all words and photos: Julian Vu
Do you remember that time when Spike Mendelsohn called DC a second tier city for food? Some of us vehemently defended DC as a top culinary capitol, while others like myself quietly agreed with Spike’s presumptuous yet more than slightly true choice of words. The fact of the matter is that when it comes down to it, DC in no way compares to NYC, Chicago, L.A., New Orleans, SF or even Philadelphia in terms of quality of food. It’s a damned shame considering how much amazing produce, meat and seafood we pull from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and even DC itself believe it or not. So we’re not at the top. So what? How do we get to the top? I get the feeling that Dan O’Brien and Ali Bagheri have an idea; and they’re calling it the Seasonal Pantry.
From a first glance, the Seasonal Pantry is just a store with a fledgling yet admittedly growing array of pantry staples. Small-batch olive oils, house-made pickles, fancy cookbooks and other gems of culinaria adorn the shelves. It hardly seems like enough stock to constitute an actual market, but a closer glance reveals that there’s much more going on. The cold case runs the gamut from charcuterie to exotic or free range meats to even duck fat and other wild schmaltzes for making those perfect fries or confit. There was an absence of produce, or staples like dairy and eggs. I started to wonder why, but then it made sense to me. This type of place is exactly the perfect compliment to local farmers’ markets. That kabocha squash would be nothing without the perfect sea salts, or basis for a stock, which the Seasonal Pantry would be glad to get you started on.
The Seasonal Pantry is, of course, the brainchild of Dan O’Brien (pictured above). Dan hails from upstate New York, but has cooked around the U.S. as well a short stint in France where he developed classic french skills. His training eventually brought him to DC where he worked at a high profile restaurant before branching off on his own. The concept of the Seasonal Pantry has been three years in the making, and just launched late last spring. In the summer, Dan got to finally turn dreams into reality as the Seasonal Pantry began hosting supper club, which takes place every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. There’s now a waiting list two months out just to get booked for one of his dinners, and the response seems to be overwhelmingly positive. I had to go see for myself what all the hype was about, and I hate to admit it, but the critics are right; the place is kind of amazing.
The first thing that was evident to me was that Chef Dan O’Brien is a nice guy who cares way more about his food than any chef I’ve ever seen in this city. It’s strange albeit refreshing to see someone so jazzed about cooking all the time. Not only is Dan excited, he’s easily riled up about the most ridiculous intricacies of his dishes. The first course I got to try was a Parsnip Velouté. For this amuse, Chef Dan purees parsnip. He tells me that veloutes are typically thickened with roux, or more specifically béchamel sauce. Dan bypasses the mother sauce and instead uses a stock, and bits of oyster to carry the oyster flavor through. He then has cut away the pearl of the oyster so that the amuse is clean and pure oyster flavor with the richness of the parsnip and mignonette underneath. It’s subtle yet packs a flavor punch. I can only describe this dish as being “bitchin’ “.
For the second course, Chef Dan prepares for me his interpretation of a Duck Reuben. The presentation is extremely deconstructed, and in an attempt to pin down Dan’s style, I assume it to be molecular. He sets me straight and tells me that molecular gastronomy is kind of bullshit, as he’d much rather give something tangible to the diner. The duck pastrami is house made, and was a bit of a fluke as Dan was shipped a dozen of ducks, when he actually only ordered a few. Making the best of what he was given, he brined the duck breast to make a more bizarrely delicious bit of charcuterie that is neither typical of duck nor pastrami. The kraut and Russian dressing are of course also made in-house, and instead of the cornichon, Chef Dan uses house pickled jalepeños. Is it apparent yet that this guy loves making things in house? especially pickles? Even if you don’t attend supper club, it can be yours as most all items used for supper club are available in the store. In fact, in talking to Chef Dan, it became apparent to me that even though most of his revenue comes from supper club, he still believes strongly in dinners in the household. He wants people to cook more, and it shows in his enthusiasm (and supply of pantry goods).
Perhaps the pièce d’résistance of it all was his guinea fowl manicotti. For this we’re talking days of preparation. The fact that the pasta is made by hand is a just the start of this amazing dish. The guinea fowl is cooked perfectly to be mostly tender, yet still retain a slightly gamey flavor that is naturally nutty. The best part of the whole dish however, is the sauce, which Chef Dan revealed to me, takes two days of cooking and preparation. Starting with roasting the bones, and adding mirepoix not once, but twice, along with reducing and tempering. This guy is way too intricate, but his dedication really pays off as the dish is really refined despite the fact that it’s pasta. I know what you’re thinking; “What’s wrong with pasta?” Well the fact of the matter is that pasta is easy and safe. People like carbs and getting full sometimes while sacrificing true quality of ingredients. Suffice it to say, Chef Dan makes the dish less about the pasta, and more about the guinea fowl and that damned two day sauce that knocked my socks off. Also you should consider the fact that my dinner was a last minute thing which Chef Dan doesn’t often do because he’s the type who likes to prepare well ahead of time and provide a well thought-out meal worthy of at least one michelin star, if not more.
The operation is small. It doesn’t feel like a restaurant, it truly does feel like supper club. You can tell that the few staff members that Dan O’Brien has all look up to him both as a friend and a respected colleague.
Each night, Chef Dan draws up a new fully illustrated menu. Doing so has allowed him to innovate and avoid repeating any menus. He closed out my dinner by presenting me with what I first thought to be a cop out of a dessert; something he called a butternut squash and cranberry buckle. I saw the thing and thought, “okay he must really be a chef, because in the culinary world, chefs make terrible desserts. That’s why there are pastry chefs.” This dish looked too simple and too safe. But then I took a bite, and despite the fact that I was eating hot fruit, this might have been one of the freshest desserts I’ve ever eaten. I then figured it out. Chef Dan’s style isn’t molecular, or Italian, or French; it’s seasonal. Sure the place is small; but they say Paris wasn’t built in a day. And look at people like David Chang. His first place, Momofuku Noodle Bar, was tiny, and now he’s a household name. I get the feeling that Chef Dan is on a similar path to success. You just better get in on it before everyone else does. If you can’t afford a supper club (which I attest is not the cheapest thing out there, but certainly worth every penny), then stop by and check out his pantry goods, especially the cold case. If nothing else, Chef Dan’s a really nice guy and easy to talk to, and Shaw is beyond lucky to have the Seasonal Pantry. Make that two reasons I’ll eat in Shaw; one is soul food at Saint’s Paradise, and two is the Seasonal Pantry.