To most people, Southern and Nordic food may not seem like the most obvious bedfellows.
At least in that respect, Hamilton Johnson is not most people.
On Tuesday, Johnson will debut this unconventional combination of cuisines at Honeysuckle, his first solo restaurant and a concept he tested as a pop-up at Prequel in Penn Quarter. Honeysuckle takes over the subterranean space near Dupont Circle that was occupied for more than 20 years by Jeff Buben’s Vidalia, where Johnson spent eight years as chef de cuisine.
Johnson grew up in South Carolina and spent years cooking Southern food professionally at Vidalia and elsewhere. The Nordic part? That’s inspired by his visits to Finland and Iceland, as a participant in cooking competitions.
Some ingredients hail from the region. Pork tenderloin, for example, is coated in Icelandic seaweed that Johnson toasts and grinds to a powder. The seaweed is milder than nori but still has that “salty ocean thing going on,” he said. In the panna cotta dessert, butterscotch teams up with skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product similar to yogurt) along with oats, rum raisins and toffee meringue.
Still, the overriding accent of the menu (appetizers $14 to $21, mains $29 to $42) is Southern. So don’t be surprised when you see chicken cracklings show up on a number of plates, including the Champagne-poached oysters and slow-roasted hake (similar to cod). Sides lean Southern too, with such dishes as creamed collards and a riff on mashed potatoes made with rutabaga. Johnson is already pegging his buttered veal sweetbreads, served with bearnaise custard, sweet onions, black truffle and a veal reduction, as a likely contender for his signature dish, along with the rib-eye that’s adorned with Maryland crab cooked in cream and butter and also topped with black truffle.
In addition to the full menu of entrees, Honeysuckle will offer a limited bar menu ($10 to $16). Options include a burger, sweet and sour wings (double-fried similar to Korean ones), veal tongue bruschetta and a Carolina shrimp salad served with Ritz crackers.
The cocktail list pays homage to the world of music, with selections including the White Wedding (vodka, lime juice, Cointreau, white cranberry juice) and Under Pressure (moonshine, cherry, pomegranate, brut rosé). Expect a modest selection of regional and national beers on draft and in bottles and cans, along with about 70 wines by the bottle and around two dozen by the glass.
Like the food, Honeysuckle’s design by Ron Saleh is an eclectic mash-up, where rock-and-roll (portraits of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and others) meets succulents and votives, with antiques thrown in for good measure. Oh, and those colorful murals you’ll spot when you walk in from the street and in the dining room? They’re inspired by Johnson’s many tattoos, just one other autobiographical detail in a space he’s already very familiar with.
“It’s a homecoming for sure,” he said.
Honeysuckle, 1990 M St. NW. 202-659-1990. Opening Tuesday for dinner daily; lunch and brunch to follow.