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Lauded Mexico City-based chef brings skill to Buena Vida

Clarendon-based restaurant eschews cliches like fajitas and chimichangas

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Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, gay news, Washington Blade
Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo says his food philosphy is ‘fresh, yet respectful of ancient cultures.’ (Photo courtesy Buena Vida)

Last year at this time, chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo was a celebrated figure in his hometown of Mexico City, a driving force of the slow cooking movement with two lauded restaurants to his name. He did not yet, however, know his way around Arlington.

All that changed by March 16, when he took his spot at the helm of the three-story, three-concept Buena Vida/TTT Clarendon (2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington/buenavidarestaurant.com), where he is stamping his vivacious spirit and wildly creative skillet. Fajitas, however, will likely not be on the menu. 

“I’m presenting the face of Mexican cuisine, a vision that is fresh yet respectful of ancient cultures,” he says. “It’s not what it seems we all think about Mexican food. I’m sourcing fresh and seasonal products in traditional recipes reinvented in a modern way. Even though the recipes are simple they are sustainable and socially responsible cooking.”

Vázquez Lugo, who is gay, also remains the executive chef of Nicos, a homey restaurant his parents founded in 1957. Sixty years later, Nicos was named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America while maintaining its family roots in a city bursting with cutting-edge, avant-garde restaurants. He and his mother received The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award 2018 for their joint contribution to Mexican cuisine. He spends most of his time at Nicos in Mexico City but came to the U.S. to oversee the menu at Buena Vida. 

Vázquez Lugo came to the Buena Vida project auspiciously. Owner Ivan Iricanin (CEO of Street Guys Hospitality, which runs the three Ambar restaurants, among others) took himself on a fact-finding trip to Mexico at the end of 2018 for his other Mexican destination, Buena Vida/TTT in Silver Spring. 

At Nicos, he found himself impressed. 

“I asked to see the chef,” he says, “but they told me he was a celebrity and couldn’t talk.”

The staff finally granted Iricanin 15 minutes for his presentation. Vázquez Lugo was in. 

While Iricanin brings his original plan to bear at Buena Vida (three floors, three menus, three concepts, three soundtracks), it is Vázquez Lugo’s commitment to tradition and personal passion that arrive on the plate.

“My idea is to present Mexico away from chimichangas,” he says. “I want to change the stereotype of greasy pork for authentic heritage.”

In Mexico, Vázquez Lugo is a leader of the slow food movement, which dedicates itself to social and environmental responsibility. He’s brought this philosophy with him across the border to Buena Vida and its many spaces.

Upon entering, ground-floor TTT bustles as a relaxed streetside cafe (including patio seating) bursting with art. A bakery is the centerpiece, churning out from-scratch tortillas, fluffy tortas and sweets like buñuelos from the coast of Yucatan. 

As a good D.C.-area restaurant, it’ll serve brunch as well as lunch and dinner. 

A flight up, Buena Vida is the main attraction and where Vázquez Lugo finds his strength. At its core, it’s a “a menu showcasing traditional, indigenous fare,” he says. 

“This restaurant is representative of Nicos and its commitment to tradition,” Vázquez Lugo says.

Interactive service is a mainstay there; Buena Vida waiters prepare Caesar salads tableside as Nicos staff does in honor of the iconic dish’s invention in Tijuana. Family-recipe guac — a simple prep of avocado, onion and olive oil, without lime — comes this way as well. 

Vázquez Lugo’s traditionally inspired sophistication arrives in the form of melt-in-the-mouth rabbit barbacoa, slow-braised and marinated in chiles; and a showstopping, glistening ancho pepper stuffed with ground ribeye, bathed in a rich black-bean sauce and sprinkled with almonds. In what’s almost de riguer of late, Brussels sprouts appear, cloaked in Oaxacan cheese and tucked into a quesadilla.

From the sea, Acapulco-style seared snapper is paired with sweet potato puree and mango salad that add color, sweetness and ingredients native to the Americas.

