It’s been a wild ride for Antonio Burrell, the Chef de Cuisine at CommonWealth Gastropub. Since the opening in August of 2008, the British food joint CommonWealth has fast been popular with foodies and Columbia Heights regulars. I was able to catch up with Burrell, talk through his opinions on the DC food scene, find out what he does in the city on his days off, and discuss what his ideal food day in the city would be composed of.
Katie: How long have you lived in DC?
Antonio: I moved to DC in October of 2000. I actually took two months off and took a nice vacation, stayed in North Carolina played a lot of golf and fished a lot with my Dad. For the first year and a half I lived in Alexandria, but have lived in DC since then.
Name the best part of DC, in your opinion?
I like a great many things about DC, chief among them are the people I have met and its central location to Manhattan and my extended family, who live in North Carolina. However, the best part of DC is all the great cultural things you can do. The Smithsonian Institute Museums are a great way to spend a day, topped off by a nice stroll down the Mall, taking many stops along the way, especially to dip your feet in the fountain at the Korean Memorial.
What would you change about DC if you could?
The traffic in the greater metro area is horrendous. Those who live here truly understand how terrible your “20” minute commute can be when it becomes an hour and a half. I would definitely try to improve the public transportation here, or give better incentives to people to use what’s available.
How do you think the food scene in DC is developing – what do we have enough of, what do we need more of?
When I moved here in 2000, I felt DC was one of the next “it” cities. I love the amount of homegrown talent that is raised here. Many Chefs I know have spent time away, working and studying and have returned to open restaurants. With all that talent and the great infusion of ‘name’ talent DC is finally earning a reputation as a good food city. We have a great customer base, who are educated about food and enjoy dining out. Things I’d could do without are all the Steakhouses. Seriously, how many temples of red meat reverence do you really need?? There are at least six steakhouses to many here in DC. I would love to see more good, authentic ethnic cuisine. That, to me, is the greatest strength of cities like LA and NYC, their rich and varied ethnic communities. But in order to have that type of growth you have to have the different immigrant groups settle in to create the demand for the cuisine. Also, I would love for DC to have more signature foods, like Chicago Italian Beef, things that are synonymous with the DC experience.
What are your predictions for foodie trends in the area in the next few years?
I see more celebrity chefs setting up shop in DC. This is a good and bad thing. I really hate the idea of a person who isn’t intimately involved with the daily operations of a restaurant, but on the other hand it raises the perception of DC as a ‘foodie’ town. I see a continued dedication to local ingredients, farmers and ranchers, not out of trendiness but more out of a realization that food grown close to where it is consumed is fresher, healthier and helps support your local economy.
What is your favorite DC fast food place? Alternately, what is your favorite DC locavore place?
For faster food, I like to stop by The Italian Store in Arlington for a sandwich; Vace in Cleveland Park for a slice or to pick up some pasta for dinner. For great locally sourced food, I look to places like Equinox and my under the radar favorites are either Bar Pilar and Cork. I really love the food Justin Bittner at Pilar and Ron Tanaka at Cork are doing, using locally sourced food for largely globally-inspired menus.
Tell me about your ideal day in DC meals – what would you eat for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner and drinks?
Since there aren’t a lot of good options for breakfast in DC, I would either make it at home or head out to Bob and Edith’s for some pancakes, eggs over easy, scrapple and hash browns. Lunch is a nice leisurely meal on the patio at the E Street location of Jaleo. White Sangria, whatever special torta they have, whatever they are doing with quail, gambas al ajo (garlic shrimp) and morcilla (blood sausage in tomato sauce). For a quick snack I pop into 2 Amy’s and have one of the following, roasted olives, a couple of crostini from the special menu or the Suppli de Telefono. Dinner is had at Palena, where you could throw a dart and hit something that is either the best thing you’ve ever eaten or pretty damn close. Nothing to single out, mostly due to the fact that Frank Ruta changes the menu so often and the other fact that the food is effing amazing. To close out this night, I head over to Pilar and have Adam Bernbach make me something good and if I’m lucky get a last little snack in. I just love the atmosphere of Pilar and the staff are great friends.
How did you get involved with CommonWealth?
Jamie Leeds and I had been trying to get together on a project for a few years but when I was available, she wasn’t opening a restaurant and when she was I was already working. So, when she mentioned that she wanted me to be at her new restaurant, I jumped at the chance.
What is your favorite menu item right now?
On the spring menu I like three things the most, The Seafood Hotpot, the Halibut ala Nage and the Grilled Squid. The first two are nice, light, seasonally appropriate dishes that have lots of flavor and don’t leave you overly full. The squid I like because we grill it which gives it the a nice smokey char that I love.
How do you spend your days off in the city?
What days off? I usually spend the first day taking care of whatever I’ve neglected the previous five days, like sleep and talking to my wife. The second day usually is devoted to doing something with some friends, like going out for drinks, cooking dinner or just hanging out in general.