Diners who scan a copy of the menu at Gravitas, the new tasting menu-centric restaurant in Ivy City, won’t find any dishes labeled “v” for vegetarian. But that doesn’t mean customers with that restriction are lacking in options at the fine dining establishment — according to chef Matt Baker, more than half of the dishes on the menu eschew meat.
“We wanted to make sure those dishes were on equal footing,” he said. And as diners look at the artful care with which Baker presents menu items like summer vegetable salads and gruyere-spiked pasta covered in a leek ash cage, they’ll see how much care the chef puts into his vegetable-focused menu items.
Gravitas opened in Ivy City back in late June after more than two years of construction delays. On its face, it was a bit of a gamble. Though chef Nick Stefanelli has found success luring diners to his tasting menu-centric Masseria, also in Northeast D.C. and not far from Gravitas, it’s hardly guaranteed that D.C. diners would travel to the further reaches of the city and drop a minimum of $78 for four courses, even though the neighborhood is seeing more and more restaurant development in recent years. And while Baker’s resume has featured fine dining gigs, such as a brief stint at Minibar and time at the upscale Occidental, many of his previous employers have leaned more casual.
Baker has been pleased (and even a little surprised) to find people coming from places like Bethesda, Arlington, Olney, and even Annapolis to sample his food — even in the traditionally slow months of July and August, and even during Summer Restaurant Week, which presents them with more affordable options.
“Our customers are not afraid to travel,” he said. Gravitas has been selling out on Friday and Saturday evenings, though business is slower in the early parts of the week.
Locals from such areas as Trinidad and Brookland have also embraced the restaurant, something Baker finds particularly heartening. “They’ve been following us for two years — for a first-time business owner, I never thought people would pay attention to me for that long,” Baker said.
Customers at Gravitas can mix and match dishes from four sections of the menu, ordering anywhere from four to seven courses (a dessert course is required, and the restaurant requests that each member of a dining group orders the same amount of dishes). Tasting menu prices range from $78-$110, with wine pairings at $40-70. Most customers so far are ordering five or six courses and about half choose to order pairings. Cocktail sales are no slouch — a recent Saturday brought in $1,500 in mixed drink sales. The menu is available a la carte (or in full) at the small bar in front of the restaurant.
Baker had hoped the changing menu would change dramatically and frequently, but changes so far have been more gradual (maybe a half dozen revisions since opening night). “The toughest part is changing it up when customers have really fallen in love with a particular dish, when there are dishes they’ve become obsessed with,” Baker said. Menu items like halibut, scallops, and summer salads have gone through multiple iterations; new additions to the menu have ranged from skate to coconut cake. Here’s a tour through several of the restaurant’s most eye-catching, interesting, and/or best-selling dishes to date (sales numbers are as of August 7).
Heirloom tomato salad: This dish was added to the menu between two and three weeks ago. It features four different types of tomatoes: purple Cherokee, zebra, sungold, and red and golden cherry tomatoes. Some of the tomatoes are marinated to bring additional acidity to the dish (and so the plate requires less overall seasoning). Also garnishing the salad: basil seeds, anise hyssop, a parmesan emulsion, a watercress gel, vinaigrette, and aged sherry vinegar. Gravitas has sold 211 salads in the early weeks of the dish. “The best way to eat a tomato is salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar, and this is a nod to that,” said Baker.
Yellowfin tuna sashimi: Baker started making this dish for private events about two years ago after he left City Perch restaurant in Maryland. The dish was popular enough to help lead to more and more private events, where he would hear time and time again, “That tuna you make!” The dish that developed such a cult following has been sold 276 times at Gravitas. Yellowfin tuna is marinated in sesame oil and mirin. The restaurant makes its own furikake (Japanese rice seasoning), as well as a black vinegar aioli. It’s all topped with crispy shallots and garlic, and Baker likens the flavor combination to a poke bowl. A (not-so) secret ingredient in that aioli? Japan’s beloved Kewpie mayo. “You can’t recreate kewpie mayo,” Baker said.
Summer vegetable salad: Baker calls this salad, which changes frequently depending on ingredients at the market, the “best representation of the concept” of Gravitas. “My style is very much letting ingredients shine on a plate, trying not to manipulate them too much,” he said. The dish’s current iteration combines such vegetables as carrots, summer squash, and red currant tomatoes. On average, the salad involves 10-15 components, and Baker has put as many as 20 on a dish. He uses techniques like creating a goat cheese espuma (a foam or froth) to accent the salad, and including what he calls “flavor enhancers” like olives to bring further contrast. Many vegetables will get multiple treatments in the salad — squash, for example, appears both as large slices and thin shaved ribbons. Herbs and garnishes like nasturtium and black mint bring color and contrast. He’s sold 156 summer salads to date.
Slow-braised beet: “I wanted to do a dish based around a vegetable using an approach for meat,” says Baker, who likens his beet dish to a short rib served in its own jus. The beet is dehydrated for a day, then cooked sous vide and reduced with beet juice. Kombu and horseradish provide additional flavor, and it’s served with a cauliflower puree and dehydrated beet chip. Baker toyed with serving cauliflower or eggplant in such a manner before narrowing in on beet. They’ve sold 215 beet dishes, and it’s a favorite among vegetarian clients.
Gruyere angolotti: “I’ve never seen gruyere pasta before,” said Baker, which inspired him to combine the French flavor profile of the cheese with the Italian pasta. His angolotti are filled with Yukon Gold potatoes, caramelized Vidalia onions, that gruyere cheese, and melted leeks. He tosses the pasta in brown butter sauce, black pepper, and parmesan and tops the dish with truffle broth. A crispy ash chip made from burned leeks creates a veil of sorts over the pasta — sous chef Angel Franco conceptualized the spider web-esque cover. So far, 370 customers have tried the gnocchi.
Hay-smoked duck breast: This is the top seller at Gravitas so far, with 400 orders sold. “Duck is just one of those dishes that is synonymous with fine-dining restaurants,” Baker said. He smokes the bird with hay and tops it with a honey and vinegar glaze, which helps crisp the skin. Braised kale and a date gel also accent the bird.
Coconut cake: Gravitas’ newest menu item, coconut cake, was just added to the menu last week. Baker describes it as a riff on a traditional, Southern coconut cake. The cake itself is made of buttermilk and coconut milk. A layer of caramelized coconut milk is reminiscent of dulce de leche. Grilled peaches and an acidic, light lemon verbena sorbet top the cake. Breads and desserts are new territory for Baker, who has never had that responsibility before at a restaurant. “I have an interest in it. I’m not sure if I have the talent yet,” said Baker with a laugh. Luckily, pastry chef Anna Vasquez is there to collaborate with him. They’ve sold 78 cakes in the brief time it’s been on the menu.
Tuesday, August 28 will bring the debut of Gravitas’ chef’s counter, available for two customers each night. They’ll experience an entirely different, 14-course menu there for $150 per person ($90 for pairings). Baker is already brainstorming menu ideas, such as using a clay pot passed on by his Native American parents to roast monkfish on the bone. He’s also working on a caviar dish that combines foie gras terrine and tuna with the delicacy. Still to come for Gravitas in the next few months — a rooftop garden and greenhouse bar, and of course new dishes for fall. Don’t be surprised to see a vegetable pot-au-feu with flavors similar to chicken soup, as well as pork dishes from Olive Farms, grace the menu in cooler months.
*Previous Gravitas Coverage [EDC]