I’m not gonna lie. When I first watched Mike Isabella on season 6 of Top Chef, I didn’t really think much of him. He had a cocky attitude that didn’t seem to be backed up that much by his food, particularly in a season featuring the Voltaggio brothers, Kevin Gillespie and Jennifer Carroll. And generally, while I like Italian food, it’s not one of my first choices. But I revised my opinion upwards after sampling his cooking at Zaytinya – the man could put out some really great plates (the sweetbread dish there is still among my favorite preparations). And his stock (with me) rose even further upon viewing his run against Richard Blais during Top Chef All-Stars. Which is why Mark and I were both really looking forward to lunch at his recently opened Graffiato in D.C.
The scene is casual. Diners are seated along a bar that runs the course of the restaurant or in wood-backed bench booths arranged along the opposing brick wall. Servers run food from the prepping station in the back wearing black t-shirts that bear the restaurant's name.
On the imbibing front, Graffiato made a pretty good first impression by offering a fun cocktail list and a pretty good selection of bottled and canned craft beers (the draft list is small, just 4 options). In keeping with our recent cocktail kick, we got a Tony Star (Thai chili infused mezcal, Milagro tequila, market fruit puree, Patron Citronage, and lime) and a DC mule (Vodka 14, grapefruit and ginger beer). Both drinks were likeable enough, if not outstanding, though the mescal-heavy Tony Star was the preferred of the two.
And our good impression increased from there, as the first food item to hit the table was also potentially our favorite item of the meal. The charred Brussels sprouts ($7) were really fantastic, just perfectly caramelized in maple syrup and retaining a nice bite. They were served with bits of crispy pancetta and (in the one kind of off thing about dish) scrambled egg. We devoured them.
Being good Top Chef fans, we had to get the herbed flatbread with the pepperoni sauce about which Gail Simmons had raved ($5). And it was very notable and very unique: intensely flavored, it was, in fact, like liquid pepperoni. We liked it a lot, but it’s probably not the kind of thing either of us could take in large quantities.
Next, we moved on to the pastas. We really enjoyed the interesting texture of the crispy potato gnocchi ($19): chewy on the outside, nice and light and soft on the inside. The meaty slivers of wild mushrooms and creamy mild stracciatella (fresh mozzarella-esque cheese) were pleasant accompaniments.
The hand cut spaghetti ($9) was also very solid, if very simple. Though the pasta was good, my favorite part of the little dish was the way the olive oil poached cherry tomatoes burst with juicy tart flavor.
Our final savory dish was the Papa Smurf pizza ($17) with speck, gorgonzola, caramelized onion, and potato. The puffy, light, doughy crust (see also the flatbread served with pepperoni sauce) gets a fairly enthusiastic thumbs up from us. Somehow, the gorgonzola and sweet onions combined to give off an almost dessert-like aroma, but not overwhelmingly so, and the creamy, tender chunks of golden potato added a great heft to the pie. Overall, a nice pizza.
Unfortunately, our last bites were probably our least favorite. The dessert didn’t quite land: caramel and chocolate coated pretzel bits topped a plain (bland) panna cotta ($7). It wasn’t terrible – it just didn’t suit our tastes.
Nevertheless, we were satisfied with our meal: really competently executed, tasty food for pretty affordable prices. Though we preferred Isabella’s cooking at Zaytinya, Graffiato is a solid (if sort of safe) first outing for the chef, and he's already expanding his empire to Georgetown, where his Mexican concept Bandolero will be opening soon. We look forward to tracking his career evolution.