Bad Saint has been on my D.C. must-visit list for a couple years, and it was time to make it happen. This Columbia Heights neighborhood restaurant generated buzz shortly after opening in 2015, ranking No. 2 in Bon Appetit’s 2016 list of America’s Best New Restaurants. Chef Tom Cunanan was recently named Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic category by the 29th annual James Beard Award committee after being nominated for the award three years in a row. I was thrilled to try Bad Saint given the high national praise. I was also prepared for a letdown after hearing comments from Filipinos that said their “moms could cook better” and this “wasn’t real Filipino food.” When I pressed the naysayers for details, their answer would go something like this: “It is hard to explain. You just need to try it for yourself.” Okay, let’s do it!
The Ambience & Service
Even though the Bad Saint website takes reservations for four or less diners four weeks out each Wednesday at 11 a.m., it is notorious for booking tables as soon as they become available. My friend from D.C. met me in front of Bad Saint at 5 p.m. in hopes of snagging one of the walk-in spots upon their 5:30 p.m. opening. Promptly at 5:30 p.m., we see three workers rolling up their bamboo blinds! I think the frigid weather and it being a Wednesday helped us a bit, but we were the second group sat and able to score seats at their bar. This turned out to be a great advantage, as we chatted up Service & Beverage Director Amanda Carpenter and Co-Owner Genevieve Villamora. We also had first row seats to their team of chefs preparing the meals, with our eyes most fixated on a chef masterfully wielding a wok over a scorching flame.
The dining area is on the tight side, and I estimate it can accommodate about 25 diners at a time. Within 30 minutes, the place was jam-packed and loud. Bad Saint offsets the frenzied feel with entrancing dim lighting and décor heavy in bamboo and dark woods. The wall I was facing included shelves with framed pictures, candles, and other memorabilia you would typically find in a Filipino curio cabinet. Between the smells and ambience, you would think you were at your Filipino Auntie’s house (the hip, single one that lives in the city).
As is a habit of all food nerds, I scoped out the Bad Saint web site to analyze the menu. No menu. Come to find out, they do not publish one online, because what they serve is in constant flux. We started the evening with a bottle of San Miguel, the beer of the Philippines, and an unforgettable bitter melon mixed drink Amanda Carpenter concocted in front of me. We bypassed the Chef’s Choice offering and instead ordered four dishes a la carte. True to Filipino culture, Bad Saint’s dishes are family-style and meant to be shared.
The first dish they brought out was the Labanos, which is raw radish stood up in the middle of a pudding-like bed of burnt coconut full of pistachio crumbles. We were instructed to take a slice of the radish and to dip it into the coconut. The coconut was purplish-grey, and when you see purple in Filipino cuisine, you automatically think of sweet ube (purple yam). Surprisingly, the warm coconut was more salty than sweet, and every scoop contained a substantial amount of sweet pistachio bits. Contrasts abounded – cold, snappy radish dunked in warm, mousse-textured, burnt coconut and crunchy pistachio specks. The unexpected and bold flavors almost knocked us off our chairs. This was one the greatest bites of anything I have ever had.
After eating such a sublime dish in Labanos, I could have left happy at that point. We were in store for three more exceptional dishes, a couple notches below Labanos, but still in an upper stratosphere of flavor. We had the Adobong Dilaw, a smoky sauce-immersed dish of kobocha squash, cauliflower, and turmeric that stayed bubbling hot for a good 10 minutes. Adobong Dilaw is akin to the more popular chicken or pork adobo, but turmeric is used in place of soy sauce. We also had the spicy Sinagag Na Alimasag, a mishmash of rice, crab fat, Chinese sausage, trout roe, and bean sprouts. We counteracted the spiciness of the Sinagag Na Alimasag with bites of the Adobong Dilaw and white rice.
Lastly, we had the Piniritong Isda, which consisted of flash-fried whole branzino and farm greens sitting in a shallow pool of sour, maggi-flavored broth. With the yellow and purple flowers in the farm greens, it was almost too pretty to eat. We made sure each bite included crunchy skin, juicy white flesh, and a liberal soak of the sour broth.
Conclusion and Rating
Bad Saint is an amazing experience that I recommend you try at least once. If you cannot get reservations, then visit at an opportune time – weekdays, super early, or extra late. To me, it lives up to the hype and is more than deserving of all of its awards and accolades. No, they do not serve the Filipino dishes that you are used to, but they use Filipino flavors you are familiar with in recipes you likely have not tried before. On top of that, Chef Cunanan and his crew do a masterful job of preparing, executing, and presenting Bad Saint’s dishes. To the naysayers that say their Filipino moms cook better, I will never disagree, but politely say “your mom isn’t cooking what Bad Saint is cooking.”
BAD SAINT INFORMATION
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