We did not heed her. She texted us at 5:48: Six tables left. Two of us showed up at 6:10. Too late—the restaurant was already full. By the time the fourth arrived at 6:30, the rest of us were already down the block at Belga Cafe, nursing Trappist ales. The bartender there saw dawdlers like us nightly. At 7:15 a hostess at Rose's reached out to tell us that our table awaited. A little over an hour? Not bad. We lucked out.
In every major U.S. city, diners know this scenario: the small restaurant with a quirky staff and dynamic menu (usually among the most interesting, if not always successful, food in town) that clings to a no-reservations policy. The irksome lag times before dinner engender hype and aggravation and debate. Given the exuberant but unevenly skilled cooks in the kitchen at many of these places, they're often not worth the hassle.
But Rose's Luxury does merit the effort. Chef-owner Aaron Silverman, a native of nearby Rockville, Maryland, earned his bona fides working in New York at Momofuku Noodle Bar, George Mendes' Aldea, and Marco Canora's bygone Insieme, and at McCrady's in Charleston with Sean Brock. He distills his eclectic experience into a short, ever-shifting menu that loops in Asian, Italian, and Southern flavors. It all hangs together by talent: Silverman's dishes may unite seemingly disparate ingredients, but they're never too busy, and a knack for deft acidity keeps every bite lively.
Silverman was also smart enough to see that customers should feel extra pampered once they make it inside. We were ushered from the charming first floor—exposed brick walls with fading white paint, a neon sign hanging across from the open kitchen that spells "awesome"—to a sunny nook next to the upstairs bar. Our smiling, flannel-shirted server was speedy with drink orders and delivered us a loaf of potato bread with whipped butter that settled our hunger pangs. (The restaurant recently switched to classic French brioche with butter and jam, which sounds even more bolstering.) He didn't blink when we asked for 11 of the 12 dishes offered.
First up: black-tipped Jonah crab claws from Maine, meatier than their Chesapeake counterparts (particularly in the early spring season). A swipe of mayo, sharpened by emerald-hued ramp oil, accentuated the crab's sweetness. Next came one of the kitchen's signatures: crumbled pork sausage overset with petal-like lychees, a swirl of coconut cream, and crisp red onion spears. Minced habaneros, mint, basil, and cilantro stowed away in the fray. Stirred together, it was the taste of a Southeast Asian island cuisine yet to be discovered: floral and tropical met fire and spice, crisp collided with creamy. A surprise arrived with the dish. The server knew one in our group was a vegetarian, and the kitchen, unbidden, made him a version using Morningstar's meat-free sausage. Major hospitality points.
A Colonial fever dream of a dish bonded Caribbean jerk chicken with a tuft of Vietnamese green mango salad and a dollop of Indian raita spiked with pickled peaches. It came on a plate with flowery patterns and golden curlicues—an old-timey staging of an improbably modern (and winning) amalgam. And I can still taste the strange, wonderful juxtapositions of grilled asparagus in a pool of chive oil, piled with chunks of pineapple tossed in aioli and coins of fried jalapeños.
Silverman knows one place to honor tradition: pastas. Cacio e pepe—the Roman classic starring cheese and black pepper—needs impeccable ingredients and just-right proportions. The kitchen nailed it with a mix of Parmesan and pecorino and enough pepper to make the tongue tingle. The gnocchi, dressed similarly with black pepper, Parmesan, and plenty of butter, tasted flat by comparison. Not so the linguettini, dyed Chlorophyll green from spring onions, tossed with snails for piquant chew, and finished with garlicky breadcrumbs for crunch.
The richest efforts also skewed to simplicity: Our spoons dueled over eggs slowly scrambled in a double boiler, mixed with uni, and layered in a shallow bowl with uni hollandaise and tendrils of fried potato. Our stomachs were already full when a family-style platter of smoked brisket arrived. Its lush fattiness and deep infusion of smoke would, I wager, draw nods of approval from Texans. Most of it (and the accompanying horseradish cream, toast, and vinaigrette-slicked slaw) was consumed as leftovers. We shared one brilliant dessert: stracciatella gelato made from goat's milk and flecked with chocolate, teamed with macerated strawberries and shards of meringue flavored with cocoa and cayenne.
Few recent meals have left me longing to return as much as this one did. I'll employ one of three strategies next time: Heed my friend's advice to arrive early; go solo, so I can slip in to the bar or to the row of seats that faces the kitchen; or collect a group and plan an outing on Rose's awning-covered roof garden. It's a new option that began last month, where one party of six to eight people can reserve the table for the night. It costs $125 per person, and the kitchen keeps feeding you until no one can stand another mouthful. For food this accomplished, in a setting this congenial, it sounds reasonable enough to me.
Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison