It was a murky, drizzly scene in the District, but perched on the corner of North Capitol and Quincy Place was a beacon of spring cheer: Old Engine 12 Firehouse Restaurant.
Unfazed by the black clouds and winter coat weather, Old Engine 12 eagerly rolled out a preview of their spring and summer dinner menu and I was fortunate enough to be a preliminary taste tester.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Old Engine, it lives within a historic firehouse on North Capitol Street built in the mid-1890s. Only in the last few years has it been transformed into an airy, three-story New American eatery with sky-high ceilings and the original brass fireman’s pole erected right beside the bar. Black and white photographs and fireman memorabilia dot the walls and window sills amidst cozy booths.
Once we had settled in, Executive Chef Peter Prime warmly welcomed us and introduced the first dish, which he noted is back by aggressive popular demand: tomatoes, olive oil and basil heaped on top of a thick slice of artisan bread. A definite step up from your traditional bruschetta, and a nice light start to our meal.
Following the tomato bread, we sampled the Kalellaloo soup (also spelled “Callaloo”), a concoction of kale, okra, and silky coconut milk with a crispy kale leaf garnish. This dish was served toasty warm, but our server noted that later on in the summer it will likely be served as a chilled gazpacho. Truthfully, this may have been my favorite dish of the evening, because it was one of those dishes where you taste things in delicious, distinct layers, instead of all at once.
The spring pea risotto with parmesan seemed to be a table favorite – definitely a decadent dish, but served in a completely manageable portion and topped with local pea shoots. I’m a sucker for anything with microgreens.
After the first few veggie-based tastings, we had a break. One of the nicest parts of my Old Engine experience was the pace at which we were served. I’ve been to many-a-dinner where I’ve been bombarded with dishes one after another, without time to savor or properly digest, but at no point during the evening did I feel rushed or overwhelmed.
Before moving on to the meatier dishes of the night, we were surprised with a round of smoky Bloody Marys, a brunch staple at Old Engine, with your traditional garnishes plus a few extras in the drink itself (I believe I found a pickled Brussels sprout in mine). For brunch, you can opt for bottomless Bloodys ($21) with your choice of bacon infused, 3 pepper or smoked vodka. Don’t know how you could go wrong here.
This is when it got real. The Spring Chicken and Waffles came out. And this is not your average chicken and waffles dish. The cornbread jalapeño waffle was sturdy enough to withstand the truffle honey drizzle (no soggy waffles!), but still melted in my mouth, all the way to the last bite. The fried chicken was piping hot, perfectly crispy and free of any oily aftertaste. I’d have to say this tied with the Kale Soup for my favorite dish of the evening.
It was at this moment that my stomach did its requisite expansion ritual. You may know what I’m referring to. It often happens at Thanksgiving, when you’re eight pounds of turkey deep, but you know one way or another you have to accommodate 2-3 slices of pie so you and your stomach have a moment of silent understanding and then you soldier on. Or maybe that’s just a thing I do with my stomach.
The preview culminated in a ‘surf n’ turf’ style plate with grilled scallops and lamb ribs (note: these dishes are actually served separately, but were combined just for our preview). At one end, we had our buttery diver scallops dressed with polenta, spicy chorizo and Brussels sprouts (be still, my heart), and at the other end was our lamb ribs with asparagus, Dijon BBQ and balsamic molasses.
But wait! There’s more. The preview did not end with clearing of the dinner plates – there was still the tour! I could spend the rest of my natural born life exploring old DC architecture, so I was giddy with excitement for this part. We were led upstairs to The Ballroom, which is a startlingly expansive space with leather seating, oversized windows and an entirely separate bar. We were told they had been hosting another event that evening, which is why a long banquet table was set up in the middle of the room. Even with the table, there was more than enough surrounding space for guests to dance and mingle.
At last, we made our way to the top floor, which is frankly the architectural crown jewel of Old Engine: the Captain’s Loft. As you walk up the third and final staircase, you can see that the secluded lounge is enclosed within interior glass window panes. We were greeted with bowls of homemade Oreo ice cream paired with Bulleit Rye whiskey for an after-dinner treat as we explored the romantic décor.
The Loft has its own private bar (yes, another) tucked away under the sloping wooden beams of the ceiling. Leather arm chairs are arranged in intimate compositions along the exposed brick, and the circular windows are reminiscent of an old ship’s portal. This space can hold up to 40 guests and is also available for private events.
While this was in fact my first visit to Old Engine 12, it will certainly not be my last. Chef Prime and his team are doing wonderful (and original) things over here on North Capitol and I’m excited to have found my new “spot” in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. The dishes described above are all currently available on their dinner menu.
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Main image courtesy of Old Engine 12