Chatman's D'Vine Bakery & Cafe

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

A ray of entrepreneurial light has brightened the drab streetscape on the Ninth Street side of the Washington Convention Center. Late last month, baker Debra Chatman opened a small cafe to showcase her homey desserts. In addition to a nine-stool counter, there are five cafe tables in the space, which is painted a lively shade of lime.

Chatman, 48, is a fine baker. Her lemony sweet potato pie ($3.50 per slice), in particular, is one of the best we've tried. Yet she has no formal culinary training.

"I create things as I go. I don't have recipes," says Chatman, a South Carolina native who served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years as a paralegal before retiring as a staff sergeant. "One day I woke up and said, 'I don't want to be a paralegal anymore.' And here I am." She chose to open in this slowly changing corridor after a real estate agent told her there had not been a bakery in the neighborhood since the 1960s.

Her New York-style cheesecake ($3.50 per slice) has a rich, creamy filling and a buttery graham cracker crust. Chatman's luscious peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake ($3.25 per slice) has a thin chocolate-cookie crust. Another nice dessert, one that you don't see everywhere, is a perfectly seasoned pumpkin-and-raisin-bread pudding ($3.50 per slice). A second pleasant bread pudding, called Rocky Mountain Boulder ($3.50 per slice), is made with chunks of Key lime pie and New York cheesecake.

But there are sour notes. Split pea soup (eight ounces, $3.75), on the short lunch menu, has a pronounced metallic flavor.

We had better luck with the sandwiches ($8 each) offered each day. Moist beef brisket and succulent pulled pork are served on ciabatta rolls. Sadly, the accompanying barbecue sauce was uninspired and the hefty ciabatta overpowering; the meat would be better off served on a soft hamburger bun.

On a recent morning, the credit card machine wasn't working, and the cash register wouldn't print receipts. And it took at least 20 minutes for the order to be prepared, even with no other customers in sight.

Beyond desserts, Chatman's is a work in progress.

-- Walter Nicholls (Feb. 27, 2008)