by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
It was an evening of culinary and urban discovery in Washington’s Ivy City neighborhood on March 13th as the Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C., gathered at Chef Matt Baker’s Gravitas restaurant. Located in Northeast Washington, Ivy City is one of DC’s oldest, yet least known neighborhoods. It was originally a manufacturing and warehouse district, best recognized by the art deco Hecht Company warehouse, built in 1936, on New York Avenue, but the past few years the neighborhood has embarked on a remarkable transformation. The Hecht warehouse has been converted into luxury apartments and the neighborhood is filling up with a diversity of retail stores, entertainment venues, services, and restaurants, along with a brewery, a smokehouse, and not one, but three distilleries. But the gem in the neighborhood is chef Matt Baker’s Gravitas.
Chef Baker attended Johnson and Wales University in Miami and worked in some of South Beach’s best restaurants. In 2009, he moved to Singapore to open Krish restaurant as the executive chef. Krish immediately met with high acclaim and Time magazine named Baker as the country’s hottest chef. Upon returning to Washington, Chef Baker worked at some of this area’s finest restaurants including minibar by José Andrés and Brasserie Beck, where he was Executive Sous Chef. Chef Baker was then Chef de Cuisine at the Occidental Grill & Seafood and later opened City Perch in Bethesda as Executive Chef. In 2015 Zagat included Chef Baker in its “Top 30 Under 30 list.”
With this impressive resume, it was finally time for Chef Baker to open his own restaurant. He looked at more than 50 properties before deciding on the Ivy City location for Gravitas. The building was constructed in the 1930s as a Safeway distribution center and the potential space had been the loading dock for a tomato packing plant. When he first saw it, the windows were bricked up and the floor was dirt. Seeing the very rough space and noting that Ivy City was a neighborhood early in its transition, Lindsay, his wife, asked the chef, “Are you freakin’ nuts?” But with its 25-foot ceilings and windows that would allow passersby to see in, Chef Baker recognized the potential of the space. Moreover, Chef Baker did not want his restaurant to be just another restaurant in Chinatown or Georgetown; rather, he wanted to seize the opportunity for it to be a cornerstone in the rebirth of Ivy City.
After 18 months of construction, Gravitas opened in July 2018. Its exposed brick walls, large windows, and concrete floor, combined with light wood benches and tables, give the space an airy, energetic, and sophisticated industrial feel. It also features the open kitchen that Chef Baker dreamed of, so that his guests can see all the action. And there’s more to come: This spring, Gravitas will open a rooftop patio that will include space for cocktails and al fresco dining along with a garden that will provide the kitchen with herbs, lettuce, and vegetables
Chef Baker greeted members and guests of the bailliage, welcoming each with a glass of Edmond Barnaut Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs NV. Barnaut has been making Champagne since 1874 and is one of the 17 vineyards out of 320 in Champagne classified as Grand Cru. The chef’s passed hors d’oeuvres were as beautiful as they were delicious, leaving no doubt that this was going to be a special evening. The soy-mirin marinated tuna tartare was accented with black vinegar aioli and furikake (a dry Japanese seasoning of dried fish, sesame seeds, seaweed, and spices). A Chesapeake oyster was topped with beet granita, shiso (a Japanese herb), and chardonnay vinegar. A petite winter vegetable salad served on grilled lavash with herbed goat cheese espuma (foam) was as refreshing as it was gorgeous. The final hors d’oeuvre was grilled tsukune, inspired by Singaporean street food. A spiced chicken meatball traditionally served with an egg yolk, Chef Baker’s version was accented with an egg yolk emulsion, togarashi (a Japanese seasoning blend combining red chili pepper, sesame seed, nori, citrus peel, among other ingredients), and crushed peanuts.
The assembly then took its seats for a spectacular 5‑course dinner. First came a tuna and foie gras “torchon.” Beautiful raw sushi-grade tuna was finely sliced and pounded flat before it was shaped arounded a cylinder of foie gras mousse, with red wine pickled onions, crispy brioche, citrus confit, and lemon gel completing the composition. The acidity of the citrus was nice with the tuna and a great counterpoint to the richness of the foie. The pale color and light, floral flavor of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose, NV Champagne thoroughly enhanced every bite of the dish.
