When it was time to pick an executive chef at the second Dacha, a high-end outgrowth of the heavily trafficked outdoor beer garden in Shaw, partners Dmitri Chekaldin and Ilya Alter made their decision in part because of a plate of stewed white beans.
Executive chef Taylor Burlingame will be in the kitchen when the indoor restaurant and bar opens for dinner today in Navy Yard because of the alchemy at play in a confit duck cassoulet with smoked bacon and horseradish gremolata he served at his tasting audition.
“I asked for a bathtub of it,” Chekaldin says. “I said I’m going to submerge myself in it, and just sit there and eat.”
After interviewing six chefs before him, Chekaldin and Alter hired Burlingame because they liked his food, his ultra-organized manner, and his experience in kitchens that includes the top post at Requin at the Wharf before it closed with the rest of Mike Isabella’s restaurants. Burlingame will be responsible for the culinary aspect of Dacha’s evolution from German beer garden on Seventh Street NW to a three-piece behemoth directly across the street from the First Base Gate at Nationals Park.
The new venue, which took two and a half years to develop, includes a 69-seat bar with standing room for 100 more that will sell all 26 beers offered in Shaw along with 14 cocktails (three on draft) and wines chosen by specialist Miriam Razavi.
The restaurant will focus on what Chekaldin is calling modern American comfort food with a French-leaning menu that takes diversions as humble as Italian meatballs in tomato sauce and as ambitious as a large format Muscovy duck that’s brined in coffee, air-dried for seven days, glazed with honey, and finished in the oven. That gets served with a croquette made from whipped duck leg confit.
Dacha Navy Yard menu by on Scribd
Two tartines have an international feel, too, with a roasted saffron cauliflower and red pepper hummus toast representing the Middle East and a tuna tartare version skewing Japanese with wasabi aioli, pickled ginger, and white soy vinaigrette.
Burlingame, who worked with former Requin and Arroz chef Michael Rafidi in San Francisco, says the geographic diversity of the staff at Dacha contributed to a menu that represents the American melting pot.
A few of his cooks are from the South, and now one of his favorite dishes is a plate of scallops and North Carolina jimmy red corn grits served with bacon and cauliflower foam and vegetable hash. Former Nopa Kitchen + Bar pastry chef Stephanie Milne oversees a menu of sweets that includes chipotle churros and a Meyer lemon mousse with hibiscus gel and lemon-thyme cookies
“It’s not just French. It’s not just Italian. It’s not just Japanese. It’s all over the place,” says Burlingame, 31. “It’s something that everybody for the most part will have something they can relate to, so that’s kind of fun.”
There will be an outdoor beer garden, of course, with room for 700 people overlooking the Anacostia River. That component isn’t expected to open until next week. When it does, customers will be able to order beers from a retrofitted airstream trailer that Chekaldin says is essentially a giant reach-in cooler. It has capacity for 5,500 cans, he says.
“People like cans,” Chekaldin says. “They like to look at the design. They like to know that the can is fully recyclable, and it’s not going to harm the environment. From an operational perspective, that’s the way to go.”
Next to the front door of the restaurant, people will see a mural of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a spiritual sister to the iconic Elizabeth Taylor mural that lords over the Dacha in Shaw. Chekaldin says the former First Lady isn’t memorialized enough in a town full of memorials, and she fit the greater — if a bit esoteric — design theme inside.
As Russian-Americans, Chekaldin and Alter have paired a mid-century modern aesthetic with art that represents the Space Race of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, a push for greatness in which competition between the Soviet Union and the United States advanced technology for the world and ultimately ended up with the two superpowers collaborating in orbit.
The biggest mural in the complex, from Russian-born artist Igor Ponochevnyi, depicts John R. Kennedy looking out at the Berlin Wall. In the reflection of Kennedy’s glasses, there’s an image depicting former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s (disputed) incident of banging his shoe on a table while rebuking criticism at a United Nations meeting. Sputnik, the first satellite launched from earth, blazes past Khrushchev’s head.
Inside the new Dacha, Chekaldin and Alter have incorporated some cutting-edge technology that fits the space-age theme. Sound-absorbent wooden panels line the ceiling. In the gaps there are speakers and a lighting system that allows management to wash tables in a full spectrum of colors through controls on a mobile phone. Hexagonal mirrors hanging on the walls turn into TVs showing sports. The bar was built with efficiency in mind using new designs from Spain that include washing basins and trash bins built into sinks for speedy bartenders.
Anticipating the crush of guests, the owners have also built bathrooms fit for a crowd. Pushing a button opens a sliding door and reveals a men’s room with nearly 20 of the water-recycling urinals with built-in sinks that patrons of the original location will recognize.
“One thing we understood in Shaw is that good bathrooms are key,” Chekaldin says. “We continue that tradition here.”
Dacha (79 Potomac Avenue SE) serves dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. The bar is open Monday through Thursday from 4 pm to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 2 pm to 1 am, and Sunday from 2 pm to 11 pm. Dacha Navy Yard will also add weekend brunch and weekday grab-and-go breakfast.
*The menu embedded in this post has been updated to correct the pricing of cocktails