WASHINGTON — “Petworth?” Never heard of it, the cab driver shrugs as we jump into a taxi, hailed off the tourist-filled National Mall. Twenty minutes later we are in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington, standing beneath Domku Bar & Cafe’s cheerful pink awning.
Inside, a glass chandelier hangs above antique couches, and sturdy, mismatched four-top tables. You’d never guess this bright airy space used to be a hardware store. Neighborhood faces peer down from exposed brick walls. These are the Faces of Petworth photo project, the current art exhibit of blown-up portraits of cafe patrons. Behind the bar is another dining area, where a private party of after-work revelers sip elderberry cocktails and snack on gravlax. Two friendly guys who live down the street drink beer and tuck into pierogi and game stew.
Domku Cafe is serving up the kind of Scandinavian comfort food that is having a moment. You can also order Eastern European specialties here. Yet the restaurant is anything but a trendy flash in the pan. Open since 2005, in a neighborhood that until recently had virtually no restaurants where you could sit down and order a meal and a drink, Domku Cafe is now a neighborhood fixture. Specialties include housemade aquavit, sweet and comforting lingonberry sauce over tender meatballs, kale salad with raisins and carrots, breaded pork cutlets. The little restaurant has breathed new life into the block.
Owner Kera Carpenter is not who you’d expect to be turning out hearty comfort specialties of the Slavic/Scandinavian regions. She is a petite woman of Korean heritage with no restaurant experience before Domku. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the early ’90s, she took a job for an NGO in Poland. She fell for the rich and comforting cuisine of the region. When she returned to Washington and moved to the Petworth neighborhood, she couldn’t find the food she missed, and decided to open a place herself.
Carpenter keeps a close eye on the restaurant’s environmental footprint; she reduces water and electricity usage, limits paper products and composts all food waste. The description comes across somewhat aggressively on the website, but in real life, the measures are so seamlessly worked into the operation that we never notice if water glasses aren’t refilled often or if staff is stingy with napkins. Dimmed lights feel romantic, and anyway, everything goes down easy with a shot of house-infused lemongrass aquavit.
While neighbors fill most seats, Carpenter says she also gets travelers seeking out Scandinavian food, and those looking for a quiet spot off the beaten path. “People who arrived in the ’80s are still considered newcomers,” one patron tells us. “It’s an area in transition.” Regulars call Carpenter a pioneer. She not only opened a restaurant, she also spearheaded a winter arts and crafts festival, and was involved in starting a farmers’ market two blocks away. Other eateries are starting to dot the landscape.
The chef changes her menu every six months, but says the popular sausages, potato pancakes, and goulash taste best on cold winter nights. Inventive salads and a Georgian ratatouille lighten up the menu in warmer months. She pulls inspiration from all over the region, but most recipes come from old cookbooks. The one for pierogi, springy with creamy potato centers and cloaked in brown butter, comes from the grandmother of a regular who lives down the street.
He happens to be eating at the bar next to us. He’s surprised, he says, by how much he likes Carpenter’s rendition of his family recipe.
Says Carpenter: “I try not to mess with tradition.”
Domku Bar & Cafe, 821 Upshur St., N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-722-7475, www.domkucafe.com