Thursday, August 17, 2006

Richard Brandenburg
Cooks Up A Delicious Homecoming at Urbana

By now, Washingtonians should be aware that the swanky Kimpton hotel chain has graced the District with yet another fabulous place for visitors and locals, alike. Sister hotels, Rouge, Topaz, Madera, Helix, George and Monaco boast eco-friendly rooms and hipster lounges and / or restaurants. The newest arrival meets their current standards – and even sets it a notch higher.

Just off Dupont Circle, Hotel Palomar has everything to make guests swoon: central location, urban-chic d├ęcor and a rustically-sleek restaurant and wine bar, Urbana. Designed by San Francisco-based Puccini Group, the new eatery boasts a simple-yet-sophisticated menu and a playful list of largely Mediterranean and California vintages.

Executive Chef, Richard Brandenburg, grew up in Reston, Virginia, and worked at both Restaurant Nora and Red Sage in the late '90s before setting out to explore the culinary scene in bigger markets. He worked at top-ranking restaurants in New York, New Orleans, London and the Fifth Floor in San Francisco.

Back on ‘home turf,’ Richard declares, “I love being in DC. My sister lives 5 blocks from the restaurant. And my brother and friends, from when I was young, are close by.” He also remarks on how dining in the District has evolved, “Its amazing! It’s enormous compared to what it was. I left when I was younger because there weren’t many places to go. Now, everywhere else you hear so much ‘noise’ about DC.”

Time away afforded Brandenburg to evolve as a chef and bring his talents back to his old stomping grounds. The exclusive all-male, members-only Bohemian Club in Northern California (members range from Papa Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to Jimmy Buffet, Robert Mondavi and Bill Kimpton) served as an intensive training ground. Originally founded by journalists and artists, the waitlist to become a member of the now business-oriented organization is 15 years, and service expectations are high. He says, “One day I’d do an 8-course dinner for 30, and another day, a 4-course for 2600.” Brandenburg describes the diverse scene at the society club this way, ”It was like a huge university with 125 fraternities, 1 boy scout troop, and an Ewok village. There were lots of famous people cutting loose, playing music. One time, at 5 am, I came across one member holding a gin fizz and playing the bagpipes!”

His time in California also exposed him to a new way to look at wine. Chef Brandenburg explains, “Food and wine go hand in hand. In San Francisco, I really learned to appreciate a properly paired wine with dishes. Its part of the meal.” According to him, a good or bad sommelier can define the dining experience. In his words, “If the food is a 6, the proper wine pairing can bring it to a 9 or 10. A bad pairing can drop it to a 4.” Urbana’s wine program boasts 200 bottles in all, and features flights, 30 wines by the glass and a half dozen quartinos. Chef Brandenburg says, “Our wine list is heavy on Italian and French, and we also have some great Californian wines.”

Good food and wine are appreciated both at work and at home. Richard says his wife, a native Californian whom he met at the Fifth Floor where she tended bar, is a sommelier. Bringing his family back to the District (they have two young children) is the realization of Brandenburg’s long-time desire. He says, "Ultimately, my goal was to come back and open a restaurant.”

Chef Brandenburg explains that his cooking tends to lean toward southern France and the Mediterranean coast of Italy where dishes “balance acidity with fat.” Because he uses seasonal produce, the menu is constantly in “slow-transition." Brandenburg explains, “I have no choice but to change at least some dishes every 2-3 weeks. Figs and melon will be off in a month, for example. Sardines With Melon will become Candied Butternut Squash With Sardines.” He refers to Vitello Tonnato (braised veal atop tuna) as his signature dish.
More mouth-watering items include house-made pasta, pizzas, fish and specialties like Osso Bucco with a side of Duck Fat Fries or Rosemary Poundcake.

The comfortably fashionable bar has its own scene, and Mixologist Jacques Bezuindenhout of San Francisco's famed Harry Denton's Starlight Room was brought in to design Urbana’s signature cocktails.

Still newly arrived at the time of this interview, Richard hadn’t visited many bars in the DC area. He described his favorite bar in New York: My best friend in NY (who was GM of CBGB’s) and I each lived a block away from Bar 81. On 7th between 1st and 2nd. I think it closed last year…”

His favorite drink: James on the rocks.

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