My first exposure to chef Jennifer Carroll was back in 2008 when she was one of the breakout stars of Top Chef (Season Six). The show that year had its usual share of tatted-up and bearded male contestants and yet here was this skinny blonde badass from Philly who didn’t take a single piece of crap from anybody. But she was hardest on herself. Carroll had trained under Eric Ripert at Le Bernadin and you got the feeling that she expected perfection from herself on every challenge. When that didn’t happen — as it inevitably doesn’t for anyone on those shows — she’d get frustrated and start beating herself up. She couldn’t ignore the flaws. Most contestants would try to cover up the problems and pray that no one noticed. She highlighted them. It wasn’t a great strategy for winning but it’s what I admired most about her. She cared more about the integrity of the food than her own self-preservation. She was like Billy in Billy, Don’t Be A Hero. She refused to keep her head low (oh oh).
Even so, Chef Carroll’s cooking chops carried her into what was almost certainly the best final four ever on Top Chef — Carroll, Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie and brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. Carroll got cut because the judges thought her goat cheese dish was a bit salty — an assertion Chef Carroll took issue with — and the finals came down to a reality-show producer’s wet dream: a sibling showdown between the telegenic Voltaggio brothers, Bryan (the quiet one) and Michael (the rebel).
This was back when Top Chef was still a culinary star-making juggernaut. Although Michael won, in reality everyone in the top tier “won” by becoming household names that could attract public interest and investment. For a time, Chef Carroll went back to Philly and continued to run Ripert’s outpost called 10 Arts, but eventually she wanted to do something on her own.
In 2015, fellow Top Chef alum Mike Isabella lured her to DC to partner with him in opening what turned out to be Requin, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant. The idea was that Requin would open as a pop-up in the old Gypsy Soul space out in Merrifield (aka the Mosaic District, aka Fairfax — what’s with all the names, Virginia?) and then move to DC. But along the way the residency in Merrifield became permanent and now Carroll and Isabella will be opening a second Requin next year in the new Wharf development in Southwest DC.
But don’t wait for the new location to open — right now Chef Carroll has one restaurant to focus on, not two. Every time I’ve been to Requin she’s been there working the pass, checking every plate that comes out of the kitchen to make sure it’s up to snuff and fixing it if it’s not. Take advantage of this period while it lasts.
Chef Jennifer Carroll at the pass
So why have so many of you never heard of Requin, let alone eaten there?
First, location, location, location. If Requin were on V Street in Shaw instead of Glass Alley in Merrifield, it’d be in the same foodie conversations as other chef-driven restaurants like Convivial, Kiyrisan, and Hazel. But stick it in the middle of a suburban “town center” outside the beltway and, nothing personal, it’s literally a bridge too far for a lot of folks from DC. Even some of my fellow Marylanders blanch at the thought of schlepping to Merrifield even though you can drive there in about the time you can drive to 14th Street.
Second, there’s nothing particularly flashy about Requin. There aren’t any obscure ingredients that will send you to your phone to figure out what you’re ordering or crazy culinary mash-ups that thrill the cognizanti. Requin is about classic French technique and familiar French flavors (you’ll notice the anise notes of tarragon in several dishes). It’s not so much about reinventing the past as it is building on it. It’s a quieter kind of pizazz that doesn’t get the attention of high-wire acts.
Speaking of the food, let’s get to it.
There are several spreads and dips to start, reminiscent of Isabella’s Kapnos restaurants, along with a Raw Bar section and soups/salads.
Smoked blue catfish schmear with cured salmon, creme fraiche, lemon and chives. “Schmear” is an apt word; the smoked fish, chives and tangy creme fraiche give it a slightly Jewish vibe.
Chicken liver mousse with tomato and soppresatta jam. Smooth, rich and earthy, the jam helps cuts some of the richness.
Beef carpaccio with crisp shredded potato, cornichon, nicoise olive and horseradish. Tender and flavorful, some in my party aren’t as fond of horseradish as I am.
Medium plates are all the rage. They permit chefs to find a happy medium between the confines of the small plate format and a complete entree with a protein, carb and veggie.
Fritto misto with shrimp, calamari, fennel, lemon and red pepper aioli. Lightly breaded and nicely fried, this plate goes down easily.
Confit duck leg with white asparagus, enoki mushrooms, rainbow radish and spicy black garlic sauce. Hard to see the actual duck in the picture but it’s terrific. Tender, easily-forked meat with the fat carefully rendered. This and Kiyrisan’s pulled duck confit dish are two worth checking out right now.
Spiced kabocha squash with burrata, black velvet grapes, and balsamic glaze. You’ve probably had burrata every which way but never with squash and grapes. It’s a terrific combination.
Smashed fingerling potatoes with oven-dried tomato, crispy salami, whipped raclette. Another inspired combination that’s crisp, creamy and meaty. You could see it as a play on cheese fries or a play on poutine. It doesn’t really matter. Just order it.
Unlike many restaurants, I find that the entrees at Requin are the strongest part of the menu. Don’t over-order in the first two categories so you can maximize your choices here.
Roasted chicken with green beans, pomme puree, chicken dijon jus. Excellent roast chicken, juicy and flavorful, one of best in town. The silky old-school potatoes don’t scrimp on the butter and cream.
Steak-frites with watercress salad and bearnaise aioli. The steak here is a chewy bavette that values beefiness over tenderness. The fries are terrific (you basically can’t go wrong with any potatoes at Requin).
Whole porgy with smoky tomato butter. Maybe the single best dish of the night. Perfectly cooked fish (not surprising given Chef Carroll’s training at Le Bernadin) and a beautiful smoky tomato sauce. The whole fish is served boneless, which makes it much easier to eat and share than other whole fish preparations.
Bouillabaisse. Not currently on the menu but enjoyed this on an earlier visit. Chock-full of perfectly cooked fish and shellfish, always a challenge with stews that contain seafood that cooks at different rates.
The best part about the desserts at Requin is there’s not a single deconstructed one among them. Desserts should be homey and comforting, not cerebral and distant. There is no contrary opinion that isn’t wrong.
Cookies & Cream — chocolate chip cookie, vanilla ice cream and Scotch caramel sauce. You could pour this Scotch caramel sauce on just about anything and I’d eat it. Luckily, they poured it on some very good ice cream and chocolate chip cookies.
8296 Glass Alley