For a city whose restaurant scene can read like a broken record at times (steakhouse here, small plates there…), the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s newest member Hazel is a charming breath of fresh air.
Named after his grandmother and with his wife’s handmade bread baskets adorning each table, Executive Chef Rob Rubba is dark, yet inviting. It may be newly-constructed, but the Shaw spot looks and feels like it’s already settled in comfortably.
Upon arrival, we are met with open and friendly service- perhaps a little too open: one energetic host volunteers that Chef Rubba’s wife has gone into labor mere hours before, and that this will be the kitchen’s first night on their own. A dubious beginning, but reflecting on our time spent at Hazel, the Chef’s absence was completely imperceptible.
Our server walks us through the menu: medium-sized plates that can actually be shared; new American with a playful Asian influence (Chef Rubba’s wife is Korean).
While some other area restaurants seem designed purely to impress on paper, Hazel’s creativity comes off with innocent sincerity, as if Rubba himself has invited you into his own kitchen, imploring you to try a few crazy dishes he has thrown together on a whim to see if he’s onto something (spoiler: he is).
Take, for example, the gnocchi with pork ragu, a dish which could theoretically be found on many other menus in the city. Chef Rubba, however, completely transforms the pasta with a punchy dose of kimchi, warm spices and chunks of smoky pecorino. Rumor has it that the chef created it out of necessity one afternoon when he was hungry and out of tomato sauce- a tricky situation we all now benefit from.
Another revelation appears in the form of house-made English muffins, a veritable smorgasbord of taste and texture: crunchy, chewy, creamy, tangy and spicy, thanks to dollops of Greek yogurt, whipped ‘Nduja (a spreadable sausage) and olive oil jam. The quirky compilation leaves our table staring at one-another in silent amazement, as it’s unlike anything we’ve tasted before.
There are some dishes that, while good, aren’t nearly as memorable. Charcoal grilled summer squash hits a seasonally sweet note with furikake and tangy lemon puree but could use a healthy dose of salt. The shrimp and calamari pancake, while composed of a myriad of bold ingredients such as green onion, bonito, and garlic, is the blandest dish we taste all night (it does, however, benefit from a hefty application of Hazel’s house-made “Fire Panda” hot sauce).
The cocktails also leave us wanting more. Whereas the food menu presents itself entirely without pretension, the drinks seem composed with obscure ingredients for shock value and with the “cool” factor in mind over what people actually enjoy drinking. I order the “Power Play,” a lively mix of paw paw fruit, vinegar, and lime. It’s refreshing and different, but at the end of the day, I find myself wishing I had gone with a traditional Manhattan or a smooth glass of red.
The true highlight of the meal is the last plate delivered to our table, and one which arrives in a Jenga-like tower of glistening meat: Rubba’s “sticky-crunchy ribs.” They are so good that we beg our server to let us in on their secret, which turns out to be an intense two-day, five-step process of dry rubbing, smoking, braising, frying, and finally glazing. The shower of roasted peanuts and cilantro that finishes this masterpiece is the proverbial cherry on top, adding both brightness and crunch.
“They’re kind of ridiculous,” our server acknowledges with a genuine smile, as she watches me practically lick the plate, and I realize how at-home I feel, even though I’m in a place I’ve never been before, feasting on a meal I couldn’t have conceived in my wildest dreams. And that is precisely what makes this Shaw newcomer so enchanting: Hazel surprises with heat and funk, while diners wonder where she’s been all their lives.
*header image credit to Rey Lopez, via Washington Post