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The 16-seat bar led by the inventive Jeff Faile

Gateway to Heaven

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | December 29, 2013

Washingtonians always considered the wisteria-covered patio of Dupont Circle’s Iron Gate Inn their little secret. Now that Michael Babin’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group has renovated the historically protected property—which had been closed for a few years—and installed notable chef Anthony Chittum, Iron Gate’s longtime disciples will just have to share with the masses.

Carriage lantern lumières line the N Street walkway to the front door of what is now known as Iron Gate Restaurant. The lanterns signal the romantic vibe that imbues the new space, which consists of a 16-seat bar, a stunning 50-seat outdoor courtyard and a cozy, 48-seat indoor restaurant.

Patrons enter through a two-story, white brick enclosed carriageway, the focal point of which is a long zinc bar overseen by cocktail maestro Jeff Faile. The back of the room, amply outfitted with heaters, opens to the restaurant’s courtyard, where century-old purple wisteria—interwoven by Chittum with grapevines—provides shade, and, when necessary, a retractable awning protects diners from the elements. Seclusion, charm and majestic views of St. Matthew’s Cathedral will ensure this patio’s popularity, especially in the summertime.

The restaurant features two concepts: an outdoor (bar/patio) menu of appetizers, light fare, pastas and items from Chittum’s rotisserie and wood-fired grill, and an indoor menu that offers four- or six-course tasting menus.

Chittum, an Eastern Shore native, made a name for himself with his refined Italian cooking at Foggy Bottom’s Notti Bianche and more recently at Vermilion in Alexandria, Va., where he combined his love of Mediterranean cuisine with farm-to-table sensibility. Marrying into a Greek family greatly inspired Chittum, who traveled extensively in Greece and Southern Italy to create his Iron Gate menu.

The small dining room is a perfect date-night spot with its low light, red leather tufted banquettes, cozy nooks and wood-fueled fire burning in a brick hearth. The ever-changing tasting menu starts with Tastes, including a thin mosaic slice of octopus terrine with olive and fennel salad; charred broccoli with whipped ricotta; and pork and veal keftedes. For the Garden course, sublime bets are the baby beets with burrata-like stracciatella, green apple slices and hazelnuts; as well as the squash-filled pasta shaped like candy wrappers and crisped in brown butter.
Both choices in the Water course—charred, tender octopus with roasted cauliflower florets, and delicate fluke with crispy garlic crumb coating and celery puree—are standouts.

Under the Pasture course offerings, a lamb tasting of housemade sausage, and mustard-crusted loin slices atop a hearty, tomato ragout of shell beans, braised lamb neck and collard greens bring to mind a first-rate cassoulet. Virginia’s Grayson cheese adds a nice tang to the bechamel sauce bubbling around the ragù stuffed cannelloni.

Chittum is in fine fettle when making pasta, so don’t pass them up when you’re eating in the bar or courtyard. The hallmark of someone truly gifted is when the simplest pastas sing, as does Chittum’s guitar-cut spaghetti with crushed plum tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil. Wild nettle bigoli (like bucatini) with clams, garlic and chilis are perfectly al dente and satisfying, even if they could use a bit more zing.

There are so many alluring items on the outside menu that you will find it hard to edit, so order the three dips (parsley, spicy feta and black olive) with fennel crackers to hold you over until you make decisions. Divine Parmesan fritters—filled with Red Apron salami and gooey stracciatella cheese—are easy eating. A cast-iron triptych of warm cheeses (pan-fried halloumi, melted sharp provolone and sesame-crusted feta) is a no-brainer. Meaty oysters—baked with spinach and kefalotiri cheese and topped with kataifi—are a hybrid of spanakopita and oysters Rockefeller, but opting for a less chewy cheese would be an improvement.

The Grill and Rotisserie section features a daily spit-roasted whole animal. On the night I visit, it’s a tender chicken that’s wood-fired to mahogany crispiness and served with a tray of seasonal accompaniments that include a parsley spread, pickled veggies, lemon, housemade yogurt, olives and a whole head of roasted garlic. A return visit for the 60-day dry-aged porterhouse steak for two is definitely in order.
I have a feeling that Iron Gate’s dual-concept dining idea will evolve. These days, diners prefer more choices—not fewer—and regulars will welcome the idea of ordering prime picks from the outdoor menu when seated in the main dining room. It’s culinary democracy. This is what happened at Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, which recently blended its Tasting Room and Bistro menus into one.

Whether dining inside or out, finish the evening with Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac’s maple brown butter semifreddo with poached seckel pear, cranberries and pecans (if available), and then indulge in nightcaps from Iron Gate’s extensive lists of grappa, ouzo and Marco di Bartoli fortified marsalas. The bill comes in a varnished box decoupaged with Greek stamps. I’d call them stamps of approval.

Faile Safe
Mixologist extraordinaire Jeff Faile was lured to Iron Gate from Casa Luca and Fiola. His new cocktail list brims with temptations. Two early faves: Nicolaki (Boyd and Blair vodka, Greek yogurt, honey, lemon, rosemary) and Off To Sea Once More (Buffalo Trace bourbon, mirto, Cocchi Americano).

Kroll Intentions
Sommelier Brent Kroll formulated a fascinating wine list heavy on Greek and Southern Italian vintages. Wines by the glass come with descriptors such as “earthy/spiced/complex” and “soft/elegant/mineral driven.” Terre Nere, Etna Rosso falls into the latter group and is utterly delicious.

Iron Gate Restaurant
1734 N St. NW, 202.524.5202

Inside room’s prix fixe menus: Four course, $60; six-course, $75
Outside room and bar: Appetizers, $7-$18; entrees, $16-$45; desserts, $6-$10
Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun., 5:30-9pm