Food to Haunt Your Dreams: Incepted by D.C.’s Tail Up Goat

I want to extract the brain thoughts from this veteran chef team.

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Still feeling the withdrawal from lamb ribs. (Deb Lindsey, Washington Post)

Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate it.
– Dom Cobb (still suffering from Christopher Nolan’s idea for his name)

Whenever I make plans to travel with friends, I am typically allowed to plan one dinner. Safeguards were installed because when unchecked, I typically plan to eat third breakfast and second dinner like a Hobbit with a budget that NASA would find appalling. My first two choices of Rose’s Luxury (5-hour wait) or Pineapple and Pearls (couldn’t afford rent) were out, and so I sat down to do the hours of careful curating as I trawled the depths of D.C. publications, sifted through the dreck of Yelp reviews, and studied food portion proportions in grainy photographs like I was analyzing the Zapruder film.

In plain terms, it’s difficult to find a restaurant with approachability, affordability, reservations, and quite simply, the food I like to eat. Even harder is finding a place where my friends would like to eat. It involves about 20 browser tabs and a whole lot of muttering, which is about as Beautiful Mind-y as I get. At the end of my investigation, pinned up amidst the dossiers and mugshots and yarn webs of my bulletin board was a single name: Tail Up Goat. It’s a relative newcomer, a labor of love headlined by husband-wife team Jon Sybert and Jill Tyler with friend Bill Jensen, all vets of habitual D.C. top-10ers Komi and Little Serow. It came with the pedigree. What I left with was one of my favorite meals, full-stop.

Even at five, the place is already filling up on a weekend. Divided up by a charming, permeable bar and walled off with bottles of wine, it’s understated casual comfort. The impeccable service starts you off with a complimentary tumbler of cucumber-vinegar aperitif. Right away they let me know they were coming to play. I didn’t love it, but it was bold and intense and quenching like a kick to the head. These guys weren’t afraid of flavor, and that, I loved. Their drink list shows some serious thought, including a glass of light-on-its-feet Trebbiano orange wine and some utterly quaffable cocktails.

The Tail Up team also bakes their own breads and makes their own pastas, so we ordered the brown rice bread, thick and chewy and slathered and lathered with yogurt and black garlic. Chunks of cauliflower drizzled with balsamic tumble off the toast in an acidic, creamy, funky mess. You lick your fingers with no sense of self-consciousness and call yourself lucky. Pressed pork with beans and sweet peperonata is a clever play on franks and beans. The little block of meat is tender and tear-apart, but like its progenitor, the texture is off in one of the few missteps, a little chalky, a little boring.

But holy hell do they know their carbs. I used to have a ravioli embargo, because even though I enjoy them, I tired of receiving a tiny half-dozen portion at mediocre Italian joints for exorbitant prices. But then I tried hand-making these dexterity devils and watched enough burst their guts in the water like a post-shark pasta-feeding frenzy and I lifted the embargo. We only received three carrot and leek ravioli for $18, but when you bite into them and you inhale their natural sweetness and they spill their cheese like hushed secrets in your own personal fonduta, you wonder why you ever even bothered to count. Sprinkled with pistachio and burnt crumbs from their bread program for texture, they taste like a garden. They taste like comfort. And they taste like craft. I cut off piece after tiny piece and ate as slowly as possible.

I watched them carry away the plate with no small sense of mourning, but I was also looking forward to something else. One of the great joys of choosing the restaurant for your friends is you get to undersell some things. What I said was, “Get the lamb.” What came out was a showstopper. A family-style firewood stack of nine ribs robed in meat and fat is globbed with yogurt and punctuated with sumac. But it never even touches the dark side of heavy with pickled onions, earthy beets, and heaps of herbs. We scraped at the bones with fork and tooth and nail. It’s texture on texture, flavor on flavor, smoke on bright. Even better, it doesn’t taste like a restaurant dish. It tastes like your professional chef friend got sick of over-tweezed, cheffy convolutions and threw a backyard dinner party and just served you a pile of food on a James Beard Award for a plate. Then they crushed some beers and did a victory lap. That’s what this is. Just an utterly confident, unadorned, messy, beautiful pile of food.

Over the years, as I’ve honed my selection algorithm, I’ve found a great deal more restaurants that make a great deal less mistakes.

But there is a world of difference between a restaurant that hits its marks and a restaurant that occupies a piece of my brainspace like Leonardo DiCaprio put it there. Tail Up Goat reminds me of some of my favorite Chicago eateries, The Publican and Girl and the Goat and The Bristol, all places that escaped Michelin stars and special occasion status because these places are better than that. They’re for eleventy-first birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, depression dinners, date dinners, Friday night out dinners, and bored Tuesday dinners.

Tail Up Goat is for everything and everyone. Take your friends, and undersell the lamb.

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