After plucking a personal pizza-sized, imperfectly shaped round of pita off the grill in the tiny kitchen at the back of Brixton bar, chef Casey Bauer uses a gloved hand to rub za’atar and olive oil all over the surface. The 25-year-old distributes morsels of salty, springy halloumi cheese across the crust, arranges a pinwheel of tomato slices in the middle, and tops off her manakeesh with a dollop of lebneh and a handful of mint. Her boss and mentor, Erik Bruner-Yang, reminds her to tuck in a lemon wedge when she slides the package into a pizza box.
The typically bustling British-style pub at the corner of Ninth and U Street NW reopened last week for Thursday through Sunday service with a new partner overseeing the food. At Coin Mezze, Bauer is tweaking the Lebanese food she grew up eating from her mother and grandmother to suit takeout customers and people who need something to pair with beers on Brixton’s rooftop. The former ABC Pony sous chef impressed Bruner-Yang enough with a Middle Eastern dinner special at the Navy Yard cafe that he wanted to give her her own platform to serve pita, hummus, fattoush, and kebabs. Bauer calls it Lebanese bar food — some accompanying cocktails integrate turmeric and sumac — and it’s meant to be a tactile experience.
“I think the biggest thing with our food is you just grab it and you make your bite,” Bauer says.
With Bruner-Yang encouraging Bauer not to feel constrained by tradition, she filled the short menu with subtle changes. Her flatbread, for instance, is somewhere between pita and pizza crust, because there’s no pocket in the middle. She adds dried sour cherries to her fattoush, the herb-loaded salad full of pita chips.
Smoked serrano chile powder is a personal touch to the shawarma spice rubbed into yogurt-marinated chicken, one of three kebab options along with lamb loin and kefta made of ground lamb and beef. Instead of making her kataifi with cheese curd in the middle, Bauer plates the shredded phyllo pastry on a blend of labneh, cream cheese, orange zest, and orange juice, with a pool of honey-rose syrup in the middle.
“Tetatots” loaded with za’atar, lemon tahini, harissa, zhug, and pickled red onion, are a nod to Bauer’s teta, a Lebanese Arabic word for grandmother.
“At grandma’s house, you got everything,” Bauer says, explaining the volume of garnishes.
Last week, Bauer hosted her mother to get some feedback. Her mom, who was born to a Catholic family in Beirut, blessed the project by bringing her daughter the hefty brass mortar and pestle from home, where Bauer now blends spices and crushes dukkah, a pistachio heavy spice nut and spice mix, that gets sprinkled over fried cauliflower.
Bauer is the second chef in her 20s to earn a recent promotion based on her work on ABC Pony’s cuisine-hopping dinner package. Armani Johnson is the new executive chef in Navy Yard. The restaurateur, who has Maketto and Cafe Spoken at the Line, says he’s just trying to help the next generation of leaders in his young company develop confidence.
“From the start he was like, ‘You’re ready for this.’” Bauer says.
After growing up Springfield, Virginia, Bauer went to culinary school at the Art Institute of Washington, rose to the rank of executive chef at beach restaurants in Delaware, and returned to the area to work at Filipino-Korean-Thai focused Kaliwa on the Southwest waterfront.
Bruner-Yang says he wasn’t shy about telling other chefs at ABC Pony that Bauer’s Lebanese dinner was his favorite of the specials. Bar owners Ian and Eric Hilton are partners at ABC Pony, so bringing Foreign National into the Brixton was a natural fit. Bruner-Yang notes he also held his wedding on the rooftop there.
The plan, Bruner-Yang says, is to run Coin Mezze out of the Brixton indefinitely. Coin is part of a larger idea, which is weird even by the chef’s out-there standards. The retro, pixelated theme follows an idea of designing restaurants that were conceived as video games by aliens who inhabit a planet similar to Earth, called NARTH, in a parallel universe. It’s kind of a choose-your-own adventure brand applied to restaurants. There are plans for Cantonese-style Coin Barbecue — see the roasted red pork belly that’s available as an add-on for wok-fried noodles at Maketto. Coin Pizza is also in the works, featuring Neapolitan-style dough that’s mixed and stretched without the aid of machines.
“I think as a company, because I’m Asian, we’ve been pigeonholed into only doing Asian for so long,” Bruner-Yang says. “I think we’ve had to fight against the mold for a long time.”