For a guy who grew up in New Jersey, chef Bryan Moscatello loves grits. He’s a fan of pickling. He enjoys preparing crispy chicken livers with sweet potato pickles.
“One of my favorite dishes is the pepper-jerked pork belly; I’m not going to lie, I’m a big fan of the pork belly,” he said. “And it’s with the watermelon and ramp salad and homemade rind pickles. To me, that just says ‘low country.’ The hog is huge down there.”
The spotlight is on contemporary low-country cuisine at Indigo Landing, the ambitious new restaurant where Moscatello, 37, is the executive chef. Indigo Landing opened its doors earlier this month at its picturesque Daingerfield Island location in Alexandria, formerly the home of Potomack Landing. Moscatello’s been happy with the progress. “Good, good…it’s busy,” he said, exhaling. “It would have been a little easier on my life had we opened it in the middle of December.”
That the restaurant overlooks the water fits perfectly with the concept of low-country cuisine — a menu literally crafted based on what’s pulled out of local waters.
“Aside from those few dishes, low country cuisine is more about the ingredients that are there, more so than anything else I’ve come across. It’s all about the indigenous products that they use. That’s why when it comes to shellfish or seafood, it’s really whatever they get out of that bay [in the South],” Moscatello said
It’s a form of Southern cooking that’s been long grouped together with Cajun, Creole and other styles.
“I don’t know if it was overlooked as much as we weren’t ready for the breakdown of what Southern cuisine is. We have the Creole\Cajun style from New Orleans; then there’s the low country type Southern; then you throw in the really poor Southern, like chitlins and all that stuff. It’s all Southern cuisine, but it’s different segments,” he said.
“I think low country cuisine is dominated by Southern [cuisine]. For a period of time, that’s what it almost needed to be, because it was all broader appeal. Now people are getting into specific elements, like Alto in New York — the Alto Adige region of Italy. It’s crazy where people are going to with cuisines these days,” he said. “Well, I shouldn’t say ‘crazy’ because I love it. It gives you a true sense of what that region is about.”
IN HIS PREVIOUS GIG, Moscatello helped redefine a region.
He moved to Colorado in 1989, relocating to Aspen and eventually taking a position at The Little Nell, described as a combination of a country inn and a grand hotel. He replaced his mentor, George Mahaffey, as executive chef.
In May 2002, Moscatello helped open Adega Restaurant + Wine Bar in Denver as the eatery’s first executive chef, attempting to bring cultured cuisine to a city that wasn’t exactly known for it. “Denver had been more of a steak and potatoes city,” he said. “The great thing was that we were very well-supported as we developed that concept of fine, high-end multi-course tasting restaurant.”
Adega, a Portuguese term for "cellar," quickly became an influential sensation, named by Esquire magazine as one of the best new restaurants in the nation in Nov. 2002. The following year, Moscatello was honored by Food & Wine magazine as one of the top 10 Best New Chefs in America.
“It was a little difficult in the very beginning. A lot of our staff and a lot of our cooks hadn’t worked in that environment. But I was surprised that a lot of our clientele — the urban dwellers, living in LoDo [lower downtown Denver] — were all very familiar with that style of dining, whether they grew up in Denver or were from New York or L.A.”
Born in East Orange, N.J., and growing up in Bloomfield, Moscatello longed to return to the East Coast.
“Denver for me was really a stop-over city. I grew up in the East, and I was really missing it. Denver was good to kind of acclimate myself to city life, having lived in Aspen for 12 years [where] it’s so laid back,” he said.
His options opened when Adega closed in 2005; according to The Denver Post, it was an ownership dispute that shuttered the popular eatery. Moscatello eyed his next move, and mutual friends linked him up with Dan Mesches and Ralph Rosenberg of Star Restaurant Group, which operates such big-name establishments as Zola and Red Sage. Mesches said they were familiar with Moscatello, as Zola and Adega were vying for the same awards nationally.
Moscatello soon agreed to be the executive chef for Indigo Landing, the group’s newest venture, and he and his wife moved to D.C.
“I think any new partnership is a developmental process. This is nothing like Adega — this is a completely different operation than anything I’ve been in, but it consumes a lot of what I’ve done, with the private dining spaces, the size of it, the volume. I always want to do new things. I want to learn, I want to grow.”
IN THE KITCHEN, Moscatello has grown into a specialist with contemporary low-country cuisine. Mesches said once the cuisine at Indigo Landing was established, the next step was finding a talented chef and not necessarily one that "grew up with" the cooking style.
Mahaffey first exposed Moscatello to southern flavors and dishes. Later in his career, Moscatello said he has a banquet chef from South Carolina who schooled him in preparing ideal grits and braising greens. He said he soon feel for the cuisine and its down-home heritage.
“The whole concept of low-country cuisine — that’s true American cuisine. That’s where it started,” he said. “When everyone else in the country started changing to wheat for flours or breads, they really hung onto their roots with the corn products.”
Before opening Indigo Landing, Moscatello spent several months with Mesches and Rosenberg in South Carolina, exploring low country cuisine in some of the region’s most storied eateries and its most humble establishments. He also worked in the kitchens of several eateries, helping him develop the menu for Indigo Landing.
“Our decision to focus on low country cuisine for Indigo Landing reflects the increased appreciation taking place in this country for the South’s most celebrated dishes,” said Mesches.
The starters at Indigo Landing are a menagerie of these dishes. She Crab Soup features Crab and Tobiko Swizzle Sticks, as well as Sherry Crema ($8). The Crispy Chicken Livers are served with Sweet Potato Pickles and Madeira Mayonnaise ($9). An Oyster Cobb Salad features smoked ham hock and avocado ($8).
Like the late, great Adega, Indigo Landing offers an extensive and impressive wine list, and for good reason: Moscatello’s main menu of seafood entrees practically begs for a glass to complement the flavors. A former crabber and clammer on the Jersey shore, he’s an unabashed fan of using fish and shellfish in a variety of ways.
“There are so many different things you can do with it, so many different flavors and textures with different fish. You have some really nice light delicate, you have some really nice hard meaty,” he said. “You could cook them all different methods, where when you start getting into beef … it’s ‘beef.’ Some cuts are little more tender, but it’s beef.”
Moscatello has Shrimp and Grits with bacon, leek, oyster mushrooms and sage jus on the dinner menu ($21), along with Sweet Corn Glazed Rockfish with Truffle- scented Mushrooms and Creamy Grits ($20). He’s also a fan of combining fish with ham, such as in his Sea Trout with turnip greens and Country ham and Spicy Lemon Potlikker ($22).
“With fish, when you get into the sweeter fish and shellfish, that’s just begging for salty cured ham. I love that whole shellfish and ham combination — it’s wonderful,” he said.
Moscatello hopes the cuisine and picturesque setting of Indigo Landing are equally as satisfying.
“I won’t lie: it’d be nice if there were a Metro stop across the street. But aside from that, the setting is wonderful.”