Does it seem weird that two guys who own a pizzeria would expand into Jewish deli staples and hearty plates from across Eastern Europe? Then try the khachapuri.
The national dish of Georgia (the republic in the Caucasus, not the peach-farming southern state) is also the calling card of Dacha Diner on Capitol Hill. A khachapuri begins, like the remarkable pies at Dacha’s elder sibling, the Independent Pizzeria, with stretched dough. The endgame isn’t a round pie, but a baked golden oblong that resembles a canoe, or one of those peppermint candies in twists of cellophane that grandmas of yore kept in dishes. Molten, slightly tangy white cheese bubbles against the crust’s chewy confines. Dacha’s mainstay version, the Adjarian, adds a vivid golden yolk and almost obscenely large butter pat. Its arrival generates a palpable heat wave. That crust is both rampart for the filling and—once you break off a piece for dipping—the best means to get that decadent compound of cheese, yolk, and melted butter into your mouth.
Food nerd Instagram and a recent New Yorker profile on Georgian food suggest khachapuris are poised to proliferate in the U.S. While myriad regional renditions exist, Dacha sticks to a single style and marshals its pizzalike adaptive powers: Smoky Polish sausage rosettes dot one version on the menu; others riff with fresh chard or sauerkraut and pastrami.
Tom Siegel, the bespectacled guy in shorts and dad sneakers who’s usually head down in the overworked open kitchen, says the dish was a latecomer in his longtime plan to open a Jewish and Eastern European restaurant. When he took his partner, Tora B. Hennessey, to visit his grandparents’ Lithuanian homeland in 2015, the couple ate their first-ever khachapuris at a Georgian restaurant in Vilnius’s tiny downtown. Cheese-filled bread became a daily occurrence until they flew home, he says. “That really kickstarted the plan for Dacha Diner.”
He and Hennessey had a ringer in Joe Heffernan, a pizza apprentice turned business partner whose immense talents with dough keep Dacha’s ubiquitous black bread light and intriguing and its dumplings damn near ethereal. Heffernan was hesitant at first; he has no ancestral ties to this food. Then he intertwined his life with that of Ruth Bryan, who grew up in Russia (American missionary parents) and sparked her partner’s interest in the country and its cuisine. She helped Heffernan dial in the bread’s cocoa and spice blend to mimic the version in her memory.
Dacha Diner opened in the final days of 2018, in the wedge-shaped building on East Olive Way that long housed tequila bar the Saint. It had zero in the way of PR machinery, though the screaming pink cantina’s charcoal exterior and lace curtain makeover piqued the neighborhood’s interest. By now, Dacha’s destination dining status is secure. The menu promises discovery, even if you grew up eating some of these dishes; levels of care remain inversely proportional to the size of the tiny kitchen. Waits can get nutty, a function of both the popularity and the labor bestowed on each plate. (That’s what the wine and vodka lists are for.)
Dacha is a literal diner the way the Borscht Belt is a literal garment. Currently it’s open just three days a week for breakfast and lunch, plus three nights of dinner service. While the egg, toast, and latke plate offers hearty atonement for last night’s decisions, the food’s too careful to call this place a greasy spoon. Fluffy matzo balls protrude from broth that shimmers with chicken fat, but Dacha isn’t a Jewish deli in the vein of Dingfelder’s to the east. Before you ask, they don’t do bagels.
Siegel’s life is the menu’s main through line. He grew up eating lox platters and high-holiday latkes and his grandmother’s cheese blintzes. During culinary school in New York, he frequented Manhattan’s Jewish delis, devouring Reubens and golumpkis—cabbage-wrapped bundles in a complex tomato sauce. And, of course, latkes. Dacha’s are soft in the center, like the ones of Siegel’s East Coast upbringing. “Out here I don’t know that I’ve ever had a latke that wasn’t like a hash brown.” He’s emphatic that these golden potato pancakes deserve both sour cream and applesauce and he preps them on Dacha’s griddle rather than in a pan. They can take a while, “It’s a small griddle.” Still, they’re a fixture with Dacha’s twin constituencies: Capitol Hill denizens—whose hoodies range from startup-issue to thrifted—and older Jewish couples nostalgic for childhood favorites. One morning, I watched a white-haired trio verge on tears as they parsed the perfection of those latkes.
Travel yielded other hits, like the blini inspired by a Russian restaurant in Finland. At Dacha, “blini” doesn’t mean silver dollar–size champagne sidekicks, but giant crepes, each speckled in brown and folded on a flowery plate next to sour cream, chopped onion, and a lavish pile of roe. “Some people make tiny burritos,” our server advised. Others sort of fashion individual bites. “There’s no wrong way, as long as it ends up in your mouth.” A vicious ripple of FOMO overtakes the room any time Hennessey ferries an order of Herring Under a Fur Coat from the kitchen. Russia’s towering layered salad, a hearty rainbow capped with a sunburst of grated egg, has such presence that people often ask, “What’s that pretty dessert?” Copious labor transforms this stack of boiled potatoes, herring, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise into the object of much affection, though the flavors want a bit more acid (or pickling) to rescue them from flatness.
It was the lone sad twang of many great meals here. A plate of tender brisket with deep-flavored gravy nearly up to its blue floral rim quickly restored the kitchen’s perfectionist cred. So did the pelmeni, minimally garnished and juicy as a steamer basket of soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung. “They’re not complicated,” says Heffernan of the flawlessly seasoned beef and pork, suspended in folds of paper-thin dumpling skins. “It’s just about putting in the work.”
Khachapuri’s come-hither cheesy bread charms may be having a moment, but Dacha’s entire menu is food for the ages.