BRABO by Robert Wiedmaier
At 1600 King Street, Old Town holds one of the DC areas top restaurants founded by the notorious Robert Wiedmaier. A fine dining establishment through and through, Brabo maintains an exquisite menu with equally satisfying service. Though Robert remains 86’d from the kitchen roster, diners are still capable of ordering sumptuous meals that are ingeniously developed and delicately prepared. This culmination is best reflected in their foie gras soup. Servers bring out a bowl of roasted shitake mushrooms and brioche croutons then add, themselves, hot puréed chestnuts and chopped hazelnut. A practice that is elegant enough to excite any gourmand in search of their fix. You will be hard pressed to find such flourish matched with quality in the contemporary restaurant scene, or even more locally in the 703.
For the past decade there has been a shift in the culinary world. Book deals, reality television, cooking shows and an overall increase in media exposure are bringing the back of the house to the front of the stage. Names like Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramesy, and Eric Ripert are just a few of colorful personalities that represent a new form of an entertainment based cuisine – seasoned with charisma and just a pinch of business savvy. A chef’s popularity, however, is not enough to fuel a restaurant’s success. Charisma does not consistently put food on that plate, nor will it pay the bills. In fact, there are many examples of celebrity chefs who attempt to use their popularity as the foundation of their business. This is almost always tragic. In 2009 popular Hell’s Kitchen contender Robert Hesse attempted to rebrand a storied Solomons Island establishment using this method; think cardboard cutouts of himself and pictures of him from television appearances on the wall. The restaurant did not make it over a year. In 2013 Food Network personality Guy Fieri opened a multilevel, 500 seat operation in Times Square as an ode to classic American dining. New York times food critic and columnist Pete Wells opened his scathing review asking Fieri, “have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” My thesis here is the following, and diners must understand this: good chefs make good food and good restaurateurs make good restaurants. The two are not necessarily synonymous.
Enter Robert Wiedmaier, a man with a strong European resume, penchant for Belgian cuisine, and a prominent mark on the culinary scene in the DC metro area. To give a brief summary of his accomplishments: Robert recently won the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s RAMMY award for “chef of the year,” and runs five restaurants including Marcel’s, which was ranked 4th on the prestigious Washingtonian Top 100 list of restaurants in the DC area. Two of his other restaurants are on this list – including Brabo.
Now with five restaurants and one chef, how does that work? How does Robert ensure no undercooked mussels leave the kitchen at Mussel Bar in Atlantic City, while keeping diners in Alexandria on the edge of their seats at Brabo? How does he ensure the frites attain a perfect crisp at Brasserie Beck on K Street without ignoring the couple who are about to ignore the perfect red pairing with the wood fired prosciutto tart at the Tasting Room? Unfortunately for Robert, a motorcycle enthusiast, they have yet to develop an American chopper that is capable of barreling down the beltway at Mach speed.
Robert, the restaurateur – not chef, has instead developed a pool of talent and devised a network of various restaurant personnel that pride themselves in attention to detail and good food. At Wildwood kitchen in Bethesda, five of his most loyal employees have gone into a partnership with him as he as awarded them with part ownership. This is something they do not teach you in culinary school. Last summer the current chef de cuisine at Brabo, Chris Watson, put in his resignation as he was headed to Merrifield to open Ovvio Osteria, and Robert did not have a difficult decision in his hands. He asked his former executive sous chef at Marcel’s, who had left the year before to work on his own project, to return and fire up the burners adjacent to the Lorien Hotel & Spa. Enter Harper McClure, who clearly defies his seemingly young and gangly appearance, as he is as sharp in the kitchen as he is on his resume. A bit of a culinary renaissance man, McClure has gone to all of the ‘right’ institutions, worked with food more intimately on the agricultural level, and put his time in working for Robert.
As chef de cuisine, McClure is given the unique opportunity to bring his own culinary vision to Brabo. His preparation of Brabo’s smoked duck carpaccio is evidence that he does not fear ingenuity yet maintains advanced culinary capabilities. Cured in their wine cellar, and smoked over mesquite – McClure has oddly added this rich yet thinly sliced delight with vanilla essence and candied quince, garnished with Thai basil. The end result is remarkable and is enough to make a foodie’s taste buds stand up and sing.
Now if you find yourself sinking into one of the brown leather dining chairs during the weekend dinner rush and cannot choose between the smartly developed Norwegian salmon or the incredibly tender cacao braised beef entrees, do not fret. In fact, Brabo is very friendly to those who are less versed in the often-confusing jargon of a fine dining establishment. Brabo’s staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the tastes and pairings of their offerings – as sommeliers Matty Fanning and Matthew Carroll have been given the reigns of a quite extensive wine list. Their passion for their craft is quite palpable, as they are well versed in both oenology and customer service.
Often times diners fall prey to the over-hyping of restaurants by feeding into the marketing tactics of celebrity chef madness. This is not the case at Brabo as restaurateur chef Robert Weidamaier ensures that each of his guests at any of his restaurants are treated with the attention to detail they deserve. RW is not a brand or a gimmick; it is a stamp of approval from one of the most cunning operators on the East Coast.
~ Written by: Vincent Arrunategui