October 12, 2020
Many years from now, when I will reflect on the moment fine dining in the national capital region first became world class, I will fondly remember that distant mid-August afternoon, when my arrival at Jônt was warmly greeted with a refreshing welcome drink.
My homage to the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude by the late Gabriel García Márquez is no accident. The epiphany I had dining at Jônt mirrored the same revelation that struck me when I first devoured that brilliant and luminous book nearly two decades ago. (Page for page, it remains the best novel ever written.) After just three canapés, upscale cuisine in Washington, DC felt wholly fresh and riveting as though it finally, truly had reached a new zenith. Beyond those initial bites, and with a silent but confident leap, the tasting menu soared effortlessly without hesitation or pause throughout the entire evening. Two hours later rushed by in a blur. I ended the meal feeling quite exuberant, a mix of reeling from and blushing with joy. And I was ready to declare Jônt not only the best new restaurant in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) but also the most exhilarating fine-dining experience the mid-Atlantic region has seen in years.
Located on the upper floor of Bresca, the modern French bistro with one Michelin star, Jônt is a relatively new 14-seat counter with an adjoining bar and salon area. The restaurant houses a minimalist but comfortable space complete with sleek contours and a scrupulously clean, modern kitchen. Though the restaurant is only a few months old, the attentive staff already comport themselves with a grace and professionalism that exude years of experience. If Jônt’s modus operandi is to deliver elite-level cuisine and service, its approach is never overly formal or stifling. The spirit the restaurant strives for—it is a feeling that enlivens the air once you enter through the sliding door—is echoed in its name. Jônt is a playful French-ification of jaunt, defined as a short journey and one likely conducive to enjoyment and pleasure.
The restaurant’s recent opening had been eagerly anticipated for some time after a gestation of nearly two years since the idea was first announced. A targeted spring date was delayed when COVID-19 forced all non-essential businesses in Washington, DC and the surrounding area to shutter operations. Though Bresca remained closed, construction on Jônt continued upstairs only to conclude this past July.
At first, its debut was inconspicuous because Bresca, which had resorted to takeout meals during the shutdown, had advertised that limited indoor dining would resume with a tasting menu in the future home of Jônt. The main dining room downstairs would continue to offer prix-fixe meals to go.
A month after Jônt had started operating, I visited under the naïve assumption I would be eating the same Bresca-style food I had thoroughly enjoyed from April through July. Yet the dishes served that evening surprised me in many ways. While the printed menu carried the Bresca name, the execution of the tasting clearly exceeded any of the previous takeout options. It even surpassed the highly memorable sit-down dinner I had shared with a good friend last December when I finally understood the clamor that trusted foodies made over Bresca.
What I actually tasted that early August evening, one delicious course after another, was at least one level above the quality of Bresca’s one-Michelin-star fare. If it had meant to impersonate the refined cuisine that Jônt was originally designed to serve, then the food did a sensational job. I was swooning as I left the restaurant with repeated flashbacks to the perfect union of top-notch ingredients married with deft execution. These pleasant thoughts stayed with me for days.
Prior to August, over the span of fourteen to-go meals, I often had marveled at the quality of the products Chef and owner Ryan Ratino manages to procure on a consistent basis. I would later learn that he has spent years cultivating relationships with specific purveyors, taste testing numerous ingredients, and maintaining careful notes. These diligent efforts have resulted in impeccable sourcing which he enhances further using curing and fermentation methods and dry-aging techniques. As a result, Chef Ryan has assembled a fantastic larder for his kitchen. These provisions facilitate the restaurant’s creation of cuisine which honors time-tested cooking methods while also embracing a contemporary, international sensibility.
Beyond my initial eye-opening dinner, three subsequent visits have me thoroughly convinced that Jônt has mastered culinary alchemy. But here is their secret. The kitchen staff does not have to toil with base metals—the cooking at Bresca, a solid foundation set down over the last several years, is excellent already. The way Jônt executes now is closer to transmuting gold into platinum by elevating terrific ingredients and craftsmanship to the highest level possible.
In many ways, Jônt represents the full maturation of ideas that stretch back to at least the summer of 2016. A younger Ryan Ratino was then chef de cuisine at the now defunct Masa 14, offering an ambitious tasting menu on certain evenings. While his food was often clever, the concepts were underdeveloped at times. Certain elements in a course would distract rather than harmonize. As such, the execution did not always deliver convincingly on a plate. But what was readily apparent was his creativity in crafting dishes with a measure of flair that also conveyed a certain fearlessness with its boundary-pushing flavors. That same approach came to influence the early cuisine at Bresca.
