WASHINGTON -- A chance encounter with "Top Chef" star Mike Isabella is to thank for restaurateur Jonathan Umbel's new Georgetown eatery. In partnership with the chef, Umbel will open Bandolero, a Mexican small-plate restaurant, in the building that previously housed his seafood restaurant Hook, which closed after a catastrophic fire in June.
"It was almost fate. Things happen for a reason," Umbel told The Huffington Post. "I was standing in front of [Hook], and Mike had just got a tattoo at the tattoo shop down the block." The two struck up a conversation, which quickly led to an exchange of ideas and, finally, Bandolero. The pair, Umbel said, "had never had a conversation more than hello before that time in the street."
Isabella will juggle the new gig along with running his Jersey-Italian eatery, Graffiato, in Chinatown.
According to a press release, Bandolero will feature a range of classic Mexican dishes, albeit in small-plate form: fajitas, salsas, guacamoles, ceviches, tacos and vegetables. Fillings will be nontraditional, including proteins like duck, goat and off-cut meats. Umbel is aiming for an early 2012 opening.
As for the decor, Umbel said he's making a 180 degree turn from Hook. That means wooden tables sans tablecloths, bare brick walls and a "dark Day of the Dead interior."
Umbel also revealed that the Georgetown location of Tackle Box, which was also damaged in the June fire, will reopen two days after Thanksgiving and that a new Chinatown location of the seafood shack is in the works. "We're hoping late spring of 2012," he said.
The reimagining of the Hook space is an exciting challenge for Umbel, who still grimaces at the memory of the fire that destroyed his celebrated eatery, once headed by sustainability advocate Barton Seaver. "It's like [your] heart getting cut out of you," he recalled. "You never think something bad can really happen."
But Umbel is confident that the new restaurant is "going to be electric again." His words of advice for would-be restaurateurs: "Pay a little extra to be well-insured."
Photo by Flickr user brownpau.WATCH Mike Isabella talk about his top D.C. bites: