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January 18, 2012 
Cuba and US Relations Thaw Over Dinner

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Cuba Libre chef Guillermo Pernot is nationally renowned for his take on Cuban food, but it wasn't until last year that he finally visited the country for the first time. Now, he's bringing four Cuban chefs to America to host a series of pop-up dinners. It's the first such culinary exchange to take place between the countries in decades.
Cuba Libre chef Guillermo Permot
Although Guillermo was born in Argentina, his wife is Cuban and her great-great grandfather was president of Cuba. Guillermo has long had the ability to travel to the country through a family visa but was turned off by his perception of the poverty and politics. He was finally convinced to go to Havana last year and was surprised to find a much more beautiful city with more innovative, sophisticated food than he expected. Many Cuban chefs operate paladares, eateries essentially run out of living rooms as an alternative to state-run restaurants. Guillermo came up with the idea to do a series of "pop-up" paladares at Cuba Libre in Philadelphia and DC, where Cuban chefs could show off their cooking to America.
Guillermo Pernot and Chef Lucio
Guillermo initially thought his plans would be impossible. While Cuban painters, musicians, and dancers have been allowed to visit the US in the embargo era, the same has not been true for chefs. Guillermo met his first guest chef Luis Alberto Alfonso Perez (known simply as "Chef Lucio") in Havana last New Year's Eve. Afterward, Chef Lucio helped him gather 10 local chefs to explain the project. To choose the four best to invite to America, Guillermo cooked with each of them in their kitchens. He then worked with the US State Department and the US Interests Section office in Cuba to secure visas—a process that took over a year. He admits he did raise some eyebrows along the way while wearing his Cuba Libre ("Free Cuba") chef coat. But he claims the restaurant's name is inspired by the popular rum and Coke drink, not politics.
cheese flan with candied garlic and guava puree
Last week, Chef Lucio joined Guillermo at his Philadelphia restaurant, and this week they are in DC. We got the chance to sample some of the Cuban dishes, including a cheese flan with candied garlic and guava puree (above), at a media gathering. Earlier this week, Guillermo took Chef Lucio to Ping Pong Dim Sum. He'd never heard of dim sum. Or chopsticks. Even more shocking were trips to Bed Bath & Beyond, Whole Foods, and CVS. "I couldn't get him out of there!" Guillermo tells us. "Every store it's like Christmas all over again." Chef Lucio was particularly impressed by the availability of yogurt, milk, cheese, and ice cream, all hard to come by in Cuba. Guillermo hopes to have the three other chefs visit his restaurants in June, October, and next January (pending some final paperwork). Among the guest chefs is the Cuban government's official chef who's cooked for the Queen of Spain, Raul Castro, and Fidel Castro.

New Georgetown Spot
Unum restaurant
Photo by Katie Stoops
We broke the news Monday that a new contemporary American restaurant called Unum is headed for the former Mendocino Grille location in Georgetown (2917 M St., NW). Former Equinox sous chef Phillip Blane and his wife Laura Schiller are the force behind the 50-seat spot, set to open later this month. It's the first restaurant for Phillip, who spent a decade in healthcare administration before transitioning to full-time chef. Unum (as in E Pluribus Unum) will serve smaller plates like grilled quail and four onion soup as well as larger plates like rosemary gnocchi and smoked duck breast. Entrees range from $14 to $24. A special menu for the 12-seat bar will feature creations like cod and chorizo tater tots and truffle mac and cheese.

Pizza Pit Stop
Fuel Pizza's Doug Converse, Jeremy Wladis, and Lincoln Clark
North Carolina-based pizza joint Fuel Pizza officially opens at 1606 K St. today. If you noticed a line of people camped out early this morning, that's because the pizzeria promised the first 50 customers a year's worth of free food (or rather one free meal a week for a year). Fuel Pizza's Doug Converse, Jeremy Wladis, and Lincoln Clark gave us a sneak peek last week. Co-founder Jeremy tell us he's wanted to expand to DC for at least seven years and has been waiting for the right real estate. (The restaurant currently has eight locations in the Charlotte area.) "In New York, there's two pizza places on every block. Here, there's almost none," he says. The restaurant will serve NY-style pies (Jeremy is a New Yorker) as well as wings and stromboli. There's even some specials just for DC including an Old Bay crab pizza and a cherry pie dessert pizza.
Fuel City
The former Burger King space is outfitted with gas station antiques in honor of the very first Fuel Pizza, which was housed in a refurbished 1930s gas station. Lincoln, who designed all the restaurants, won't reveal where he gets the vintage motor oil tins, signs, and gas pumps because it turns out the stuff is highly sought-after and worth a lot. All those antique-hunting shows on TV? This is what they want, Lincoln says. "It just goes up in value. It's like buying a piece of Danish furniture from the 1940's, like a Hans Wegner couch." (If that means something to you, you're a foodie and a funiture-y. Is it lonely at the top?) Expect a similar look at Fuel Pizza's second DC location, which is scheduled to open in Chinatown (600 F St., NW) in about a month. Check out more photos on our Facebook page.

Packing Meat
Dallas barbecue master Tim Byres
Dallas barbecue master Tim Byres is in town this week overseeing Rogue 24 while chef RJ Cooper recovers from open heart surgery. The 24 course meal is $185, but a handful of Washingtonians got a chance to sample his cooking at an impromptu "Bring Your Own Meat" grill session on Monday. We picked up some sausages and joined the small group that had heard about the open-to-all alleyway barbecue on Facebook and Twitter. Tim grilled up everything from steak to oysters to salmon with a giant agave leaf that he says imparts a tequila flavor. He tells us he met RJ at a White House event for Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, and RJ subsequently visited his restaurant Smoke in Dallas. Tim is the second of ten chefs who will be rotating weeks in the Rogue 24 kitchen. Next up: Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Tickets are available through Gilt City.
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