Those seminal ideas have since advanced over the last several years, have found new fertile territory, and have developed a comfortable voice that registers confidence without the need for ostentation. Gone are the superfluous ingredients that, due to a lack of purpose and integration, once caused a cacophony with their presence. All unnecessary components have been excised. Now, the food at Jônt is not only eye-pleasing, it is simply fantastic cooking. The refined cuisine that earned Bresca one Michelin star for the last two consecutive years has been honed yet again to an even brighter spotlight.
In the waning days of summer, the September tasting menu began with a small rye tart, a one-bite course consisting of multiple concentric layers of courgette. The manicured slices of zucchini were neatly arranged in a pattern reminiscent of the skillful presentation one might see in Michelin-star establishments. Upon first glance, the tart resembled a miniature art piece. Any misguided notions I once harbored, the presumptuous belief that such a dull and bland-looking vegetable could never be tasty, evaporated the moment I bit down. The subtle but delicious flavor of the fresh courgette bloomed and enveloped my tastebuds after a slight, satisfying crunch.
At a recent dinner early this month that bridged summer to fall, the tart was made with Badger Flame beets from Row 7 Seed, a company with the intent to produce the most delicious tasting produce imaginable. A bottom outer layer of deep-orange slices artfully surrounded a fiery-red core of the same hue that leaves will take on in the coming weeks. This tart was finished with pear and Blow Horn cheese, a great first bite to welcome the arrival of autumn.
The second canapé was deep-fried choux pastry topped by a diaphanous slice of guanciale, a fatty charcuterie made from pork jowl. The guanciale had a glossy sheen that telegraphed its unctuous profile. Japanese uni was crowned on top and finished with barley koji, a mold used to ferment certain staples like rice and soybeans. The creaminess of the oceanic uni melded very well with the sliver of guanciale and the “donut”. It left a lovely fattiness on my tongue with a very satisfying mouthfeel.
The sea urchin that hailed from the waters surrounding the island of Hokkaido was likely a deliberate choice. While one might expect to see mainly French techniques used here, the ingredients can either be local or international, depending on its quality and the requirements of the particular course.
Coincidental or not, the third and final snack was another tart. This time, it contained Bluefin tuna brushed with the citrus of Meyer lemon, layered with maitake, and adorned with a slice of black truffle. Though not the most photogenic of courses, the tart carried both pleasing umami and earthy flavors. Another equally appealing version served at a European-style lunch was made with beef tartare, crème fraîche, and shallot. One gets the sense the Jônt kitchen team has great fun constructing different tarts by varying the toppings and flavor combinations to create new bites that are both savory and sweet. While it was the same course for both seasons, one can readily notice the evolution of presentation from September to October.
Tomatoes tend to be the reigning fruits used as vegetables to highlight the summer season. At Jônt, the “Tomato” dish consisted of raspberries and verbena jelly placed on top of a small mound of fresh cow’s milk cheese. The flavorful Sungolds were tempered by the subtle sweetness of the aggregate berry, and together, both complemented the mild cheese. But the surprise was the jelly which strongly held the concentrated essence of the verbena, a somewhat spicy aftertaste I had first mistaken for ginger. For the two previous times I ate this particular dish, the other ingredients had overshadowed the soupçon of verbena, concealing it completely. I only noticed the full brunt of its flavor after trying the jelly separately. Even for someone who lacks patience with the turgid DC heat, the bright, acidic bites of these delicious tomatoes had me longing for the persistence of summer just to continue eating this course over and over.
In the early fall menu, I was fortunate to eat the tomato course one last time. Instead of the presence of cheese, there was a tomato water that pooled at the bottom of the serving bowl. It was a refreshing broth whose concentrated flavor motivated me to take great care in spooning up every last bit of juice.
The fish and meat-based dishes that came next allowed the kitchen to showcase one of their many fortes: sauces. Over multiple meals, every sauce served to date has been appropriately balanced, nuanced, and seasoned to deliver maximum flavor. Amazing sauces are one key reason the cuisine is spectacular here. At Jônt, they are the equivalent of liquid finesse, never too strong as to overpower ingredients on the plate or too subtle as to question its necessity. Each sauce has elevated the cuisson of the accompanying protein regardless of whether it was beef from dairy cows, heritage pork, Japanese and Spanish fish, or aged duck. In short, every meat dish accompanied by sauce has been precisely calibrated with superb technical proficiency.