Next, Chef Baker and his culinary team demonstrated their outstanding technique with an olive-oil-poached halibut. The fish rested atop black trumpet “linguine,” which was not a pasta made with mushrooms, but rather black trumpet mushrooms sliced and cooked in butter to mimic linguine. This inventive and delicious dish was further elevated with a generous portion of Osetra caviar and a luxurious vermouth cream, which servers poured at the table. A classic white Burgundy, Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2016 was delicious with this elegant dish. Fermented in oak. then matured on fine lees for six months, this chardonnay had a creamy texture and complex flavor that were exceptionally well matched to the luxurious flavors in this course.
Chef Baker’s culinary creativity was on full display with his take on terre et mer (land and sea). The chef crusted monkfish with pink peppercorns and paprika, and roasted it on the bone for maximum flavor. He noted that monkfish, as bottom-feeders, eat shrimp, lobster, and crab, which impart a high-end seafood flavor to this underappreciated fish. The monkfish rested atop a packet of Napa cabbage filled with braised oxtail ragout, which in turn was on silky pommes purée. The dish was finished with a verjus (an acidic fruit juice) reduction and black truffles from Burgundy. The Domaine Armelle et Bernard Rion Nuits-St.-Georges “Les Lavières” 2008 pinot noir was superb with both the fish and oxtail. The village of Nuits-Saint-Georges is in the northern part of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, where vines have been grown for over 1,000 years. Pinot noir comprises 97% of the area’s production.
The savory courses culminated with a duo of Wagyu beef. The chef presented a thick slice of medium-rare rib eye and a flavorful, rich, and meltingly tender braised short rib from Staub Ranch in Texas, accompanied by, as the chef said, “things I like to eat with beef.” A crispy wedge of potatoes gratin, potato cream, roasted maitake and hedgehog mushrooms, caramelized cipollini, and a rich bordelaise sauce were classic pairings, each executed by Chef Baker at the highest level. Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2009 offered deep layers of fruit along with subtle earthiness that paired brilliantly with the Wagyu beef and its accompaniments. This wine has a fairly low proportion of cabernet sauvignon (45%) compared to the wines of other estates in Pauillac, resulting in a particularly elegant, yet still classic, Bordeaux.
Dessert was a fitting finale to the outstanding meal – white chocolate buttermilk cake with lychee-rosewater sorbet, black mint (a Peruvian herb closely related to coriander), and a milk custard inspired by a dim sum dessert of warm silken tofu that Chef Baker discovered in Singapore. Servers anointed each diner’s plate with a chrysanthemum and burnt‑honey syrup to completed the presentation. Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2012 wonderfully complemented each of the elements of this dessert. Muscat wine has been made in the southern Rhône valley for nearly 2,000 years. This wine is fermented for 15 days, and then undergoes mutage, the addition of a small amount (up to 10%) of 190 proof (95% alcohol) grape spirit to raise the wine’s overall alcohol content to 15%. This kills the yeast, stopping fermentation and leaving the wine at the desired sweetness.
As the evening concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza presented Chef Baker and his kitchen and service teams with a Chaîne plate to commemorate the event. Vice Conseiller Gastronomique Michael McHenry congratulated the chef on the remarkable meal and the success of his restaurant. He particularly noted the outstanding technique exhibited in all the dishes and the chef’s innovation in his cuisine – for example, pairing monkfish with oxtail to reimagine terre et mer, and including numerous Asian influences throughout the menu. Finally, McHenry commended the chef and his wife, Lindsay, on the courage of their culinary vision and in opening a fine dining restaurant in Ivy city at a time when it could have the most influence in the transformation of the neighborhood.
Chef Baker and his team made the bailliage feel right at home, leaving everyone delighted to have discovered Ivy City and Gravitas. Indeed, before departing, some members made reservations for their prompt return, eager more of Chef Baker’s stunning cuising.