While he is delighted to see how dramatically the local dining scene has blossomed over the past few years, award-winning chef Michael Rafidi says something very important is still missing in D.C.: inventive vegetable dishes.
And the Maryland native, fresh off his win as Eater DC’s editor’s choice for Chef of the Year, isn’t letting himself off the hook for the perceived deficiency.
“The menus here are majority meat-focused,” Rafidi tells Eater, fully acknowledging that many of the offerings he co-authored at area newcomers Arroz (smoked bone marrow; grilled octopus; roast chicken) and Requin (steak tartare; foie gras French toast; lobster Thermidor) perpetuate the status quo.
While he’s not necessarily interested in going full vegan, either, Rafidi says he misses the cornucopia of garden-fresh fare he encountered while working on the West Coast. Rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of farm-to-table this, or fully organic that, Rafidi expressed a desire to see more seasonally inspired, artfully presented vegetables featured at local restaurants. And not just as side dishes.
Rafidi is pleased that a growing number of District eateries put local produce front and center — he named Michelin-starred Blue Duck Tavern and the Dabney, specifically — and predicts that trend will continue. His last job in town was actually at Blue Duck Tavern, where he spent nearly three years before joining celebrity chef Michael Mina’s family of restaurants in 2011 to help open Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore, Maryland. During the intervening years he rose through the ranks of Mina’s restaurant group, checking in from time to time on his home turf by visiting the Georgetown branch of the Bourbon Steak empire; that’s where he first connected with Joe Palma, who last spring signed on as culinary director of brand builder Mike Isabella’s McLean-based food hall, Isabella Eatery.
Now that he’s back in the mix, Rafidi finds things in D.C. to be “pretty dynamic.”
“It was kind of more like an older dining crowd, business-y scene,” he says of the restaurant landscape he left behind earlier this decade. Rafidi categorizes the current climate as “diverse” and “younger,” pointing to critically acclaimed Bad Saint and the aforementioned Dabney as break out stars.
“It’s part of what drove me to come back,” he says.
Roughly two months after returning to the area, Rafidi says it was time to open Spanish- and Moorish-themed Arroz at the Marriott Marquis. Getting it going was “definitely a rush.” Finding dependable servers and cooks has been challenging.
Rafidi’s plan for dealing with a talent pool that some hospitality observers assert has become overtaxed by the recent flood of new restaurants is to surround himself with career-minded chefs that have big dreams themselves. His goal is to groom future restaurateurs at Arroz and Requin by nurturing culinary professionals interested in putting their respective stamps on the city’s dining scene for years to come. He considers himself to be part of that same group.
“Definitely the next thing is going to be my own concept. I just don’t know when,” Rafidi says of his long-range goal.
For now, though, he remains focused on keeping both Arroz and Requin as fresh and inviting as can be.
Rafidi says he is still figuring out the ebb and flow of dining habits at the convention center-adjacent property he oversees. “Lunch is hit or miss. Dinner is fairly busy,” he says of the daily traffic at Arroz. One lesson learned so far: the restaurant attracts more than just those passing by in the lobby.
“They’re not hotel diners, the people who come to Arroz,” he says, characterizing the core clientele as “foodies” and cocktail aficionados from all over.
Down at the Wharf, customers are all about having a good time.
“Most of the hors d’oeuvres hit almost every table,” he says of the ordering patterns along the newly renovated Southwest waterfront, citing steady sales for everything from pastry-wrapped escargot and gougeres bolstered by fried quail eggs to heartier fare including made-to-order steak tartare and duck a l’orange. Rafidi plans to keep that particular party rolling by introducing brunch service on Saturday, January 20.