Still, this reflection of Nicos is no bucolic hacienda affair. As the hour grows later, Buena Vida turns as dynamic as any lounge in the chic Polanco district of Mexico City. A wine cellar boasts an extensive collection of Mexican vintages (Iricanin’s goal is to make it the largest in the area); the mezcal and tequila list is dizzying even before testing. Cocktails are creative with nods to dishes they’re served with, like the margarita al pastor, made from a base of bacon-infused tequila brightened by pineapple and chili celery salt.

The restaurant’s crown jewel is the rooftop, beguilingly monikered Buena Vista Social Club. Iricanin promises an early-summer debut for this open-air space to evoke carefree ‘50s and ‘60s Acapulco. DJs are set to spin from brunch until late, accompanied by a raw bar with as much bite as the beats. Iricanin plans to add space for hookahs and cigars. In other words, it’s an all-day beach party.

Beyond his cooking, for Vázquez Lugo, reverence for ancient and modern Mexican tradition extends to acceptance for all Mexicans. 

“In my dishes, I respect the wide ethic and environmental diversity and heritage of Mexico. In my restaurants, I respect the wide identities and ways of life of Mexicans.” 

As a gay man and cultural leader, he’s worked to set an example.

“My team has people with all skin colors, from all ages, and all sexual identities,” he says. 

When he first started working at Nicos, he felt that he had to hide his identity. Today, “no one worries about these things,” he says, and notes that “Mexico City has advanced impressively in the area of human rights.” 

During that capital city’s Pride celebrations, Nicos welcomes families and participants who are celebrating. The restaurant bakes sweets with the rainbow flag emblazoned on top and changes its website to recognize the important date. He hopes to accomplish similar goals at Buena Vida.

His genuine pride has led him to host a Mexican cooking show. He also teases a possible book. 

Vázquez Lugo’s modern vision of Mexican gastronomic and cultural patrimony is set be a joyous cross-border affair: just with more menudo and fewer fajitas.

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Dining

Winter Restaurant Week a welcome escape from the cold

Enjoy D.C.’s diverse culinary scene at great prices

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KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s Gatsby is among the hotspots participating in this year’s RAMW Winter Restaurant Week. (Photo courtesy of KNEAD Hospitality + Design)

Saving Washington, D.C. diners from winter doldrums, RAMW Winter Restaurant Week is back in action. It returns Jan. 17-23 with the motto of “Dine Out. Take Out. Eat Up.”

The city’s signature winter dining event is back as a one-week promotion focused on dining out and tasting the city’s diverse culinary scene. Yet it also is providing diners with newer programs that they have grown to love over the past few cycles. These include the popular “RW-To-Go” takeout dinner meals, outdoor dining spaces, as well as cocktail pairings, allowing diners to take advantage of a range of indoor/outdoor comfort levels and dining opportunities.

Participating restaurants are set to offer multi-course brunch and lunch menus for $25 per person, and multi-course dinner menus for $40 or $55 per person for on-premises dining. Most are offering the traditional three-course meals, while others may include extras.

Many restaurants will also offer the RW-To-Go dinner meals, a program introduced in 2019, available at two price points: $70 or $100 for two people and $140 or $200 for four people.

More than 200 restaurants across the area are participating. 

“Our restaurants have shown resilience, creativity, and perseverance over the past two years, and they continue to count on the amazing support of loyal diners and newcomers through promotions like Restaurant Week,” said RAMW President & CEO Kathy Hollinger. “Designed to get diners out to experience all our great food scene has to offer, we have evolved this turnkey promotion to help meet diners where they are in terms of comfort. With offerings to include RW-To-Go, curbside pickup and delivery, heated patios, cozy igloos and indoor dining, there is truly something for anyone looking to support their favorite spot or try something new.”