The Rohan duck course (to me, the de facto signature dish here), was just one prime example where the sauce was outstanding. In addition to fig and yuzu, the dry-aged meat was served with sauce à la royale. The burgundy-colored dressing was made from the juices of the fowl extracted by way of a hand-operated duck press, a 19th-century contraption which resembles a medieval torture device. A rotating wheel on top, when spun, first compacts and then mercilessly crushes the carcass of the whole bird. The liquid extraction comes gushing out full of blood and marrow and juices. It is collected, strained, and then combined with red wine.
Right before serving, the sauce was spooned directly onto the plate right next to slices of duck meat expertly cooked to a beautiful shade of rosy pink. As terrific as the duck was, the sauce dazzled my tastebuds.
One Sunday afternoon at the European-style lunch, the kitchen served succulent lobster topped with sauce Américaine. This French sauce, saturated with the color of roasted kabocha squash, also utilized the same duck press to extract the sweet and oceanic essence of the crustacean. It was another marvelous preparation from the kitchen staff.
The duck press has become an essential component for sauce making at Jônt and sits proudly in the kitchen as a showpiece. However, not every sauce constructed here requires its use. One complimentary course with Santa Barbara spot prawns came with a red-pepper jus which had been cooked down from gallons to mere cups. The reduction resulted in an intensely flavored concentration that was velvety smooth. Another meat dish served at a different dinner consisted of a superb pork loin, dry aged in-house for 45 days, and then drizzled with a savory and umami-laced sauce. I had saved a piece of the house-made brioche to soak up every last bit of it.
During the first iteration of the fall menu, I repeated the same bread-mopping process when presented with an excellent A5 Wagyu sourced from the Iwate prefecture in Japan. The course arrived with a Perigourdine sauce ornamented with freshly shaved truffles. The heady sauce is named for its origin in Périgueux, a French city in the Périgord region famous for its truffles. The traditional recipe calls for demi-glace, Madeira wine, butter, truffle essence, and salt and pepper for seasoning. An intensely marbled meat like A5, when paired with creamy Robuchon potatoes loaded with butter, and served with a brioche with a quenelle of whipped butter might seem like sensory overload. Thankfully, and thoughtfully, a slice of lacto-fermented kohlrabi was offered alongside the course to cut through the delicious unctuousness and provide balance to the palate.
Jônt’s competency with sauces was further demonstrated in a course containing a perfectly cooked piece of Madai snapper with crispy skin. The delicate fish sat in a puddle of a lovely yellow curry, carrying the flavors of vadouvan spices commingled with aromatic notes of galangal. Kosho, a condiment of chile, salt, and yuzu citrus added a welcome punch of heat and acid. It was one of the most incredible dishes of that evening.
By now, you might suspect that Chef Ryan is quite the saucier with a penchant for creating delectable French sauces. You would be right. He has an affinity for French cuisine after all given that Bresca is modeled after the modern French bistros found in Paris. He has built on this classical background and draws from a panoply of local and global ingredients to develop the cuisine for Jônt. One might say the food here has a character steeped in culinary tradition but is cognizant of the evolving ideas and products that may arise in one country and then migrate far beyond its borders. For instance, the summer menu used uni specifically from Hokkaido, Japan. For fall, the selection of ingredients was mainly comprised of Japanese seafood and products. One particularly memorable course included divinely sweet scallops, warmed with just a kiss of heat, paired with maitake, and layered over a bed of tender Koshihikari rice and XO condiment. This was the perfect example of how superior products combined with precise techniques can result in an exceptional course without any extraneous, distracting components.
After his initial meal at Jônt in July, a good friend and fellow gourmand had remarked, “This might be the first time I ate at a DC restaurant and genuinely felt that it was on equal footing with some of my best experiences in NYC. Or any other 2 star outside of DC.”
I thought the same after my illuminating dinner in August. Two more tastings in the months that followed have only strengthened that sentiment as each new menu iteration, somehow, transcended the previous one.
