Brookland Cafe

American, Vegetarian/Vegan
$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

A Cozy Cafe to Meet Friends or Make New Ones

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

At a glance: If the Brookland Cafe isn't completely packed when you arrive for dinner, chances are it will be by the time you leave. The shoebox-size neighborhood hangout has been open only since May, but it's already attracting a steady stream of folks from the neighborhood and beyond.

There's a sense inside that everyone knows one another, and given the restaurant's tiny 30-seat capacity, that's certainly possible. But owner Dmaz Lumukanda has a different take on the chummy atmosphere. He just thinks customers feel comfortable enough to jump into conversations with the stranger sitting next to them. A few trade comments about health-care policy or the Rick James video on the flat-screen television above the bar, and, Lumukanda says, "the next thing you know, you can't tell 'em apart from friends."

So what is it? Some sort of friendship fairy dust sprinkled over the 12th Street storefront? Not quite. Management is making an effort to reach out to the community with special events and promotions. The restaurant offers wine tastings on Saturday afternoons, karaoke on Thursday nights and a vegan-only menu on Wednesday evenings. The latter has drawn vegetarian diners from across the region, Lumukanda says.

On the menu: The menu is made up of a selection of snack-type items (chicken tenders, spinach dip and sliders), and about half of what's offered is vegetarian. Some dishes miss the mark, but order well and you'll find some gems.

Chief among them are the baked Caribbean wings. The dry-rubbed chicken burns with a hot, smoky kind of spice, heat that hits you in the back of the throat. A creamy avocado-ranch dipping sauce delivers a creamy cool antidote.

Beyond the wings, the dishes I liked the best were the simplest: a garden salad with cucumbers, dried cranberries and walnuts, a chicken salad sandwich with lightly dressed chunks of chicken. The beet-carrot-and-potato-based veggie burger was the best of the vegetarian items I tasted, but it suffered slightly from a too-generous run-in with the salt shaker.

Opting for dessert and drinks is a good game plan here. The cafe brings in a handful of cake flavors from local baker Delectable Cakery. The sweet potato cake, which is topped with a tangy icing, is irresistible.

At your service: It might take a few minutes to place an order or to get the check in this oft-crowded restaurant, but the servers are friendly. They cruise through close-together tables, chatting with patrons as they go.

What to avoid: The dishes that falter here suffer from an unbalanced application of spice. The angus beef sliders were over-seasoned and overcooked, to the point of distraction. Many of the "Vegan Delite Night" offerings were heavily battered, deep-fried and laden with heat. The combination served to sack the original ingredient (whether it was bean curd, mock shrimp or cauliflower), instead of complementing it.

Wet your whistle: Beer, wine, soda, coffee, tea and lemonade are on the menu, but the cocktail list is much more intriguing. I'll confess to being drawn to the D.C. Tap Water drink (a blend of pineapple juice and coconut rum) mostly for its name. "This drink was designed to resemble how the water looks here locally some days," says Lumukanda. "Some days, you'll get a good glass. It'll be clear. And other days you'll get a glass that's pretty, um, nontransparent." It's all in good fun, he says, a way to tap into an experience a lot of locals have had.

Bottom line: The Brookland Cafe has book club written all over it. The restaurant is a great place to gather with a small group of friends or to meet new ones. Tuck into some Caribbean wings or a slice of sweet potato cake and you'll leave happy.