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Chef Troy Clayton Redefines Italian Cooking at Geranio

When Troy Clayton walked into the space at 722 King Street, he realized that he had found what he was looking for. After six months of searching, he had found a place to setup his new restaurant. It was the right size and the right atmosphere.

“The first time I got a tour, my heart was pounding. I thought, this is the right place,” he said.

He met with the owners, Lucio and Janey Bergmin, and began the process of purchasing Geranio — a restaurant in Old Town which had become known during the 23 years that Lucio and Janey owned it for good Italian food. Clayton would take that reputation and raise it to a new level, making Geranio even better.

“At first, it was a mild sense of disbelief and elation. The first dozen times you put the key in the door, you just can’t believe it,” said Clayton. He had dreamed about owning his own place ever since he began his journey to becoming a chef — a journey which began in 1989 when he was one of only eight foreign students to be accepted to France’s Ecole Superieur de Cuisine Francaise Ferrandi. After graduation, Clayton worked at the Hotel Bristol, a Michelin two-star restaurant in France.

FROM THERE Clayton moved to London, England and became the Executive Chef for several fine dining establishments. In 1993, Clayton moved back to the United States to work with Jean Louis Palladin, first as Executive Chef of Resto des Amis in Atlanta, Georgia, and later at the Watergate Hotel’s Palladin Restaurant.

He left there to become the Executive Chef of Market Street Bar and Grill for two years, before leaving to become a founding and operating partner for Steak Around, Inc., a restaurant delivery company, in 1996.

While these were all impressive milestones for a young chef, there was still something that was missing. Clayton wanted to cook and be in charge of his own restaurant.

“Since I was 17 washing dishes, my goal was to have a restaurant,” he said.

IT’S BEEN ALMOST four years and Clayton said, “I’m at the point where I feel like we have something to talk about.”

Clayton didn’t rush the process, instead he “slowly let the restaurant evolve.”

Does this bother the former owners who spent years building up the business? Obviously not, Clayton said that he has become very close with the Bergmins, so much so that when he calls them, he’s referred to as “the other son.” He goes out to their cabin to visit them a few times a year.

Instead of changing everything overnight, he gradually began changing the menu. Now, with the exception of a few pasta dishes, there is nothing left from the old menu. Clayton has truly brought his signature touch and people are taking notice.

Others have already started talking about Geranio, with positive reports written in “Washingtonian,” The Washington Post” and “Restaurant Digest.”

Clayton said that one of the “most talked-about dishes” is his Lobster Risotto. He prepares this with a one-pound Maine lobster and lobster oil. A small taste was enough to suggest that this is indeed a dish worth waiting for.

Another signature dish, one that he’s been cooking for over eight years, is the seared halibut with globe artichokes, vine ripe tomatoes and basil oil.

All of the dishes are elegantly presented, but a giant free-form ravioli of jumbo lump crab, basil and spinach is what Clayton refers to as “a little bit of my sense of humor.” Don’t let it fool you, underneath this enormous ravioli is pure crab, no fillers.

During the week, (Tuesday through Thursday), enjoy a four or five-course “Tasting Menu from the Chef.” This special arrangement, which costs $50 for four courses or $65 for five, allows Clayton to prepare custom tasting menus. This is like having a personal chef — you tell the server your likes, dislikes and food aversions, and then Clayton creates special dishes just for the table. There is also a $25 three-course fixed price menu, which is available Sunday through Thursday.

Geranio is located at 722 King St., call 703-548-0088. A five-course wine dinner with paired wines will be held on Sunday, June 9; cost is $85 per person.