We’re revisiting our Capital Chefs feature with a series by music reporter Mickey McCarter. A lot has been happening recently in kitchens in D.C. restaurants, and Mickey takes a look into them from his usual seat at the bar in this series, which runs weekly on Thursdays. This week, Mickey talks to Ed Witt of The Partisan, which is probably the only time he’ll revisit a chef previously profiled!
The best show Ed Witt has seen in recent times was Two Man Advantage, a hockey hardcore band from Long Island, in a concert last summer.
To be clear, it’s a seven-man band that play hockey-themed hardcore punk. They put on quite a show.
That the congenial Mr. Witt has a great appreciation for hardcore isn’t much of surprise considering he looks like he fits right in with the punk rock crowd—he’s thin, bald and covered in tattoos. At the moment, he would rather be watching Ceremony, the California-based hardcore punk band, at the Rock and Roll Hotel. But instead he’s talking to me at a table in the back of The Partisan.
In reality, there is nothing Witt would rather be doing than cooking and spending time in his kitchen. And you can tell by the way his eyes light up when he discusses the food at The Partisan, which he opened a little over four months ago with Nate Anda and Michael Babin. For Witt, the experience harkens back to his time at Italian eatery Il Buco in New York City nearly a decade ago.
“When I worked in Il Buco in New York, I was there for three years. And I always wanted to open a place that was similar to that in that style but more American and not so Italian and Old World. It all came together with that,” Witt told me.
Il Buco had a groundbreaking charcuterie program in New York at the time, and Witt dreamed of doing something similar—in part because he wanted to expand upon the idea with a commissary where he could break down whole animals and use the parts in different dishes.
“When I first sat down with Nate and Michael about it, the whole thing was that was what I always wanted to do. I had that idea. That’s one of the reasons they talked to me about this whole thing was because of my time at Il Buco,” Witt said.
Because the team planned ahead with the Red Apron shop and the companion restaurant The Partisan next door, Witt finds he can always do something different. Within one month of opening, the chefs changed over half the menu.
“It’s definitely seasonal, and it’s definitely a lot to play with,” Witt said.
In addition to breaking down animals in the commissary, Witt found it the ideal place to age ducks, empowering him to create one of The Partisan’s most popular dishes—a 21-day dry aged Rohan duck. The duck is so popular that The Partisan couldn’t keep up with demand for it and actually ran out for a very brief time last week.
Witt receives the duck at least two weeks in advance of serving it. The ducks come to him from New Jersey-based D’Artagnan, which is known for its specialty fowl. Finding a good source for specialty duck was one of Witt’s toughest challenges since leaving New York. There, he turned to a trusted source for Duclair ducks, which were delivered to him aged at 25 days.
New York State finally nabbed Witt’s farmer for overproduction, but he couldn’t turn to his old source even if the fellow was back in business.
“When you dry-age ducks, you can’t put them in a bag. As soon as you seal them up, they will spoil within a day. They just get funky,” Witt explained. “So the whole solution was to start aging them here. We do the aging of the ducks here because we still have plenty of room in the commissary where the beef and everything gets done.”
So Witt continues to age the Rohan ducks for at least another two weeks beyond their initial week of aging. He has served them aged up to 40 days, and they are still just right.
Aging any meat reduces the moisture in the meat, so its flavor becomes dry and concentrated, Witt said.
“With the duck, the fat starts almost disappearing and the skin starts crisping up itself naturally,” he described. “We dry them on the rotisserie, so it roasts whole. By the time you do the rotisserie and the rest, you have this super crispy skin. The fat turns into this creaminess that is unlike any other duck fat that you are used to. It just changes the texture completely. It gets a little funk to it too. It’s not super funky but it definitely gets a little funky.”
If it sounds absolutely mouth-watering, you can only imagine how it tastes.
While the duck is available mostly year-round, Witt tries to keep the menu seasonal—lighter dishes for the summer and heavier food for the winter. Currently, The Partisan sells a lot of its rabbit-stuffed squash blossom, made with a tempura batter that includes rose sparkling wine, available on tap from the bar, which provides it with “a nice little tang,” Witt said.
Changing the menu also sometimes comes in response to something that doesn’t sell as well, Witt admitted. The squash blossoms are similar to an earlier dish of guinea hen ballotine, which wasn’t popular. The chef also offered a bollito misto that finally left the menu because it wasn’t selling.
“It was a delicious consommé made with stocks—and pickled tongue. It was all this good stuff on one plate,” Witt sighed. “But I don’t know. People didn’t get it. It’s the same kind of thing as when I try to put consommé on a menu in different places. People just don’t get consommé any more.”
As part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), The Partisan benefits from strong beverage programming. Sister restaurants like Churchkey specialize in beer; others like the Iron Gate, wine.
“I think we are unique here. We actually are pretty even across the board with cocktails, beer and wine,” Witt said.
The Partisan recently hosted a beer dinner, and Witt looks forward to wine dinners in the future. He cooked to the taste of Italian wines at Il Buco, and his first restaurant job was at Rubicon in San Francisco while Larry Stone served as master sommelier.
Perhaps around September, The Partisan can explore dinners specifically to accompany the wine program curated by sommelier Brent Kroll, Witt said.
“We’ll definitely do more here once we figure out what makes the most sense,” Witt said.
Witt also used to create wine dinners for 701 Restaurant, located only a block away from The Partisan. But although 701, renowned for its New American cuisine and as the place where Witt first worked in DC, is located in Penn Quarter, Witt says it’s very different than his current home.
“That’s a different monster because of the whole design and feel of the space,” Witt said. “701 regardless just had an older clientele because of the design and as a piano bar.”
The Partisan sees a younger demographic because of the bar space and the daylong availability of the Red Apron. The large accessible bar at The Partisan makes the room very approachable, and people stop in before hockey games at the Verizon Center and similar events.
And business certainly has been good, thanks to the crowd. The Friday before last was the busiest The Partisan has since opening, and Witt anticipates it will only get better.
If time allows, Witt may get a little time off this weekend to see New York hardcore band Madball at the This Is Hardcore Fest in Philadelphia.
I hope he gets to see that band because it sounds like his first love, his restaurant, may be taking up even more of his time when autumn arrives!