New restaurants participating in Winter Restaurant Week include Ala, Bar Chinois, Bistro Du Jour, The Mayflower Club, Officina Cafe, Penny Royal Station, and Urban Roast in the District; Diabolo’s Cantina at MGM and Rosa Mexicano at National Harbor; North Italia Tysons; and the newest The Capital Grille location in Fairfax.

2021 RAMMYS Winners and finalists participating include Convivial, Cranes (also Michelin-starred), Espita, Estadio, iRicchi, and Sababa. 

In the 14th Street and Dupont Circle areas, popular participating restaurants include Agora, Cork, Duke’s, Floriana, and Sushi Taro, among others. 

Winter Restaurant Week also extends beyond core neighborhoods, stretching far past the city’s borders. Areas like Takoma Park and Bethesda in Maryland, and Alexandria and National Landing in Virginia, are also hosting participating restaurants. 

Some spots are offering additional deals, extended timelines, and other options. “I’m excited about the creativity of our local restaurants,” says Hollinger, “with their offers and spaces that give diners great experiences during the promotion, and the flexibility to dine in the way that works for them whether indoor, in heated outdoor dining spaces or at home with our Restaurant Week To-Go program.”

For example, Ambar (both the D.C. and Clarendon locales) will have a $70 seven-course to-go menu for two people. The deal includes a bottle of wine in addition to the food. 

Schlow Restaurant Group has a $40 gift card for more than three meals at any of its restaurants, including NAMA Sushi Bar and TICO in D.C. and Alta Strada Italian Restaurants in D.C. and Fairfax. 

James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Schlow says, “This is a great way for Restaurant Week diners to experience more of our menu offerings, and perhaps explore some of our restaurants they haven’t tried yet. Plus, with [our] Restaurant Week extended an additional week through Jan. 30, there’s ample time to dine.”

Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design group is involving all its restaurants in the promotion. The group’s restaurants include Gatsby, Mi Vida, The Grill, and more. Owner Jason Berry notes that he is “excited to participate in this year’s winter restaurant week. Each year Restaurant Week brings new diners to our doors to experience the creativity and talent our staff continues to showcase at our restaurants.”

Recall that the city has reinstated mask mandates for indoor spaces. In addition, On Jan. 15, 2022, per Mayor’s Order 2021-148, the District of Columbia adopts a citywide vaccination entry requirement that requires COVID-19 vaccination to enter indoor facilities within the city. This includes restaurants and bars.

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Dining

Bistro du Jour transports you from Wharf to Seine

New casually sophisticated restaurant a welcoming, inclusive space

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The owners of Bistro du Jour say, ‘Our restaurants are intended to be welcoming to all guests of all backgrounds, beliefs and demographics.’ (Photo by Rey Lopez courtesy Bistro du Jour)

Delights run morning to night at The Wharf’s new Bistro du Jour, a casually sophisticated French outpost sliding into a prime waterfront space.

Courtesy of gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design, this new restaurant flaunts a menu born from a Seine-side bistro, serving coffee in the morning hours to Champagne in the evening. Its all-day culinary oeuvre begins with coffee (from La Colombe) and omelettes, and ends with items like a towering and meaty bi-patty cheeseburger L’Americain.

Taking over the sweet spot vacated by Dolcezza, Bistro du Jour is a sister to Mi Vida and The Grill, KNEAD group’s two other Southwest waterfront locales. The group also runs several other formal and large-format restaurants they have populated across the city.

Why bring French to the Wharf?

“We have been here for almost four years and we knew what the area was missing and acted on it,” says one of the co-owners, Jason Berry. “We wanted something where people could come in at all hours of the day and find something they wanted, from coffee and pastry to a full-on sit down at night.”

The Bistro opens at 7:30 a.m. serving that local La Colombe coffee, plus flaky, buttery pastries from KNEAD’s partner Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery. Breakfast service starts at 8 a.m. with brioche doughnuts, quiches, a “massive” Belgian waffle, and French toast topped with a blueberry compote and sweetened whipped cream.

