If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider this: After dining at Rolf and Daughters, the new blockbuster restaurant in the revitalized Werthan Mills, I started swirling sorghum into my cocktails and adding a side of Brussels sprout slaw to every meal I cooked.
Unfortunately, that's about as much imitation as my limited culinary skills can muster. When it comes to Philip Krajeck's garganelli verde with heritage pork ragout, or farro gemelli with hen-of-the-woods mushroom, I don't know where to start. But when it comes to flattering the chef-owner's inventive yet accessible repertoire of so-called "modern peasant food," I have a lot of sincere words.
Let's start with the enchanting rehab of the Werthan factory's century-old boiler room. The glowing bulbs of the oversized "Open" sign (custom-made by Luke Stockdale at Sideshow Sign Co.) shed a new light on the northern section of Germantown, and the inviting room — featuring handcrafted communal tables (made by Matt Alexander at Holler Design), reclaimed wood paneling and retro industrial-style filament lights — brings a rare amenity to the lofts upstairs. The captive audience of Werthan residents might help explain the wall-to-wall crowd early on a Thursday evening, but as far as we could tell, diners were coming from well beyond Germantown. And the restaurant-industry crowd is flocking to Rolf and Daughters too. On our visit, we bumped into a popular chef and a ubiquitous restaurant consultant, and both were waxing poetic about their meals. We also encountered a dazzling 5-year-old girl — in her grandmother's mink cape and red velvet hat — enjoying spaghetti carbonara with her family. (And she wasn't even one of Philip Rolf Krajeck's two daughters.)
Now let us praise the cocktail menu, with a dozen innovations such as the Sorghum Swizzle (rum, lime, sorghum and bitters), Cumberland Sour (whiskey, lemon, sorghum, apple cider vinegar and orange bitters), and Ghost Writer (Scotch, black walnut bitters and Meletti). There is also a succinct wine list and a selection of beers, with ample homage to Belgium, where Krajeck grew up.
When it comes to the menu, several strategies are evolving among Rolf and Daughters fans. For example, we know one frequent visitor who recruits three carb-loving co-diners to accompany him, so he can get all four housemade pasta dishes on the table. Our own satisfaction with the tender squid-ink canestri tossed with Gulf shrimp, squid and chorizo would suggest that is a good plan, so long as you don't overlook a daily pasta special, such as the excellent ricotta cavatelli with goat neck braised in goat milk.
There is so much intriguing and unexpected cuisine on the menu, there's a case to be made for sharing everything, so you don't miss out on any of it. We employed this sharing formula for four people: Three snacks, two salads, two pastas, two entrees, one side, and three desserts. It may have been more than we needed, but we weren't going to say "No" to panna cotta with almond cookies, Olive and Sinclair tart with caramel and bourbon-steeped cocoa nibs, and especially not the bombolini — beignet-style pastries stuffed with vanilla cream and served with a chocolate sauce for dipping.
Despite the indulgent ordering, we licked clean the platters and rustic wooden serving boards, leaving not a smear of custardy chicken liver pâté with flat frills of parsley nor a sliver of coarser pork pâté with pickled cauliflower, carrots and onions. We peeled buttery skins off plump Gulf shrimp and licked our garlicky, lemony fingers like we were picnicking somewhere south of Route 30A in Florida, near where Krajeck formerly worked at Fish Out of Water in Watercolor.
Brook trout in a sultry bath of crème fraîche and dill with braised savoy cabbage was a comforting and pretty presentation of fish, but for whatever reason — maybe the grit of exposed-brick walls — we expected a grittier, pan-seared surface of sizzling silver skin; consequently, the skinless fillets were not what we were hoping for.
On the other hand, pork with knudel and kraut exceeded expectations when it arrived as a pork trio: chorizo, sous-vide belly and grilled loin, plated with a sculpted orb of potato dumpling, slivers of honeycrisp apple and large-grained mustard the consistency of paddlefish caviar.
Among such hearty and textured fare, it would be easy to lose sight of salads and sides, but Krajeck and Co. drafted a list of accompaniments that threaten to steal the show. Among the vegetable sides, we enjoyed caramelized fingers of rutabaga with walnuts and a deep-sweet date puree. Make no mistake about it: Jerusalem artichoke is not the same thing as an artichoke, but rather a tuberous root of a daisy-like member of the aster family. (The name possibly derives from girasole, the Italian word for sunflower.) At Rolf and Daughters, roasted hunks of Jerusalem artichoke, resembling ginger root, are tossed with orange slices, arugula and crisp olive flesh, to create a vibrant and earthy medley of salt and citrus.
Perhaps the most memorable vegetable was the elegantly simple Brussels sprouts salad. Listed as sprouts with apple, hazelnut and fiore di sardo, it could have turned into a blunt mélange of bitter greens and cheese, but Krajeck outsmarted the tiny raw cabbages, shredding them into strings of tender floss, which absorbed the layers of salt, fruit and nut and morphed into a delicate and dimensional dish worth attempting to re-create at home.
So, you ask, how did I do in my effort to pirate Rolf and Daughters' recipes? Honestly, not all that well. But if we could faithfully replicate a restaurant's menu, there'd be little point in dining there. Rolf and Daughters offers something that most of us can't begin to imitate at home, though it might inspire us to try. Come to think of it, maybe that kind of inspiration is the sincerest form of flattery.
Rolf and Daughters serves dinner nightly.