In between the Corinthian columns climbing from the 129-year-old original stone floors to the ornately molded squares that make up the ceiling at Café Riggs, visitors to the new hotel brasserie in Penn Quarter can crane their necks up to watch one of the flatscreen TVs mounted inside the giant arches behind the bar. That’s if they can take their eyes off the glass atrium, roughly 15 feet high, that’s filled with an exhibit of lush paper flowers commissioned from a window display artist in Ukraine.
Inside the Riggs Washington DC, which opened yesterday in the historic bank building at 900 F Street NW, Eater Young Gun Patrick Curran (‘16) is leading a lobby-level restaurant that wants to accept all comers with a menu that leapfrogs from the everyday practicality of European cafe food (dinner omelets, whole roasted chicken, steak frites) to an of-the-moment emphasis on vegetables to a handful of luxury items that suit the grandiose space.
Curran, who opened Momofuku CCDC as executive chef before cooking at Espita and Casolare, says nothing would make him happier than to see the bar lined with people in Capitals jerseys eating Appalachian cheese cheeseburgers before NHL games at Capitol One Arena. At the same time, he has 13 vegan dishes on his opening dinner menu, and there’s a $98 grilled cheese appetizer that packs in Russian Osetra caviar with a cow’s milk Vache cheese (similar to chevre) on brioche.
In the case of the grilled cheese and a $48 lobster tartine, Curran insists he’s not taking advantage of a captive audience. He says there’s a full ounce of caviar on the sandwich, and half a lobster on the tartine, which comes with Cipollini onion and lemongrass broth.
“There’s no room [in D.C.] not to be thoughtful,” Curran says, referring to the surrounding competition in the market.
In the more everyday category, Café Riggs serves three salads ($12 to $13), including a baby kale “Caesar” with crispy chickpeas, avocado, and a vegan dressing made out of toasted cashews, nutritional yeast in lieu of Parmesan, a Worcestershire sauce based out of soy and tamarind, capers, and dijon. There’s a hearty broccoli salad, too, with roasted florets, blanched stems, red cabbage cured in salt and sugar, quinoa toasted until crunchy, and a sesame garlic vinaigrette.
“Everybody grew up eating somebody’s boiled broccoli and thought they hated broccoli,” Curran says.
A section of “plant dishes” has nine options, all named after the featured piece of flora: squash, beets, carrots, etc. A dish that bedeviled Curran for weeks reworks a classic Barigoule by placing fried baby artichokes atop an “aioli” made of braised globe artichokes, soy milk, and maple.
Seafood is another focus of the menu. A raw bar section includes a $99 plateau, and Curran raves about the salmon he’s getting from Chesapeake Smokehouse in Annapolis, Maryland. A chilled crab dish includes a crab custard underneath a crab salad, giving Curran a chance to futz with the flavors of a crab cake without actually making one.
Curran says the casual, comfortable vibe he’s trying to create in the dining room, full of custom art deco chandeliers and ochre banquettes fanned out in a shape reminiscent of ladyfingers, should extend to the kitchen. As he grabs a piece of a barely sweet cardamom bun from pastry chef TJ Obias, Curran says he’s not the screaming type of boss.
But he is engaged in a bit of tough love firmly anchored in brasserie history. He says his staff is sick and tired of practicing their omelet technique.