WASHINGTON — Rob Rubba was well on his way to becoming a pastry chef — that is, until he got his hands on a copy of “Charlie Trotter’s Meat and Game.”
The then-pastry cook was staying with his uncle who had a “crazy collection” of close to 1,000 cookbooks. In Trotter’s cookbook, a recipe for duck caught Rubba’s eye and inspired him to try something new.
“I very haphazardly bought a duck and thought I knew how to butcher, and [my uncle] stopped me very quickly and told me I was about to ruin his dining room table,” he said.
On a second attempt, the two went out to the store and bought another duck. Rubba’s uncle showed him how to properly break down and cook the protein. They roasted the breast, confited the legs and made a broth from the bones.
The experience ultimately made Rubba ditch dessert for duck.
“I saw all of these interesting things you could do with one piece of meat. I decided then that I was going to leave pastry and focus on savory,” he said.
Rubba has had a presence on D.C.’s culinary scene for several years. He was the chef at Arlington-based Tallula, which closed in 2014, and before that, spent some time in the kitchen at Azur.
In late June, Rubba opened his latest project, Hazel, with Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Rubba describes the restaurant, which is directly across from the famed 9:30 Club in D.C.’s U Street corridor, as a “very communal and lively dining room” that offers an array of sharing plates.
There’s barbecued carrots with fennel kraut, hazelnuts and buttermilk; his grandmother’s recipe for zucchini bread, served with foie gras mousse, camomile gelee and bee pollen; and charcoal-grilled branzino with cilantro and avocado gribiche.
However, the star of the menu is Rubba’s duck tasting, appropriately called “Ducked Up.”
Two “courses” are served on a lazy Susan. The first includes a salad made with local greens, tossed with duck fat renderings, sherry vinegar, shallots and radishes; a fried rice dish made with confit duck thighs; and Bonchon-style wings.
“We take the duck wings off and we confit them slightly to make them extra tender, then we deep fry those and toss them in hot sauce,” Rubba explained.
The second course is “the whole grand shebang,” Rubba said. There’s a Peking-style roasted breast, house-made duck sausage and steamed buns — all served with black garlic ketchup, pickled cucumbers and kimchi.
Rubba’s decision to focus on duck at Hazel is an homage to what made him a savory chef in the first place. But he suspects diners will start seeing more and more restaurants serving the meat.
“Everyone’s kind of over the roast chicken for two — that was big a few years ago — and now [duck] is an ingredient that’s becoming en vogue once again,” he said, referring to the ’80s when duck à l’orange graced the menu of nearly every French restaurant.
He added, “I think now it’s having this little revival again, but in a different format with more global flavors.”
Hazel is located at 808 V St. NW, and is open nightly beginning at 5 p.m.