For a long time, far Southeast felt like the Bermuda Triangle of bars and restaurants. Thankfully, times have changed. Trusty’s opened in 2005, and has become a neighborhood spot as well as a destination bar. Last fall the bartenders at Wisdom brought high end mixology to the “other” end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Pacific Cafe opened more than 7 years ago, and until recently their Vietnamese fare was the only option to pizza and take-away fast food shops. They closed their doors in August, and it’s rumored there will be a seafood restaurant opening there sometime soon.
Until now, the wasted opportunity has been the retail space between Pacific Cafe and Frager’s. In the last 10 years, I can count roughly 5 businesses that have occupied the building. It’s been everything from a private club to a lesbian bar to, most recently, a creperie/cafe that never seemed to be open, didn’t look very sanitary and often made me think, “hmmm is this a front for something?” The last time I was at Frager’s I noticed people inside the building, and could see that this reincarnation of the space looked different. It looked professional, like that had a plan. And, lo and behold, the next time I went by there was a sign on the door with hours, and everything looked ready to go inside. I made a date, and got my hopes up.
Amber, one of THIH editors, joined me. Right away we were welcomed in, and seated (and, we had our meals in front of us no more than 20 minutes later). It was 7 p.m, and less than 10 days after opening, there was a steady flow of tables. It appeared, the neighborhood was ready for Dulce. Nyika & Clifton Humphries, also the owners of the H Street Martini Lounge , have created a stylish, warm, open dining room with a large bar/event space upstairs and the option to expand into the basement with more space.
A foodie without a foodie budget, I was skeptical. From a quick scan of the menu, I thought I saw a lot of old Hill standards: chicken wings, Caesar salad, calamari, sliders. Happily, my scan missed that most of these items were reinventions, and showed Dulce just might be able to fit in the dining sweet spot – bar food prices, but better restaurant dishes at the same reasonable prices. The very attentive staff explained Dulce has applied for their liquor license, but in the meantime offered some virgin drinks; the Cape Cod sunrise and the San Fran proved tasty and refreshing.
After another scan of the menu, and vacillating between shrimp and grits ($11), braised calamari ($7), and fish and chips with raspberry wasabi mustard and remoulade ($9) we had a chance to ask chef William Reedd which dishes were his favorites. Reedd, formerly of Sam & Harry’s, Harry’s Taproom and Phillips, said we should try the mussels in coconut milk and spinach broth ($9), the shrimp and grits or the plate of three sliders ($10). Yes, sliders are trendy, but the choices caught my attention. We chose the portobello & fontina, chicken pesto and crispy fish sliders. The portobello one was out of this world; while the chicken one had great pesto, the chicken itself was a little dry. The fish was crispy yet moist. On another trip, I plant to try the steak & cheese slider and the mussels.
When the shrimp and grits arrived, I was happy to see the portion was more like a small entree than an appetizer. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, and the flavors of the contrasting tomatoes, scallions and cheese grits were bright. We also had a side of buffalo blue cheese chips. I would have passed on those, but when the waitress recommended it Amber piped up. When I saw the chips were cooked in-house, I was in. While I stay far far away from hot sauce on chicken wings, with the crispy salty chips the combo of flavors was yummy. I would like to see Dulce dress up the dish a bit and add some lumps of blue cheese to the dressing that tops chips and hot sauce. We also saw several sizable salads leave the kitchen, and a plate of crispy chicken wing umbrellas ($7 – re-invented and less messy wing alternatives), and its accompanying three dips well received.
The owners of Dulce promise regular hours (T-F 4-9 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m.) temporarily, until they secure their liquor license. The restaurant welcomes group meetings and events, and hopes to offer wine pairing classes and brunch this fall. The bars downstairs, and in the larger game room party space upstairs are on hold; the owners are hopeful the ANC will approve Dulce’s application for a liquor license and an entertainment endorsement in October. Liquor licenses and entertainment endorsements are certainly a sticky issue for local residents. This neighbor is hopeful the ANC will keep a big picture of further retail/dining development on this end of the Hill in mind. To continue to grow our local dining choices, we need to provide a more welcoming reception to “better” restaurants. Nyika says they’ll rent out the space on the second floor for events, and would like their guests to have the option to have a DJ or karaoke at events. She said they do not plan to host live music or dance nights. They’re also applying for a sidewalk permit to offer a few tables outside.
I hope Dulce will keep their promise to focus on starting out small, and doing what they do well. The shrimp and grits rivaled downtown spots, and the portions and variety on the menu inspired me to “share the wealth” with my neighbors. Dulce is a welcome addition to local inexpensive dining opportunities, and with a little more attention to detail (and perhaps a creative wine by the glass list), they could make a regular out of me. One note: the prices on the menu are inclusive of city taxes. With taxes and tip adding more than 25% to most diner’s bills, this is a welcome savings. The prices don’t seem to be inflated to reflect this policy.
You can get a taste of Dulce at Oktoberfest — pay attention, it’s September 26th — on Barracks Row.