in bars and restaurants my whole life, and I knew I wanted to do this. But, I always kept saying later, and then I realized that this was later. So, it all started in January of 2012. We put together a business plan that year. Around September, I started finding money, and we signed our lease in October.
So the concept was always about bringing food from all around the world, right?
I played with the idea of doing all Georgian. It was all we ever ate in Russia, and we came back to D.C., the nation's capital and couldn't find it here. I knew right away that Georgian had to be incorporated, but my husband [and I] mused on it, we had been to 30 countries in three years, and the street food was always our favorite. With most of the places, we had a personal experience and connected with the culture. So we said, ‘This is it.' And, when I worked with John Paul Damato — our first executive chef — we immediately had a mind meld. I told him the idea, and he just got it. He was coming from José Andrés' restaurant group and had the background in many different cuisines. Granted he had never cooked Georgian food, so he did have to watch about 100 YouTube videos to learn how to make khachapuri.
Let's talk about the khachapuri. Because it is "the dish" here. It's really popular. Did you expect that?
It's so funny. It was an instinct that I thought people would like this dish. There are like 40 different ways to make khachapuri. Originally, I wanted to make a version of it that had cheese in the middle and dough on both sides. It was very street-style. But, John Paul came back to me and said "I'm telling you the one with the egg is the one that people will want." And, he was right. The presentation of the dish has a lot to do with it. But, I got hung up in the beginning because there's a cheese called Sulguni, and it's really the only cheese component in the dish. I went to dairy farmers in Maryland to try and find it, but it's a really difficult cheese to replicate. Georgian cows are free range, and the cheese quality is so different. So, John Paul devised a three cheese recipe with ricotta, feta and mozzarella mixed with organic eggs and butter. My touch is the Lebanese zaatar, a seasoning that is a tribute to my culture.
Let's talk about the changes that have taken place. You just hired a new chef. You're doing house parties on weekends. And, you introduced brunch.
The concept cannot be overstated because I want to stick to it. This is all about the spirit of the streets and marketplaces. And being a new restaurant owner, I have goals both big and little that drive towards this. Two of our goals this year were to launch the brunch menu, which we just did, and increase bar sales. We want this to be a place that toes the line between both bar and restaurant. Really, the food caught on quickly, and we're just starting to see bar sales go up...To boost the bar, we started setting up one of our regulars with a DJ night on Saturdays. It's a cool and chill environment for people who don't want to go to the club. You can sit back and listen to music or dance. And, we just recently hired Sam to head the kitchen. John Paul was an incredible person to work with, and now we're excited to try out a few new menu options.
What have you learned in this last year?
The first thing: I have learned to love, and I have felt a lot. It's emotions. I know that sounds ridiculous. But it has been an emotional journey.
And what are your hopes for the year ahead? Do you have any goals?
One very, like, practical goal is that I want to build a private dining room on the second floor. We have two more floors. We live on the third floor, and the second floor is kind of an office. Our plan is to move the office one floor up and convert that space into a dining room.
We get a lot of requests for private dinners, so that would allow for private events and chef-driven dinners. But a bigger goal is to continue making this restaurant a neighborhood spot. I know this is a neighborhood place because even our biggest critics — the people who were trying to prevent us from opening — now come in here and have told me that they like it here. I can't tell you how much that means. I really want people to feel at home here, and let bygones be bygones.