Review | Pascual raises the bar for Mexican cooking in D.C.

If you chase hot new restaurants in Washington, this much is certain: You’re eating a lot of dinners around 5 p.m.

Pascual, from chefs Matt Conroy and Isabel Coss, seems impossible to book. From the moment the Mexican eatery opened in February on Capitol Hill, no amount of trying led me to a reservation.

Blame it on the dining room, a mere 30 seats including a bar, or the reputations of the chefs, who met cute while they were working in New York at the admired Empellón and subsequently relocated to Washington to open Lutèce in Georgetown. Conroy’s credits include the breezy-but-serious Oxomoco in Brooklyn. Coss, a native of Mexico City who cooked at the world-class Pujol there when she was just 17, went on to be the pastry chef at Cosme in Manhattan.

You could say a lot of food fans were champing at the bit to get an early taste of their menu.

My strategy for getting into impossible situations is to just show up — early, hopeful and with a smile on my face. Most restaurateurs don’t want to say “no” to would-be diners who have taken the initiative to wait outside their door until opening time. Or really, anyone able and present.

Needless to say, I am relieved to see just two people outside Pascual on my initial trip in mid-March — albeit 30 minutes before showtime. “One and two?” I ask them, and they nod. Like my partner and me, the couple doesn’t have a reservation. “We’re three and four,” I tell them, just as a third couple strolls up. “And we’re five and six!” one of the two strangers announces to the early birds, which grows to a flock within minutes.

I don’t know about the others, but my sense of accomplishment feels like finding Wonka’s golden ticket. At least until opening time, when the shades of the windows at Pascual go up and a hostess calls out to those with reservations. The lucky ones form a separate, exclusive line that looks like the boarding process at an airport: first-class travelers first. Meanwhile, the huddled masses yearning to drink mezcal margaritas (awesome) and eat lamb neck (just as marvelous) start making silent calculations about their prospects.

A long moment passes. Then in we go, to a spare, light-filled dining room. Omar Popal, whose family also owns Lapis in Adams Morgan and Lutèce, where Conroy and Coss continue to cook, created the minimalist look, which is punctuated by some botanicals. Otherwise, white brick walls and blond wood chairs and tables direct your attention to the food and drink.

If you’ve done any homework on the place, named for the patron saint of cooks and the kitchen, you know to order the guacamole, “the perfect beginning of a meal,” says Coss. The dip starts with the basics — avocados, lime, salt — but also pickled jalapeños followed by finishes of olive oil and crushed toasted avocado powder. Nice. But the chefs raise the bar for every guac around by serving it on a Lazy Susan with half a dozen salsas and other condiments, what Coss playfully calls banchan, a reference to the Korean side dishes that often launch a meal. They include pickled vegetables, spiced pineapple and papaya, and bright salsas with varying degrees of heat including the dark brown oil-based salsa macha, “the new chile crunch,” says the chef of the dip with the twin allures of sesame and smoke. There’s no rush to clear the condiments when a fresh course arrives; servers encourage you to enjoy them throughout the rest of dinner.

Pascual employs a full-time “tortilla lady” to make the alluring rounds patted out from a variety of colors of heirloom corn. What’s seemingly simple is important to the chefs. When Coss lands somewhere new, she says, she looks for a good tortilla that “makes me miss Mexico less.”

With the first bite of anything here, you realize how special Pascual is. Yet this is a level of talent I’ve tasted before, in visits to Mexico and Los Angeles, as well as right here at home. If you haven’t noticed, distinctive Mexican cooking is easier than ever to find in and around Washington, and at all price points.

I have yet to greet shad or rhubarb anywhere. For me, spring was sprung at Pascual with a tlayuda — a giant soft tortilla turned crisp on the wood-fired grill — decorated with asparagus, mint salsa and streaks of smoked yogurt fueled with dried scallions and herbs. The green of the assembly pulls you into the season; the toppings keep you there.

A lot of people talk up the parsnip tamal, whose creamy mole — white with almonds, sesame seeds and golden raisins — and nonstaining slivered endive and finely grated cheese explain why brides want to serve it on their wedding day. I like, but do not love, the combination, which veers sweet for me. “Sent by an angel,” a server says as she placed the dish on the table and announced it as a staff favorite. For me, the more celestial vegetarian combination gathers garbanzo beans, potatoes and a custard spiced as if it were green chorizo. The suggestion of eucalyptus in the flan comes from hoja santa, the heart-shaped Mexican pepper leaf that lends its savor to many dishes in Oaxaca in particular. The crunch is dried garbanzos.

The chefs offer dishes from around Mexico. Seafood is a strong suit. Prawns are brushed with a spicy paste of pickled chipotle and grilled in their open shells so the seafood remains tender. Like the chefs, I eat the (thin) crisp shell along with the prawn. Any mess is erased by incoming hot cloths. Skate might look more at home at the French-themed Lutèce, but Conroy likes the fish for its bones, which keep skate moist during cooking and are easily separated from the flesh at the table for taco-making. Before the fish is swaddled in a banana leaf and placed over embers, it gets brushed with a sauce of tomatoes, fruity guajillo peppers, coriander and oregano that flatters the entree without masking it.

The larger dishes include a lamb neck that demonstrates the time and attention lavished on the food at Pascual. The centerpiece is brined for a day; marinated in an adobo sauce built from chiles, avocado leaves, onions and garlic; seared over the fire; bundled in agave leaves; and braised, during which the juices of the meat are captured, strained and used to cook the sublime ayocote beans that ground the imposing lamb neck in its bowl. A brief time on the grill before serving crisps the meat, which goes into some of the most extraordinary tacos you’re likely to make with the accompanying salsa crudo and tortillas. (One complaint: Those margaritas are great, but Mexico also makes some fine wines. It would be nice to see some on Pascual’s itty-bitty list.)

Dessert is another excuse to take photos. Other Mexican restaurants offer churros. Pascual uses a big rosette iron to make plate-size buñuelos, fried confections dusted in sugar and Mexican cinnamon and served with two sauces: chocolate with cajeta, caramel sauce made with goat milk. The rice pudding with poached quince hidden at the bottom is very good, too, but it’s second to the lovely ornament, supported on what looks like a little air bag in its bowl.

Coss, whose parents were both woodworkers, says the setting in the onetime Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse “feels like home. The smell of wood is familiar.” The blank canvas on the ground floor yields to a spa vibe in the basement, where the restrooms are soothing in pink and scented with palo santo.

Pascual opens its doors Thursday through Monday. The schedule lets the team explore other restaurants with more traditional hours and makes it easier for industry types to visit Pascual. Cooking for peers on Monday night is a “fun service” that ends on a high note for all involved, says Coss.

Getting in requires patience. But Pascual is worth the wait or line. The latest in a succession of Mexican models, foremost Amparo Fondita in Dupont Circle, this mom-and-pop proves the best yet.

732 Maryland Ave. NE. 202-450-1954. Open for dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Prices: appetizers $8 to $24, main dishes $34 to $50. Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A small ramp can be used for the step at the door, but the dining room is compact and restrooms are all down a flight of narrow stairs.

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