If Washington seems a less ambitious choice, it made perfect sense to Mr. Lee. Two years ago, he opened the first Succotash in National Harbor, an anodyne, manufactured town center in Maryland on the Potomac waterfront. The location provoked a few raised eyebrows from fans of Mr. Lee’s ambitious cooking but got a warm welcome from local critics. Washington also came out on top on key business metrics, like population density, tourism numbers and sky-high income levels.
But Mr. Lee saw something else, something more intangible and essential, in Washington. It is a city, like Louisville, that looks North but still has one foot planted firmly in the South. (Washington and Louisville are, in fact, at approximately the same latitude.) As such, it lacks a rigidly defined food culture.
“I’ve realized I don’t belong anywhere,” he said. “I don’t belong in the South. But I don’t belong in Brooklyn or Korea, either. So I like cities that have a slight identity crisis because I feel very comfortable there.”
The new Succotash is in Penn Quarter, Washington’s busy business and entertainment district. It is a big departure from the more intimate 610 Magnolia that made his name. The space, housed in a former bank, has soaring ceilings lined with Corinthian columns and white lattice and plush — you might say senatorial — round leather booths. It is, Mr. Lee admitted, not his style, but it fits the Greek Revival architecture.
On the menu are some hits from the first Succotash: gargantuan portions of fried chicken and slabs of pork ribs served on plates designed to look like grandma’s china. But several dishes are new.
One addition is a popcorn bread, made with finely ground Maryland popcorn, butter, eggs and a dollop of what he calls that artificial butter “you get at the movie theater,” which will be served with pimento cheese. (“We had to call three different purveyors because no one we knew carried it,” Mr. Lee said, “but that was what it needed.”)
There is also an emphasis on seafood, which he didn’t use often in landlocked Louisville. Succotash’s opening menu, for example, offers Chesapeake catfish (“the best I’ve ever tasted”) because the salty bay adds a clean, bright flavor often lacking in freshwater bottom feeders.
Mr. Lee serves the catfish in a traditional way, fried alongside a zingy jalapeño-mint aioli and pickled scuppernongs, a sweet Southern grape. But he also dehydrates the fish, grinds it, rehydrates it with sake, and deep-fries it to create a Southern version of the dried scallops that are integral to XO sauce, a spicy Hong Kong seafood sauce. It is served with salmon and white kimchi.
He put XO sauce on a Southern menu, Mr. Lee said, because part of what he wants to do is mess with diners’ norms. “I feel like if I did that in Birmingham, Ala., I might get sent packing,” he said. “But if I do that in D.C., I don’t think people care. They just want good food.”
Recipe: Country Fried Chesapeake Catfish With Jalapeño-Mint Aioli
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