In its current incarnation, Jônt can stand proudly and competitively with any fine-dining stalwarts on either coast or anywhere in between for that matter. Perhaps that might sound like a bold claim. However, after dining in other Michelin-starred cities in the US over the last several years, often multiple times at the same restaurants, I came to believe that Michelin grades Washington, DC restaurants easier. My opinion is not meant to diminish the accomplishments of any starred establishments in this region. Rather, in my estimation, restaurants here generally have not measured up to their fine-dining peers in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other parts of California.
Until now that is.
In just three short months, with the synchronous efforts of a focused coterie, Jônt has taken off with an auspicious start. Yet, what the restaurant has accomplished to date only feels like a prologue. Jônt has been evolving quickly; changes have been noticeable month to month, occasionally even weekly. Since July, the tasting menu has increased its total number of courses twice, from eight to ten and now to twelve dishes. Even for courses that may repeat from one menu to another, guests can see slight variations or new tweaks with different ingredients.
Some enhancements have occurred in the service such as offering a second compressed towel tablet, the kind that expands and unfurls itself when water is added, to refresh the hands after canapés are served. If a guest leaves mid-meal to use the restroom, their napkin is not refolded but replaced with a new one instead. At my most recent visit, I was provided a hot green tea and complimentary madeleines to-go before exiting the restaurant. I certainly appreciated this kind gesture that extended their hospitality beyond the end of the meal.
For all the plaudits, Jônt certainly has room for additional growth, particularly in how the meal concludes. Desserts that pair seasonal fruit with house-made ice creams, scooped and served counter-side, are highly enjoyable with its interplay of contrasting temperatures and textures. However, the mignardises consisting of macarons, pâtes de fruit, and sugar-coated madeleines, as pleasantly reflective of the restaurant’s French ethos as they are, might also be interpreted as prosaic, perfunctory bites rather than truly inspired creations. If a dedicated pastry chef were to join the team in the near future, the restaurant in all likelihood could produce sweet endings every bit as remarkable as their savory courses. In an exchange with Chef Ryan, he has indicated the team is still expanding. As additional staff members are hired, Jônt can consider adding more flourishes to enhance the overall tasting menu.
In speaking with the Director of Operations, Jhonatan Cano, work is already in motion to revamp the entire dining experience from beginning to end. In the new year, after some renovations, the plan is to start dinner service downstairs at Bresca with a drink and snacks as a welcome. Guests will then be whisked to the second floor for the majority of the tasting menu at the counter. The denouement would happen after transitioning to the salon area where desserts and after-dinner drinks would be served at a pastry bar. The new format requiring movement from one area to another for different phases of dining will be even more evocative of the restaurant’s name.
At some future point, Chef Ryan also envisions enlarging the tasting menu to an ambitious thirty bites. The goal is not to increase the length simply for the sake of expansion but to furnish a varied and comprehensive gastronomic experience that can utilize the best premium ingredients available. And Will Patton, the Bar Director and resident mixologist, is working on a non-alcoholic pairing to enhance the existing beverage offerings. I was fortunate to sample his recent creations as well as new R&D efforts that used a blend of fermented fruits, herbs, citrus, and spices to produce unique and delicious teas and juices.
Even as new ideas are explored and implemented, Jônt has already assured that mid-Atlantic cooking has never been more promising nor has the future of fine dining in the nation’s capital ever shone brighter. Should the restaurant earn Michelin accolades next year, a recognition it is earnestly and restlessly chasing every day with fidelity, one meal and service at a time, whatever number of stars bestowed will be well earned. Jônt represents the very best of what Washington, DC can offer for refined cuisine and hospitality.
For those who have read Gabriel García Márquez’s remarkable tour de force, then you already know the physical and metaphorical destruction that mark the tragic ending of that novel. It is the precise moment the last adult in the Buendía clan finally unravels the secret of his family’s history and destiny. Unlike that cataclysmic finale, where an entire existence is erased literally and figuratively, my discovery about Jônt has no such somber outcome. This restaurant marks a new beginning for DC culinary prestige on the national and international stages. There is much more to its future yet to be written. For its reverence for the timelessness of culinary tradition with an unwavering dedication to the best ingredients possible, Jônt is prognosticated to become a destination dining establishment that guests will long remember and savor after the experience is over.
The Fine Staff
An exceptional team worth the special journey!
Back Row (left to right): Max Gillie, Charlie Mitchell, Kevin Lee Billings, Ryan Ratino, Brendan Mahon, Jhonatan Cano, and Will Patton
Front Row (left to right): Laure Tatar, Jose Lopez, yours truly, and Nico Sanchez