Executive Chef Treveen Dove – transferred after three years at another KNEAD spot, Succotash Prime) – oversees the offerings, a tour of the “greatest hits” of a typical Parisian bistro.

“Oeufs Sur Le Plat is to die for, with the griddled buttered bread topped with a sunny side up egg, sautéed mushrooms and a Mornay sauce… It’s so rich and delicious.”

By 11 a.m., the Bistro transitions to other traditional French fare, like French onion soup, tuna Niçoise salad, steak frites, mussels in a white wine and garlic butter, and a croque madame sandwich dripping with gruyere and creamy Bechamel. One unique offering is whipped brown butter with radishes and crostinis. There are also gougeres, warm cheese puffs shot through with gruyere.

Come 4 p.m., the dinner menu fills out even more, with additional dinner items confit de canard (duck leg with green lentils and red wine shallots); and a robust, earthy coq au vin (braised chicken with bacon, mushrooms and mashed potatoes); and a lamb shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes that would be at home on a French Alps farm.

Due to space limitations, the Bistro lacks a sit-down bar. Yet beverage director Darlin Kulla, who has been a part of the KNEAD family for more than four years, has put together a focused menu of six craft cocktails. You’ll find not only a French 75 (gin, lemon verbena, lemon, bubbles), but also a Manhattan and a “Champs Elysees” with cognac, chartreuse, lemon, and bitters.

The bar itself carries only one brand of each liquor: one gin, rum, and vodka. “ If you want vodka, you’re having Grey Goose,” notes Reg with a smile.

Given the cuisine, there is a considerable French wine list topping 60 bottles, leaning heavily on Champagne and sparkling wine. There are almost 20 red, white, rose, and Champagne options by the glass and carafe, as well. The bar rounds out its stock with French aperitifs and bottled beer.

Notably, the majority of the restaurant’s seating is situated on the building’s exterior, in a newly constructed all-season patio enclosure with almost 70 seats. The owners designed the space to maximize waterfront views, capacity, and flexibility. During warmer days, the Potomac breeze is welcome to flutter around coffee-sippers; in the colder months, the windows roll down for a fully enclosed and conditioned space. The patio’s banquettes arrived directly from France, and twinkling strung lights sway from the ceiling.

The interior is done up in Mediterranean greens, pinks, and creams. Big windows welcome in daytime natural light, but allow for a dim, mood-lit atmosphere in the evening. Traditional bentwood bistro chairs dot the space and antique-style tin tiles reflect a classic Parisian flair. Over at the bar, the glassware display was created from a single panel of antiqued brass. At the rear, a daytime counter offers coffee, pastries, and drinks.

As Bistro du Jour’s owners are both gay men, they note that, “Our restaurants are intended to be welcoming to all guests of all backgrounds, beliefs and demographics. We cater to everyone, which is the only way to lead a hospitality organization.”

“When you’re part of a minority group in society,” they say, “the only way to lead your restaurants is as inclusive, welcoming, and hospitable leaders.”

Though smaller than their other ventures, a French bistro right on the teeming, pedestrian-heavy Wharf “was the perfect fit,” they say. 

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Jane Jane brings throwback joy to busy 14th Street

Cocktail bar characterized by warm Southern hospitality

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(Photo courtesy of Deney Lam)

There is no standing at Jane Jane, the new classic cocktail bar in the heart of 14th Street. Its 850 square feet is for sitting and savoring, drinking in the relaxed retro vibe and the thoughtful craft cocktails. 

At the foot of the mixed-use Liz development where Whitman-Walker is the major tenant, Jane Jane’s creative use of a shoebox-sized space brings throwback joy to a busy thoroughfare. 

In the pre-COVID days of 2019, Whitman-Walker approached the Jane Jane owners, hospitality veterans Jean Paul (JP) Sabatier, Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield, all gay men, to make good use of the vacant parcel, and ensure it would be run by LGBTQ entrepreneurs. “It required some gymnastics because of the layout,” says Brabham, “but we came up with this cozy classic cocktail concept.” 

