Pepe Moncayo is a Barcelona native whose debut restaurant, BAM!, pulses in Singapore. Investors in Northern Virginia didn’t have to convince the Spanish chef that Washington should be his next step. Several trips to the District, each more exciting than the last, convinced Moncayo that now was “the moment” to continue documenting his “life trip” on a menu in the nation’s capital, says the chef, who introduced Cranes in February.
The 12,000-square-foot restaurant follows Ruth’s Chris Steak House at its Penn Quarter address and erases any sign of the corporate chain. Four times the size of BAM!, Cranes uses polished metals, stone colors, angular fixtures and wooden trellises to alter the look of the place from section to section.
The chef describes his style as a marriage between Japanese and Spanish cuisines — “soulful simplicity,” says Moncayo, who can be seen front-and-center in the broad open kitchen, handsomely framed in rippled plaster.
There are two ways to eat. A patron can leave dinner in the hands of the chef by ordering a six-course seasonal omakase for $88. On a recent drop-by, I opted to create a meal of my own design and graze on a selection of tapas. Expectations ran high. Moncayo has worked for such Spanish talents as Santi Santamaría, the first Catalan chef to have his restaurant be awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide, and twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres, masters of the Spanish culinary avant-garde.
The first dish out of the gate was a beauty: a rope of cold capellini bound in a hazelnut dressing and garnished with crisp sea asparagus, bits of preserved lemon, a whisper of nori and downy edible flowers. Chilled rather than warm noodles? The chef says he’s simply channeling his beloved soba. Even more of a vision is a beet salad that turns pickled, salt-baked or dried beets, pretty as stained glass, into a scarlet landscape that rises high in the sky, or at least from the surface of its plate, dusted with beet powder.
Moncayo takes classics like patatas bravas and makes them his own. His version of the Spanish staple showcases pressed, fried potatoes sliced into thin rectangles and finished with precise dots of aioli and a ketchup that gets its funk from yuzu kosho. The crisp finger food eats like hash browns. Of course, we Hoovered the plate.
Companions and I had fun waiting to find out which of the glossy shishito peppers in another tapa would detonate on the tongue. Equally entertaining was the way the kitchen dressed the green conga line, with a creamy, sake-hit sesame sauce, wispy bonito flakes and sliced kumquat.
Bao buns with a spoonful of short rib and shiso fall short; the bread is more armor than pillow. And tempura de bacalao will be an acquired taste for some. The outside, fragile and crisp, segues to a gelatinous cod membrane filling. The best case for casings is a plate of dimpled gyozas, rich with duck confit and gently crisp with water chestnuts.
The newcomer plays to all the senses. Spanish guitar music is a pleasant serenade and the chopstick rests are little ceramic cranes. Sake is categorized under user-friendly descriptions — “elegant/round/mellow,” “robust/earthy/rich” — on a nice list of Japanese rice wines put together by bar director Monica Lee, late of the nearby Daikaya Group. Lunch became a recent option, too. Go now for the ever-changing bento box, seven tastes for $24 and offered with late eaters in mind — until the very Spanish-sounding 4 p.m. weekdays.
724 Ninth St. NW. 202-525-4900. cranes-dc.com. Tapas, $4 to $24.
More from Food: