August 13, 2017
Fifty years ago, fine dining restaurants were almost exclusively traditional American steakhouses or French bistros, with the occasional Italian place mixed in. More recently, upscale Japanese or Asian fusion restaurants have cropped up with some frequency. South American cuisine, as versatile and as delicious as it can be, is still not often associated with fine dining, but Del Campo, the elegant South American restaurant a block from the Convention Center, may change all that.
Del Campo is the flagship outpost of Victor Albisu, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, with more than ten years’ experience at upscale American, French and Latin restaurants. Albisu, who also runs the much smaller but wildly popular Taco Bamba in Falls Church, has become something of a celebrity chef in recent years: he appeared as a guest judge on Telemundo’s Top Chef Estrellas and on the FOX TV series Hell’s Kitchen. His focus at Del Campo is, he says, “elevating the art of the South American grill,” and his menu mostly draws on dishes and flavors from Peru, Argentina and Uruguay. With every dish, Albisu betrays his Peruvian heritage and his obvious love for traditional Latin flavors. The kitchen’s large charcoal grill is the kitchen’s single most important element. “Everything has smoke or grill or char on it,” Albisu says, “To me that’s the one unifying flavor that South American cuisine has to offer.”
Despite its central downtown location, Del Campo’s name literally means “from the country,” and its warm interior is appropriately rustic chic. The dining room walls are draped with cowhide tapestries, chairs are made from wrought iron and leather, and bars are decorated with earthenware jugs and rugged looking houseplants. This is the perfect spot for a gaucho to relax over a plate of ceviche and an Argentinian red after a full day of roping cattle.
Indeed, ceviche is a key item on the menu – and perhaps one of the few that doesn’t come into contact with the grill. The elements and the price change daily depending on what’s fresh, but the result is always a sharp and citrusy concoction with thick chunks of fish or shrimp.
Although its menu offers reliably tasty salads and fish, Del Campo has built its reputation on meat; in 2013, in just its second year of existence, it was named the District’s best steakhouse by Washingtonian Magazine. It’s not hard to see what all the fuss is about: the Prime New York Strip and the Skirt Steak (both $49) are exceptionally juicy and flavorful. Ditto for the massive 18 ounce Ribeye ($56), coated with a chimichurri sauce that adds a little kick, while never distracting from the natural flavor of the meat.
Other delicacies from the grill include duck breast ($29), lobster ($58) and whole chicken ($28), a Peruvian signature dish, here spiced up with green and yellow chili peppers. Standout sides include Arroz Chaufa ($9), a popular South American take on fried rice, and thick sticks of Crispy Yucca ($9), with sweet and savory red chili aioli sauce for dipping. The extensive wine list features a huge range of price points and varieties, many of them from Argentina and Uruguay.
Between the steak and the wine, prices can certainly add up quickly. Fortunately, one of Del Campo’s best features is its generous lunch deal: a sandwich and a glass of wine or beer for $15 on weekday afternoons. Since every sandwich features meat from the grill, the special is a great way to sample Del Campo’s flavors in miniature. The Lomito Sandwich, pork loin and avocado, topped with spicy aji amarillo, is a steal for this price. Ditto for the Brisket Sandwich, smothered in Manchego and smoked Hollandaise sauce.
While the lunch special works great as a quick meal for one, a meal at Del Campo is perhaps best enjoyed family style. “The menu at Del Campo is very versatile,” says Albisu, “You can start with ceviche, you can have street food items, you can have grilled salads, and then you can finish with the Asado (mixed grill).” A feast like this should be enough to convince anyone that South American fine dining has officially arrived in D.C.