After three years of construction and delays, a pair of partners who created one of D.C.’s most memorable gastropub menus at Bar Pilar have opened a new American comfort food restaurant just across the Maryland border.
Pennyroyal Station served its first dinner in Mount Rainier on Friday, November 20, sending out plates of suckling pig, fried chicken sandwiches, and family-style helpings of brisket or roasted pork shoulder tacos from chef Jesse Miller. Delicate, vintage plateware is one of many callbacks to the era when the restaurant space was part bank, part sewing machine factory. Tuesday, December 1, marks the beginning of regularly scheduled service and the start of online ordering for takeout via a Toast system that will launch on the restaurant’s website.
Miller and Erin Edwards cashed out of Bar Pilar last year to direct all their attention to the tedious renovation project. They brought in Passion Food Hospitality alum Garrick Lumsden as a partner. Miller’s comeback menu in Maryland bears a resemblance to the one that helped make the Hemingway-themed bar a mainstay on 14th Street NW.
“To me, at least, it’s simplistic, American-style comfort food that is just taken up a notch,” Miller says.
Miller’s spin on mac and cheese walks that talk. Served on a cleaned-out beef marrow bone, an overflowing helping of cheesy noodles includes Italian Taleggio, aged white cheddar, and gruyere cheeses, along with the marrow and dry-aged brisket that’s been rubbed, roasted, and smoked. Miller adds a garlic chili sauce — “I put it on way too many things when I eat,” he says — with crispy shallots.
“I am a stickler for ingredients and ordering the best we can afford,” Miller says.
D’Artagnan sends shipments of seasonal black truffles, chickens, and 30-pound suckling pigs that Miller marinates for days before beginning a slow roast. Meat pulled right off the bone is placed back into the skin and roasted again to achieve “extra country-style flavor,” he says.
Scarlet runner beans, cooked with parts of the pig’s head, are balanced on a bright pumpkin puree. A rich dollop of pumpkin seed romesco adds acidity.
A quartet of croquettes make a surprising entrance atop a French onion soup that incorporates veal, vegetable, and chicken stocks. Tamari and dried shiitake add an umami flavor boost. The breaded orbs stuffed with potatoes, truffle oil, gruyere, and aged cheddar get mixed in as the spoon hits the bowl.
“Once you get in there it breaks all apart,” Miller says.
D.C. bar vet Chris Martino, a Johnson & Wales University grad, lets his culinary background shine in a fall cocktail program that plays with lots of brandy. A “Green Goddess” riffs on the salad dressing with cachaca, lime, thyme, green peppercorn, tarragon, and soda water. A Black Eyed Susan pays homage to Maryland’s state flower and the Pimlico favorite. Year-round slushies like a rum-heavy “Raven’s Crush Slush” are a nod to Bar Pilar’s program. To-go cocktails will be available soon.
“Even in the winter at Pilar we sold loads of slushies,” Edwards explains.
The pre-pandemic plan was to also open with breakfast and lunch, which will now start next year with a coffee program from Maryland roaster Vigilante Coffee. Brunch is expected to start in a few weeks.
Pennyroyal Station was ready to open this spring, but the partners held off because of the COVID-19 crisis. “Something that’s taken so long and gone through so many obstacles, it was like, okay maybe it’s good we aren’t open yet so we can adjust,” Edwards says. “We would have opened then had to shut down.”
A scare made that scenario appear likely over Thanksgiving weekend. On Saturday, November 28, the owners shared a staff member had isolated contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. That worker tested negative over a week after being exposed, and the owners felt comfortable moving ahead with the December 1 grand opening with staff members who have all tested negative.
Although Pennyroyal Station didn’t qualify for any PPP funds ahead of opening, the owners were able to get some grant money from Mount Rainier. Now Pennyroyal’s debut comes on the heels of newly imposed restrictions in place while coronavirus cases surge across the country. Prince George’s County rolled back indoor dining capacity to 25 percent this month, meaning Pennyroyal won’t be able to use the majority of its 73 seats.
Bar Pilar alum Justin Bittner handcrafted all the square tabletops from Pennsylvania trees. Communal tables Bittner fashioned for the bar area will wait in the wings.
The space is actually a combination of two historic buildings. The bar was a former bank’s foyer. A steel door that once led businessmen donning high-waisted jackets down to the vault has been repurposed as a partition for the main dining room, where sewing machines used to be made. An original Singer machine sits near a bathroom area covered in green art deco-styled wallpaper that speaks to the neighborhood’s residential boom in the 1930s. The site of a 60-seat heated patio out front also has a tale to tell. It was the last station of the trolley that transported workers to and from D.C. through the 1960s.
The owners designed the space themselves, adding vintage and rustic touches to play off the triangular-shaped shell. A towering bookshelf is stocked with cookbooks from Miller’s collection, along with metal crabs, vintage radios, and other trinkets he amassed while antiquing along the Eastern Shore.
Miller, who wanted to be artist before deciding on a cooking career, created a pair of massive oil paintings for the main dining room. One plays up the pennyroyal, the West Coast Washington’s state flower. Landscapers from Seattle founded Mount Rainier, which explains the name. The exterior is also an eye-catching piece of art; a muralist commissioned by the town painted birds and flowers across the white facade.