U Street’s new “experiential” cocktail lounge and wine vault encourages conversation over shared plates, shaken drinks, abstract art, and minimally marked menus that leave room for interpretation. Enigma, the latest venture from growing hospitality company CLH Group, emerged in the old Fainting Goat space last month (1330 U Street NW).
Enigma’s chef Marcel Chehaieb most recently worked at Dupont’s Annabelle under acclaimed chef Frank Ruta (the former head cook at the White House), as well as Michelin-rated Maydan and Lebanese Taverna before that.
Food items are not given long, descriptive names. Instead, the menu contains options like “Crispy,” which describes duck fat fries served with a harissa ketchup. Or, there’s “Sculpted,” a chicken ballotine with scallion mash and wilted spinach. If you’re looking for something “Charred,” go for a grilled octopus, whereas “Succulent” will get you pork belly with homespun apple butter. The menu, which will change seasonally, is driven by what is locally available, and always meant for sharing. The whole point, says general manager Leonardo Fernandez, is to create “the expectation of the experience.”
“We want our menu to intrigue our guests and to invite questions; we want them to open up their minds to what they’re going to experience, whether it’s zesty, spicy, or savory,” says Fernandez.
Cocktails carry the same minimalist mentality, with names like Flamboyant (a scotch, pomegranate, and honey-based drink), Smoldering (something of a tequila Old Fashioned) — and no mention of any alcohol brands.
“It’s important to us to have the experience talk rather than letting a label guide you,” says CLH Group creative director and managing member Hakim Alston. “Whether we want to be or not, we tend to be swayed by brand names, and we’re trying to deconstruct that.”
Enigma’s staff are also key to the overall experience; as such, team members are not dubbed servers, but rather “brand ambassadors.” Mixologists are not bartenders, but rather “conversationalists. “We want our whole team to feel as though they’re part of something much bigger than a venue that just offers food and drink,” said Alston.
The 3,400-square-foot venue has a multi-level layout meant to encourage movement throughout the space.
“It was important that our designers and architects create a flow in our space,” says Alston. “When you walk in the door, it should feel a little mysterious; we want people to talk about our artwork, our lighting, and even our music.”
An almost bohemian vibe — eclectic and seductive with its red upholstery, unusual light fixtures, and large-scale paintings peeking out behind metal grates — creates a compelling backdrop.
“Everything about Enigma is geared toward creating stories,” said Alston. “I’ve always thought that people don’t buy what you sell; they buy what you believe.”
The group will expand nearby this year with the opening of Bar 10, an intimate bar and lounge with European flair along 14th Street NW.