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DC Hitmaker Erik Bruner-Yang Isn’t Afraid to Try Something Different

The chef changes course at his upcoming restaurant Spoken English

Erik Bruner-Yang at Maketto.
Photo by R. Lopez for Eater DC

No restaurant owner wants their opening pushed back due to construction issues. But for DC chef Erik Bruner-Yang, delays at the new Line hotel, where he’ll debut two restaurants hopefully by the end of the year, gave him time to change his mind.

“As time has allowed us to think about it, it’s evolved more,” he says of his smaller Line restaurant, Spoken English. Bruner-Yang, best known for his work at the lively ramen shop Toki Underground and, more recently, at 2015 Eater Best New Restaurant Maketto, initially announced plans for Spoken English as a tasting-menu destination. It would have been a natural progression for a chef who made his name with more casual endeavors, a way to flex some fine-dining muscles. “Originally, it was going to be this more formal tasting menu, but [that’s] not representative of my cooking style,” he says now.

Instead, Spoken English will take inspiration from Japanese tachinomiyastanding-room-only bars where folks gather over drinks and bites in an energetic, often small, space. Here’s how it will work:

The Setting

Spoken English will be located within the kitchen space Bruner-Yang has in the Line hotel. “It’s almost like a restaurant speakeasy,” he explains.

Fourteen diners at a time can fit into Spoken English, which will feature a long table for standing as well as lower tables and chairs available for guests who want or need to sit. Bruner-Yang put a lot of thought into the standing table, prioritizing guests’ comfort by adding a foot rest, coat hangers, and using luxe materials like suede and leather. The kitschy wallpaper will nod to ’60s and ’70s graphic art; it features images like a duck walking out of a piece of onigiri and a fish on top of four human legs.

The Food

A custom Grillworks Bianco oven will provide the central focus of the Spoken English kitchen — and menu. It’s a small, open-flame oven that Bruner-Yang says will let him cook things like Peking duck (which he had always wanted to serve at Spoken English) the way it’s currently prepared in Beijing. “The new style is like a modified classic Italian pizza oven, but instead of putting all the wood in the back, you put all the wood in the front, and then you hang the duck as far back as you can,” he says. “It’s got this really cool campfire vibe.” The oven also has a grill that sits above the flames, which Bruner-Yang will use to cook various skewers.

While duck will be a focus, the menu will also offer other large entrees, like a whole chicken yakitori, butchered and prepared for guests before their eyes, or a smoked Wagyu short rib. With the main, diners will be encouraged to try several side dishes, like homemade soba or udon noodles, tempura, XO fried rice, and maybe even mac and cheese.

Acclaimed pastry chef Pichet Ong oversees desserts both at Spoken English and Bruner-Yang’s other restaurant project at the Line, Brothers and Sisters. Bruner-Yang has partnered with noted local barman Todd Thrasher on the beverage program for the hotel.

It might sound like a lot of food, but Bruner-Yang envisions groups coming in as their first — or last — stop of a night out, with a six-pack or a bottle of wine, splitting a Peking duck and a bunch of smaller dishes, all in about 30 to 40 minutes. It’s about keeping energy high. And while he admits that the format is new for him, he points out that in many ways, “Spoken English will be definitely in our wheelhouse of flavors: really bold, lots of fun, loud.”

“Everyone’s still under the assumption that it’s gonna be this formal, sit-down tasting restaurant, and that’s not what it’s going to be anymore,” Bruner-Yang says as he describes the swap. Instead, “everyone [will be] just standing around having a really good time.”

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