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Empanadas are specialty for D.C. gay couple

Partners in life and work unveil dream pop-up product

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La Buena Empanada, gay news, Washington Blade
Hernan Gigena (left) and his partner, Chris Casinella. (Photo courtesy Gigena)

In Spanish, La Buena means “the good one.” La Buena Empanada (labuenaempanada.com) aims to show how one gay couple has made a savory baked good even better.

Hernan Gigena and Chris Casinella (married in 2016) are pure Washington: they have each led careers in the private sector and at multinational organizations like the World Bank. But it is through the package of the empanada — bite-sized, hand-held, easy to eat — that they are able to express their deepest passion, founding La Buena Empanada earlier this year. Wunder Garten in NoMa (where one of the owners, Christopher Lynch, is gay) is their current pop-up post, where they will be serving their empanadas through the end of February. 

Before meeting Gigena, Casinella had been married to a woman and was dedicating his life to career and family. It was with Gigena that the two decided to open La Buena. 

“I told Chris that this was his time to finally open the food business that he’d dreamed of, but together with me,” Gigena says. “He has a new partner, and a new outlook on life — this was the opportunity.” 

With their savings combined, they started making empanadas. 

Gigena, born in Argentina, came up with the empanada idea. After his grandmother and mother both died, Gigena realized that he and Casinella could make empanadas to honor their legacy. 

Plus, he says, “I think empanadas may become the new burrito. Twenty years ago, Mexican food wasn’t nearly as prevalent. Today, Latin food is extremely popular.”

Gigena explains the background of the empanada. While originally from Spain, each Latin American country has developed its own style. Some are made using corn or plantain flour, for example. Other countries deep-fry their versions, or even include sweet fillings. 

Argentine empanadas, he says, are influenced by French and Italian cuisines that immigrants from these countries brought to their new homeland. The dough is light and flaky: reminiscent of European pastry. This leaves room for the filling to shine.

La Buena currently offers three kinds of empanada: beef, ham and cheese, and spinach and feta. The beef option, with onions, garlic potatoes, egg and spices, is directly from the pages of his grandmother’s recipe book. The spinach and feta option comes from Casinella’s grandmother, using Italian seasonings — the same filling she utilized to make ravioli. The ham and cheese (mozzarella, provolone, pecorino) is a tried-and-true Argentine recipe.

To top it off, Gigena serves the empanada with a vibrantly green and punchy chimichurri sauce. 

The couple crafts the empanadas by hand, pre-cooking the fillings. At service, they finish the empanadas in an air fryer for a mere four minutes to cook the dough, ensuring that it’s fresh and crispy. 

“Empanadas are a simple dish to serve and consume,” Gigena says. “This removes extensive preparation that might be required at a full restaurant.”

Instead of swinging the food-truck route, as they had initially considered, the couple decided to serve the empanadas at pop-ups, for catering, and eventually, commercially. 

“My idea is that customers can open a box of easy-to-prep empanadas along with popping a bottle of Argentine wine. And at the pop-up so far, we have been overwhelmed with the positive reaction we have received.”

Beyond cooking, Gigena is also a visual artist, donating his work to LGBT causes in Washington for fundraising. The couple also partners with Tom of Finland vodka and its foundation to promote LGBT art.

As for future plans, La Buena has catering contracts with several institutions. Gigena is in talks with other venues around the city for future pop-ups. And in time for National Empanada day (April 8), La Buena will be back at Wunder Garten. 

“We hope to create a positive food experience using fresh ingredients and a healthier cooking alternative, while also honoring our family’s legacy and culture at a time that was perfect for us and for our audience,” Gigena says.

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Dining

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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Dining

Seven new restaurants to try this fall

D.C. restaurant scene thriving again after rough year

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Le Diplomate, dining, food, French cuisine, gay news, Washington Blade
If you like Le Diplomate, you’ll love new concept Bread Alley in Union Market offering, you guessed it, Le Dip’s famous breads. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The fall dining scene is as hot as ever. Here are some of the top tickets to look out for:

RAMMYs: Sept. 19 marks the annual D.C.-area restaurant industry awards, the RAMMYs. Many of the categories this year are unique to the challenges restaurants faced in 2020. Held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the awards “created timely categories that speak to all the ways the region’s uniquely met those challenges,” according to the RAMMYs. Such categories include “most innovative to-go packaging”, “outstanding COVID-safe redesign,” and “most impressive pivot to provision or market.” 

Jane Jane (1705 14th St. NW): 

Highly anticipated retro-chic cocktail bar Jane Jane quietly opened after more than two years in the making. Co-owned by gay men Drew Porterfield, his partner Ralph Brabham, and friend JP Sabatier, Jane Jane’s mid-century-style throwback offers classic cocktails and upgraded bar snacks. It’s located in the new Liz development on 14th Street.

Thirsty Crow (3400 11th St. NW):

Part sports bar, part cocktail bar, Thirsty Crow opened just last week in Columbia Heights. It sits in the subterranean level of Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Makan, serving cocktails and bites inspired by Malaysian flavors, like its sister restaurant on the ground level. Chef James Wozniuk of Makan is overseeing the menu of snacks like shrimp chips and larger plates like spicy fried chicken with sambal.

No Goodbyes (1770 Euclid St. NW):

The Line Hotel previously played host to a suite of restaurants: A Rake’s Progress, Brothers and Sisters, and Spoke English. When these restaurants left this Adams Morgan hotel, the spaces sat mostly vacant until No Goodbyes slid into the ground floor. An all-day dining place that “taps the farmers, fishers, and small-time ranchers in DC’s own backyard,” according to its website, the menu sits squarely on a Chesapeake Bay foundation. Mid-Atlantic dishes, from fish to fowl, play large on the menu.

Bread Alley (1250 5th St NE):

The intoxicating tower of carbs that greets diners when they walk into buzzy Le Diplomate is getting its very own dedicated space, aptly named Bread Alley. A tiny location in the Union Market area, the shop just launched selling only the three types of bread that arrive complimentary at the start of any Le Dip meal: thick-crusted classic baguette, multigrain boules, and cranberry-walnut boules. It will eventually also sell pastries, jams, butter, honey, and other accouterments. Bakers begin their craft at 3:30 a.m. and offer their wares starting at 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. or sold out, whichever arrives earlier.

Bistro Du Jour (99 District Square SW) 

Bistro Du Jour will be gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s third waterfront venue at the Wharf. A café in the Parisian style, it will lean heavily on croissants and cappuccinos during the day, moving to Champagne and larger savory dishes by night. The bistro will sell current partner Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery’s fresh baked goods and pastries, and will showcase traditional fare like coq au vin, French onion soup, steak frites, and foie gras for lunch and dinner. The bistro will display an extensive bubbly section, as well as a chic espresso bar and an outdoor patio. Brunch is in the works.

SUCCOTASH Prime (915 F St., NW)

After a yearlong hiatus, SUCCOTASH Prime recently reopened at the end of August. SUCCOTASH Prime, also run by gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design, is an updated version of the restaurant, still with Chef Edward Lee at the helm. The refreshed SUCCOTASH opened as a southern steakhouse with an Asian twist, featuring smoked steaks, fried oysters, collard greens, ham, and kimchi side dish. Live music is also planned.

Via Roma (4531 Telfair Blvd #110, Camp Springs, Md.)

Via Roma is a restaurant where you can enjoy the pies, you just can’t call it “pizza.” Just opened a few weeks ago, the restaurant serves pinsas, a pizza-like dish using dough made from a heady mixture of wheat, soy, and rice flours, and then proofed for more than a day. The spot calls itself the first Pinsa-certified restaurant in Maryland, and aims to reflect the laid-back, Mediterranean atmosphere of Naples (the owner also runs an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified restaurant in Maryland). Beyond Pinsa, it also serves Maryland crab tater tots, panini, pasta, salad, and Aperol spritzes.