The hangout spot is an effort by the trio to “celebrate hospitality. We want everyone who walks into the space to feel like friends of ours we are having over for drinks or a bite. Its a cocktail party in our home,” he says. They felt connected to the idea of a tiny bar—a space where they would want to have a drink.

Named for Brabham’s mother, Jane Jane is as alluring and lively as it is intimate, each detail in the experience characterized by warm Southern hospitality—right from the bowl of spiced nuts that swiftly appear at each table at the beginning of service.

Sabatier, who has held stints at D.C. institutions like Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Maydan, and Compass Rose, oversees the bar and cocktail program, organized by spirit. (For their part, Brabham and Porterfield, romantic partners, also act as co-owners of Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop; Porterfield is also the current Curator and Director of Long View Gallery in Shaw.)

Sabatier has presented classic cocktails with a few noteworthy nods to current zeitgeist, as imagined by his lengthy experience behind the bar. The booklet-like menu includes a broad selection of familiar favorites like a Negroni, Manhattan, martini, but also features Sabatier’s handpicked favorite classics like the Boulevardier (a whiskey Negroni), Last Word (gin married to herbaceous green chartreuse) and Air Mail (rum, honey and cava). Drinks fall in the $13-$16 range; a “Golden Hour” runs daily until 7 p.m. featuring beer and wine specials and a punch of the day. 

Sabatier’s creative juices flow on the first page through cocktails like the vividly named Tears at an Orgy, with brandy, orange and maraschino, as well as the best-selling, highly Instagrammable Crop Top, a gin cocktail with a red-wine floater—and a name that matches the look of the bi-color drink. “It’s fun, delicious, and speaks to the space,” says Sabatier. He notes that their vodka of choice comes from Civic, a local, women- and LGBTQ-owned distillery.

Sabatier, a classically trained chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate, also oversees the small selection of bar bites (the space has no kitchen, part of the required “gymnastics” to make it functional.)

Beyond the complimentary vessel of rosemary-flecked mixed nuts, other bar snacks run from pickled vegetables to a Southern-style Pimento cheese dip and an onion dip creamy enough to make your grandmother blush. The “Jane’s Caviar” dish is a spread of trout roe and crème fraiche and comes with a towering mound of shatteringly crisp chips. A weekend brunch is in the works, which will serve goodies from local bakeries.

The retro-style interior recalls both California and the South, with only 32 seats inside and a 14-seat patio. Cozy booths done up in a hunter green as warm and inviting as a cool aunt are slung below walnut-wood walls and bar. Bright patterned tiles run the length of the floor; the back wall has playful cocktail wallpaper. A charming needlepoint by the restrooms kindly requests of guests, “please don’t do coke in the bathroom.”

The owners note that while Jane Jane is not explicitly a gay bar, its location in a traditionally gay-welcoming institution means that it has LGBTQ in its bones.

“Supporting LGBTQ people, businesses, and causes has been in Jane Jane’s ownership’s DNA at every establishment at which they have been involved,” they say, having supported local LGBTQ+ organizations like Casa Ruby, Victory Fund, SMYAL and the Human Rights Campaign, among others. 

Porterfield says that they were surprised that, given the locale, people assumed Jane Jane was a gay bar. “It’s not a gay or straight bar, just a fantastic cocktail bar that welcomes anyone to hang out with us,” he says. 

Nevertheless, the owners have taken into consideration the significance of being in the Liz development, as both gay men and as part of the hospitality industry. “It highlights the lack of representation as gay owners in this bar and restaurant world,” says Porterfield. They note the lack of women, LGBTQ and BIPOC representation. 

“It’s very special to us that we opened in this space,” says Porterfield, “so we want to show that we have opened a place that is all about inclusivity.”

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