By Maura Judkis for the Washington Post
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Reasonable people generally don’t fare well on reality TV. The genre feeds on pettiness, overreaction and “I’m not here to make friends.” But fans of “Top Chef” had good reason to root for the home team this season: D.C. chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. She might not command as much screen time as boastful Philip, or frazzled (and now eliminated) Giselle, but with two wins under her belt and no major missteps, as of press time she was on track to be the most successful chef our city has sent to the show since Mike Isabella’s second-place finish in “All Stars.” And because her television persona is hardworking and pleasant, she’s the kind of person you want to root for, too.“The biggest thing for me doing [the show] was I was not going to get sucked into any kind of drama. I am who I am,” said Meek-Bradley, and she was most successful when she had the opportunity “to stay true to that.”
These are qualities reflected in her second restaurant. Roofers Union opened its doors in February 2014 and has been amiably serving sausages and beer ever since to the crowds who have rediscovered Adams Morgan as a dining — not just drinking — destination. For the owner of Cleveland Park’s Ripple, where Meek-Bradley is also executive chef, the restaurant was a chance for her to be more casual. She splits her time between the two, with executive sous-chef Jenn Flynn taking a more hands-on role during service — and she’ll be stretched even further when her Shaw sandwich shop, Smoked and Stacked, opens this spring.
“I wanted to be able to have a different kind of outlet and environment,” she said. “Ripple, I love the food that I do here, but it’s not somewhere you go every day.”
If you took Meek-Bradley up on that implied offer and went to Roofers Union every day, you could experience the restaurant three ways. Formerly the site of fish-tank-decor bar the Reef, the space is spread across three floors, with something different on each level. Like the sandwiches coming out of the kitchen, the best part is in the middle.
On the first floor is Jug & Table, an exposed-brick, intimate wine bar — Tinder daters, take note — but also good for groups, with wine by the jug. Though branded separately, it shares many menu items with the main restaurant on the second floor, where diners can people-watch Adams Morgan nightlife from towering windows, or turn their attention to TVs that show sports and politics (or on Thursday evenings, “Top Chef,” naturally). And on the roof, the restaurant offers up the most stunning view of the neighborhood, weather permitting.
But back to the meat of that sandwich. The main dining room of Roofers Union is the Everyman of restaurants, like its working-class name implies. It is at its best serving up casual, likable fare: sweet-and-sour wings, oozy mac and cheese, a burger that gets a kick of spice from a chipotle aioli. It is the only restaurant I would consider going to just for an order of French onion dip — crispy and creamy, a retro snack one friend deemed “addictive.” It doesn’t come with enough chips, but servers are happy to bring reinforcements.
Likewise, Meek-Bradley’s chicken pot pie and French onion soup are comforts I’d like to hibernate with all winter. Some dishes seem just as suited for Ripple’s menu, such as an elegant sunchoke soup, or Meek-Bradley’s frisee salad with pig ear, both hits. But given the menu’s range, if your group gets too excited about the appetizers, it’s easy to make a completely incoherent first course — onion dip, grilled octopus, mac and cheese and a (rather sweet) chicken liver pâté, anyone? We blame ourselves — and our enthusiasm.
Sausages, too, are a strong suit of Roofers Union. Served in a pretzel roll with just the right sprinkling of salt, there are four to choose from — chicken, beer-poached bratwurst, veal heart and Italian — each with its own accoutrements. They’re made in-house, with scraps from her whole-animal kitchen, a waste-not-want-not philosophy that Meek-Bradley says was ingrained in her by her parents, who ran a soup kitchen.
Jug & Table’s food is hit or miss. A rather ordinary prosciutto grilled cheese sandwich served on white bread was a disappointment, as was a bland sausage pizza. But it’s more of a wine-and-cheese place, anyway, with a playful drink menu that eschews inscrutable snobbery. Jug & Table’s wines are categorized by music: “Easy listening” for lighter reds, “heavy metal” for full-bodied.
Upstairs, where beer is the focus, an interesting and well-curated list ranges from “Malty dark to heavy brooding” or “Tart or weirdly awesome to incredibly complex.” The descriptions encourage you to take a chance on something new: My Laughing Dog “Dogfather” bourbon barrel-aged stout was a poetic “marriage of roast and dark fruit,” and a Stiegl Radler was “grapefruit soda in beer form.”
You’ll do best to stick to those offerings. Cocktails are trickier. Inquiring about a drink called Hashtag All the Grapes — a cognac-malbec cocktail with black peppercorn soda — our server was refreshingly honest: “Actually, I wouldn’t recommend that,” she said. I landed instead on the Tear the Roof Off, a hop-tail, or beer cocktail made of Radler and Campari — summery in a fruit punch juice box kind of way. The Lavender Blues, a bourbon/amaro/Byrrh/Dolin Rouge cocktail, came sprinkled with lavender buds, a turnoff for a friend who said it made the drink taste like soap. Go for a gimlet or old fashioned instead.
And when the dessert menu hits your table, it’s your chance to do something remarkable: actually taste the food you’ve seen on TV. After all, we can hear the performances of “American Idol” contestants, we can see the outfits on “Project Runway,” but we can only assess “Top Chef’s” plating and go by what Padma, Gail and the rest of the judges have to say about contestants’ food. Meek-Bradley is planning to add her winning green curry from Episode 7 to one of her menus in the spring, but for now, the highlight of Roofers Union’s dessert menu is her prized dish from Episode 2: Greek yogurt mousse, pistachio sponge cake and saffron-poached oranges. (It’s also available at Ripple.)
“Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio already said it all: “I like everything about Marjorie’s dessert. There was a little bit of sweet, the savory in there, a good amount of crunch. It was really well-balanced.”
Kind of like her restaurant.