A New Fishing Hole
Some seafood dishes are catchier than others at the new Hank's
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007
The flow of attention-grabbing restaurants into Alexandria continues, most recently with an export from Washington. For the September launch of Hank's Oyster Bar Old Town, chef Jamie Leeds has a near-replica of her popular seafood joint of the same name in Dupont Circle.
From the time Leeds closed on the new space to the time she started serving soy-glazed sablefish there, a mere 35 days had elapsed. That's what happens when a restaurateur inherits a similar floor plan, taps the same designer, recruits veteran staff members to play their roles in a different Zip code and offers essentially the same menu.
Fans of the original will feel right at home at the spinoff; both are odes to Leeds's late father, an avid fisherman. As in Washington, the dining room in the heart of Old Town runs long, narrow and deafening at peak dining hours. Bare wood floors, unclothed tables, exposed brick and chalkboards listing menu items encourage customers to let down their hair. Just like in the District, the snack from the kitchen is sly fun: Pepperidge Farm Goldfish served in a little bowl for munching while you peruse the one-page menu.
Consider the name of the place, and get some oysters. They come fried, with a fresh-tasting tartar sauce, and raw, occasionally with (oops!) a bit of shell clinging to their bodies. The shucker needs to be a little more careful, but it's nice to see some Virginia bivalves among the choices. "Peel 'n' Eat" shrimp require customers to work a bit for their reward, which is firm, sweet steamed shrimp amped up with Old Bay seasoning. Approaching light-meal status is the griddled crab cake, crisp with Japanese bread crumbs and sweet with seafood, further flattered with a light slaw of julienned cabbage. The lobster roll is the best for miles. At $23, the sandwich is priced like a luxury good, but it's also generous with the seafood, which is lightly bound with mayonnaise and celery and slipped inside a toasted bun.
Save any hankering for ceviche for another venue. The version at Hank's II manages to taste both acrid and bland. Lobster bisque delivers the right flavor but the wrong temperature; rich with bites of its namesake, the soup is tepid when it lands on my table. Getting dishes to the diner at the proper temperature is a detail the restaurant needs to work on, especially in the crush of a busy night. So is monitoring the fish for signs that it needs to be removed from the fire. Try as the chefs might, a sunny lemon sauce and honey-poached fennel could not resuscitate an arid piece of amberjack.
Do cooks test-drive their creations? I sometimes wonder, given the challenge of eating some dishes. At Hank's II, my Everest turns out to be a trio of fish tacos wedged into a small basket -- like Rosie O'Donnell in a size 6 dress -- and heaped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and slippery avocado. Extricating the tacos from their container is no easy feat, and, as they're plucked from the basket, the fillings spill out. Neatniks will want to refrain from this Tuesday staple.
While the kitchen concentrates on the simple, it does well with its more sophisticated touches, which generally are found swimming among the "daily fish" selections. If there's one plate I hope to catch again, it's pan-roasted rockfish. Served as a thin, crisp rectangle, the entree is staged on a light base of quinoa, corn and carrot threads, all circled by a sprightly tomato vinaigrette.
Breaking ranks with seafood are a satisfying "autumn" salad of shaved squash and frisee and the nightly "Meats & Two" entrees that include a couple of side dishes. I can vouch for the tenderness of Tuesday's molasses-sweetened beef short ribs and the generosity of Thursday's thin, balsamic-glazed lamb steak, which practically covers its plate. The best of the side dishes tend to be the most decadent: macaroni and cheese made luscious with aged cheddar and smoked gouda, buttermilk-dipped fried onion rings the size of Rolex watches and french fries dusted with Old Bay. Trying to win favor with your cardiologist has a downside. Halved underseasoned Brussels sprouts speak more to school cafeteria fare, and collard greens lack the kick a devotee expects.
The concise menu includes a short wine list with a number of acidic whites to support the seafood focus, but their prices are fairly high when you consider the $19 entree average. Only four bottles cost $30 or less. While you won't find any trail-blazers, the labels are respectable.
You can't reserve a table at Hank's II, but you can call 20 minutes ahead of your anticipated arrival and put your name on a waiting list. This is useful news. The small restaurant fills quickly, especially toward the end of the week. Calling ahead doesn't guarantee a table when you show up, but it does give you preference over people who happen to just stroll in.
The kitchen at Hank's II is bigger than at the first, but dessert is still not an option. Instead, the end of the meal is signaled with chunks of dark chocolate, free of charge. Like the Goldfish snack, says Leeds, "it's one of those little things we do differently."
Consistency is a hallmark of a restaurant that knows its way. Hank's II is getting there.