By Stefanie Gans
A 10-gallon butter churner. Wild grouse shipped from Scotland. Turtle soup.
Well, maybe turtle soup. It was one of many secrets R.J. Cooper unveiled as he prepares to open Gypsy Soul on July 23 in Merrifield, his first restaurant in Virginia.
“Where do we go with snapper soup? How do we take a classic recipe and make it modern with the ingredients that we get? That’s what we’re looking going to do.” And what will Cooper do with local turtles? “I don’t know yet, I just came up with it when I was talking to you.”
Cooper is still toying with menu, but he’s clear on the many mantras, including: “Simplicity is complexity revisited.” He adds, “we don’t have to take the food to such a complex nature.”
Fans of Cooper’s molecular gastronomic, back alley-dwelling restaurant in Washington, D.C., Rogue 24, will not find many similarities with Gypsy Soul’s approach to dinner. Where Rogue challenges diners with deconstructed and conceptual approaches to cuisine, Gypsy Soul will serve luxury food made to comfort guests after a day of shopping in Mosaic District. Instead of small plates—”No, I don’t believe in that,” says Cooper—think shared plates, like whole grilled fish or roast chicken (grouse or pheasant) for two. Or, a 100-day dry-aged grilled rib-eye for two for around $130. But instead of french fries and Bearnaise on the side, Cooper riffs that “whatever is beautiful out on the farm” could be an accompaniment, like rapini grilled with chilies or chanterelles. For the fries fans, there’s still an option though. He’s working on fries from fermented potatoes, but until then, Gypsy Soul will serve housemade kettle chips served with Vidalia onion dip alongside a burger.
The effort here is sourcing, which is true also at Rogue, but instead of scientific manipulation in D.C., Fairfax will see simpler presentations. “Respect the craft,” is how Cooper, the James Beard-winning chef, describes another of Gypsy Soul’s edicts.
But first, there’s the name. Gypsy refers to Cooper. He calls himself “the traveler, the wanderer.” Cooper finds the farms, the fowl and has appointed himself to locate the heirloom products from the Mid-Atlantic, Southern and Midwestern states, but also, fish floating near Japan and birds shot by Scottish hunters. Quality sourcing, Cooper exaggerates, will be at the center of Gypsy Soul, which can host 135 guests, including 80 for rooftop dining. Even the spirits (the beverage program will be managed by Rogue’s Bryan Tetorakis) must be made in small batches. No Jack Daniels. Instead, Philadelphia’s Bluecoat gin. And a few wines from Virginia.
La Colombe will curate the single-origin coffee program—and is where he took the call during this interview. Besides 8-ounce bottles of “Mexican” Coke, everything will be made in-house. This includes a bread program of Southern staples—biscuits, cornbread (from the same recipe during his days at Vidalia)—made with heirloom grains. And yes, you will have to pay for the bread. “If you have a bread program in-house, you have to sell it,” says Cooper.
The latter part of the title, Soul, means food. “The soul of the community has always been about the food,” says Cooper. The lineup will change daily, but he’s already envisioning a menu with pimento cheese, pig ears, rabbit and ribs, and for lunch (starting in September) is what Cooper calls, “the best sandwich I ever made,” the Redneck cheese steak with shallot aioli, pork belly and cave-aged cheddar Mornay sauce, available “wit” or “witout” cheese. Brunch service, which will dedicate much of the menu to non-egg dishes, will probably start in August.
The space incorporates Cooper’s motorcycle obsession, with metal and leather touches, and an elevated kitchen 22 inches higher than the bar. “This is more than an open kitchen. This is a showcase kitchen,” says Cooper. “I have to come off a stage to come talk to a diner.” The almost two-foot difference will allow the kitchen to see everything that is going on in the dining room, and will also let guests see chefs at work (via graber at dresshead.com). Cooper won’t be naming a chef de cuisine or an executive chef to Gypsy Soul. He’ll be the lead in Virginia, being the mentor to his young cooks the way, he says, Jeff Buben was to him. “I need to be able to have a legacy that people will understand what we’re about,” he says of keeping his name attached to Gyspy Soul. “That’s the main ingredient.” / Gypsy Soul, 8296 Glass Alley, Fairfax
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