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Dining

D.C. Restaurant Week returns

Celebrating a revitalized dining scene after COVID closures

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A sample of what’s available from The DC Restaurant Group, which owns spots like Shaw’s Tavern and 801 Restaurant. Entrees include lobster and grits and salmon over succotash. (Photo courtesy DC Restaurant Group)

After being confined to a to-go program for the last two iterations, Washington, D.C.’s Restaurant Week is back this summer to celebrate the revitalized dining scene in the city. Summer Restaurant Week 2021, run by Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), is scheduled to kick off Monday, Aug. 9, and last through Sunday, Aug. 15. 

The signature summer dining event returns to a one-week promotion this year, though restaurants have the option of extending their promotions. Diners can enjoy three-course menus at a range of indoor/outdoor comfort levels at more than 200 restaurants, ranging from fast-casual eateries to fine-dining destinations. In addition, the to-go family-style options that were introduced last year are not gone, however, as many restaurants will also offer this off-premise option. Of course, many spots plan to include a cocktail pairing as well.

Dinner is the main event for participating restaurants, with the classic three-course dinner priced at $35 per person. Several restaurants with higher overall price points are also offering an elevated $55 dinner with exclusive items. Three-course lunches run $22, and weekend brunch is also $22. 

Finally, many restaurants will also offer “RW-To-Go” dinner meals, available at two price points: $60 or $120 for two people and $100 or $200 for four people.

These RW-To-Go dinner meal packages are available for takeout or delivery, and diners can order RW-To-Go either directly from the participating restaurant or check their delivery app for the offer.

D.C. restaurants remain open at 100 percent capacity, but Mayor Bowser last week reinstated mask mandates for indoor spaces.  

New restaurants participating in Summer Restaurant Week include Angolo, ANXO, Flower Child, Le Sel, GATSBY, Glover Park Grill, Gypsy Kitchen, and Truluck’s in D.C.; and Spice Kraft Indian Bistro in Virginia.

“This year’s Summer Restaurant Week is not only providing diners with great options at great prices for dining out, but is also the first time all restaurants across our region are able to accommodate diners at full capacity both indoors and outdoors,” says Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “Being fully open is a step toward recovery for the industry and also toward a return to our dynamic local restaurants in their spaces which help to elevate the dining experience.”

RAMW is the regional association representing restaurants and the foodservice industry in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. RAWM also runs the RAMMYs, the awards for the food and beverage industry. 

Restaurant operators themselves reinforced how important the promotion is to them. “Restaurant Week is an opportunity for us to showcase our resilience and commitment to serving our staff and community,” says Salwa Laaraichi of Station 4

For Eric Heidenberger, a partner at The DC Restaurant Group, which owns spots like Shaw’s Tavern and 801 Restaurant, the past year has been a challenge. But RAMW, he says, “has been very supportive to the D.C. restaurant community and a key a resource in helping us navigate the challenges of the pandemic. We’re excited to participate in the first “normal” restaurant week in almost a year and a half. Restaurant week is a great opportunity for us reach new diners and showcase new dishes to our regular/repeat customers.”

All of gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s locations are participating in Restaurant Week. Co-owners Jason Berry said that he hopes that Restaurant Week “offers a way for diners to begin dipping their toe by taking advantage of these well-priced promotions. Restaurant Week brings a much-needed lift to August revenue and is especially meaningful this year as so many restaurants have been hurting these last 16 months.” 

As for what’s going to be offered at his restaurants, which include Gatsby, The Grill, Mi Casa, Mi Vida, and Succotash, most of which debuted just this year, “each of our restaurants takes a unique approach to offering seasonal additions, fun new items and crowd pleasers so that all guests have something for them during Restaurant Week.”

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