‘Top Chef’ Alumnus Sinks His Teeth Into NoMa | Food Court

Posted September 11, 2013 at 4:09pm

Sure, he’s doing killer business — turning 5,000-plus covers and moving nearly 1,500 pounds of his signature chicken wings in just a few short weeks — now.

But seasoned chef-turned-restaurateur Timothy Dean admitted that exporting his brand of fast-casual feasting into a developing part of the District initially gave him pause.

“I don’t think I’m ready to go on that side of town,” the “Top Chef” alumnus said he told his insistent realtor after being presented with the pitch to put down roots in the Northeast quadrant.

But after touring the newish space (250 K St. NE; once the home of Zuppa Fresca) for TDB and weighing some fairly convincing pros — proximity to the thriving H Street scene, the burgeoning success of counter service operations even in a down economy — Dean decided to make his move.

“It was destiny,” he said of his budding love affair with the NoMa neighborhood.

Having already achieved proof of concept via the enduring flagship joint he opened across the river in Largo, Md., a few years back, Dean said he knew he had a winner on his hands with his value-centric menu.

“People really do respect a great deal and a good burger in this economy,” he said.

What he didn’t anticipate was just how much wider of an audience he would reach simply by switching ZIP codes.

To this day, Dean says African-American families remain the lifeblood of his Largo operation. But ever since he rolled out the welcome mat here in D.C. — TDB opened its doors on Aug. 20, but only came fully online (serving lunch through late night) as of Sept. 4 — Dean claims he’s had a veritable rainbow coalition parade through his front door.

“White, black, Chinese, families, babies, dogs. … Everybody comes in here,” he said.

We tend to agree.

We’ve rubbed elbows with 20-something white guys looking to guzzle beers and watch sports highlights, professional-looking girlfriends sharing stories and glasses of wine after work and nattily attired (he in meticulously creased slacks and a designer shirt, she in a form-fitting dress coupled with tasteful accessories) older black couple who were obviously interested in making a night out of it.

The restaurant is far from showy, but it does provide an array of different dining options and experiences. There are a handful of umbrella-topped tables scattered around the sidewalk patio, a moderately private lounge area outfitted with wall-to-wall televisions and a cozy bar, as well as easily reconfigured two- and four-tops lined up opposite the front counter.

The bar is a work in progress but already shows promise. Draft and bottled brews run from $6 for a local pour (DC Brau) to $15 for coveted imports (Chimay Grande Reserve), with plenty of craft brews — Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils, Founders All Day IPA, Allagash White, Magic Hat #9 — floating around in between. Dean said he has about 30 hand-picked selections in place now but stressed that he hopes to double that catalog in short order.

Much like his geographically tagged burgers (more on that in a minute), Dean has slapped some familiar monikers on his signature cocktails including a rum-spiked cooler dubbed the “Marco Rubio” and a bourbon-basil thirst quencher known as the “Rand Paul.”

The menu is basically a rehashing of established favorites from Largo, with a few modifications. The “classic” cheeseburger there has become the George Washington here. Same deal for the Loree Blue (Timothy Blue there), Abe Lincoln (Martin O’Malley there) and the RG3 (grilled ahi there) offerings.

Nomenclature aside, simplicity trumps garishly over-the-top productions.

Take the Obama burger. What good are the dulcet Maui onions and tangy honey mustard woven into the tribute to 44 if the underlying beef is distressingly dry?

Likewise for the SCOTUS-themed Sonia from the Bronx burger. Did we appreciate the lush avocado, sharp cheddar, herb-spiked mushrooms and flame-licked Romaine lettuce heaped atop the featured protein? Absolutely. Were we able to actually taste the terribly bland turkey patty? Not so much.

Our mouths made out much better with the standard Loree Blue. The mouthwatering treat delivered sanguine meat nestled on a bed of vibrant blue cheese crumbles and was crisscrossed with strips of savory-sweet, maple-tweaked bacon.

The other crowd pleaser was the dressed-to-the-nines Thomas Jefferson. “I think people love seeing that fried egg come out,” Dean said of the top seller.

The TJ fired on all cylinders, draping the juicy meat in gooey Muenster, a lacy sunny-side-up egg, lusty Applewood bacon and zesty house-made dressing. Each bite was an absolute pleasure.

According to Dean, Jefferson leads the pack, but others are quickly catching up.

The George Washington burger, topped with American cheese, juicy tomatoes, piquant red onions and crisp lettuce, is tied with the Sonia as second-most-popular sandwich. The Abe Lincoln, seasoned with Dean’s secret, Baltimore-born 21-spice rub and capped with smoked Gouda, house-made barbecue sauce and pickles, rounds out the list of favored grill fare.

“Pizza’s in third place right now,” Dean said of his oven-baked stragglers.

We get why.

The Palladin pie, named for Dean’s mentor, the iconic, late chef Jean-Louis Palladin, literally took our companions’ breath away, inundated as it was with truffle oil. Many slices proved uneven, boasting some, but never all, of the promised ingredients (roasted foie gras, grilled figs, duck confit, rhubarb). We managed to identify the duck and indulge in some foie but remained hard-pressed to pick out a piece of fig or rhubarb.

Dean insists the burger version ($13; the most expensive sandwich of the bunch) is slowly gaining ground.

“It hasn’t sold as much because of the price … but they’re loving it,” he said of the foie fans who know from gourmet dining.

Dean said he is considering throwing a proper grand opening party before the end of the month but stressed that he wants to iron out all the kinks and get his staff fully trained first.

But he definitely sees a future around these parts.

“I’m really hoping to do more concepts in NoMa,” he said.

Food Court is an ongoing series of semi-regular spot checks of new and evolving eateries with ties to Capitol Hill.