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The motto "E Pluribus Unum" has made an appearance on dollar bills, on the U.S. Great Seal and now... on the D.C. dining scene.
Unum is the new restaurant opened by chef Phillip Blane and his wife, Laura Schiller. Blane says the new American eatery with international influences is a culinary embodiment of the "out of many, one" idea that represents the multicultural nation of America.
"From all these different influences comes one country, one idea, and in this case, one restaurant," he says.
Before Blane and Schiller met, they had traveled all over the world: Schiller in the name of her job with the government, and Blane in the name of cooking.
"I was in England, France, Italy, Israel, Malta, and then I was in Japan," Blane recalls. "Then I started to run out of money, and I gained about 70-something pounds."
Though he had earned a master's degree in health care administration, he'd longed to be a chef since he was a kid. So after leaving his job at an assisted-living facility, he helped open The Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
"But I didn't go to culinary school," Blane says, "and so the advice was, 'Go see restaurants. Go eat in restaurants. Go experience different cultures and cuisines, and let it try and develop in your own voice.'"
Blane's travels eventually led him back to Washington, where he became sous-chef at Todd Gray's downtown restaurant, Equinox. Once Blane and Schiller got together, they hatched this idea: why not open a neighborhood eatery featuring contemporary American food, but with a global twist?
"I feel that was a perfect representation of the world outside, particularly D.C.," Blane says, "where we have all these different cultures coming together and working mostly harmoniously together."
An example of this "harmony" at Unum is the braised Indian-spiced lamb shank. Blane says the dish was inspired by his mentor, James Beard Award-nominated chef Raji Jallepalli.
"She's since passed away, but she was a terrific mentor," Blane says. "She actually worked with Jean-Louis Palladin here in Washington, D.C., at the Watergate briefly. And her knowledge of spices was just unparalleled."
In the lamb dish, you'll see a ton of spices and aromatics. The meat's rub includes cardamom, black peppers, cloves, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, a little bit of chili flake, and salt and pepper. The braising jus contains celery, onions, carrots, lamb stock and wine. Blane serves the lamb with several sides, including Brussels sprouts, which you caramelize in a red-hot skillet, and a raisin-cashew-cauliflower puree.
"We puree it with a little bit of mascarpone cheese and some garlic," Blane explains. "And we want to keep it a little bit chunky, so it has some body and some consistency."
Then you dab on a dollop of mint-cilantro chutney, and add the finishing garnish: a papadum.
"They are deep-fried," Blane says of the traditional Indian thin cake, "and they get this lovely, crisp texture."
He says he hopes the Indian-spiced lamb shank, and all the dishes on Unum's menu, capture the essence of Unum, and of Washington, D.C.: i.e. this exciting, vibrant amalgamation of flavors and cultures.
In fact, you could say he hopes his restaurant will be seen as a sort of melting pot.
And a delicious one, at that.
[Music: "Everybody Eats When They Come To My House" by Cab Calloway from Are You Hep to the Jive?]
Photos: Unum RestaurantBraised Indian-Spiced Lamb Shank