A splash of background: Bluejacket refers to an enlisted person in the Navy. In its earlier life, the lot housing the brewery turned out boilers for ships, among other products. Today, the main attraction is accessed through the Arsenal, a dining room and bar with 200 seats that’s meant to pay tribute to classic beer halls and local farmers, the servers will tell you. The menu is a collaboration between Kyle Bailey, the chef at Birch & Barley, and Arsenal chef de cuisine Dan Hahndorf, a former sous chef at Vermilion in Alexandria, a star in NRG’s galaxy.
Alas, that brings me to the less savory news about the latest draw in Southeast D.C.: You are likely to empty your glass but leave food, sometimes a lot, on your plate. And the downers at Arsenal show up early, with a little pickle pot that holds flabby, sometimes harsh spears and slices.
This comes as a letdown from the NRG, whose body of work includes the breezy Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray and the reimagined Iron Gate in Dupont Circle. For the sake of comparison, I revisited Bailey’s Birch & Barley last month after a long time away and found the onetime trendsetter to be a shadow of the upscale tavern it was when it sprang on the scene four years ago. Although the service was genial, the cooking was muddled; even dishes I used to recommend are no longer their good old selves.
Focus, then, on the suds at the oak-planked, amber-glowing Arsenal. There’s a lot to swig. The attractions include Trouble, a sour brown ale; Mexican Radio, a mole-inspired spiced stout; five cask ales, served at a balmy 55 degrees; and High Society. The last, a style of ale presented in a snifter, is my go-to quaff, a concentrated barleywine that hits the nose with toffee and raisin notes. Bluejacket encourages experimentation by offering its liquid wares in two serving sizes: a four-ounce taste and a full pour of 12 (or so) ounces.
You’ll probably want something to knock back the beer. Lemony fried chickpeas make a fine, first-round draft pick, as does the sausage board arranged with salami slices, boozy chicken liver pât
éand a slab of country pât
éwith white toast for spreading. A more virtuous beginning is the kale Caesar salad, enough for two to share and tossed with soft croutons and shaved pecorino. Beef heart tartare is served so cold, the flavor of the raw beef is lost, but harsh seasoning also masks any nuances.
Of the pastas, I favor squid ink taglierini made sassy with green olives, tomatoes and capers. “Rustic” gemelli with butternut squash, Swiss chard and cranberries smacks of leftovers from a vegetarian’s Thanksgiving — not bad, just homespun.
As for the beef short ribs, I like everything about the plate — the buttery turnips, the tender spaetzle, the braised cabbage — except for the fatty centerpiece.
Roast half chicken is, per fashion, brined before cooking. Order the main course, and prepare to share. The juicy outcome shows up with roasted vegetables and a fun twist: stuffing featuring pretzels made with the brewery’s clove-fragrant dunkelweizen, or dark wheat ale. One of the cool things about the new restaurant, says Bailey, is “not just the extra beer” the kitchen can tap for cooking, “but the stuff that makes the beer.”
Arsenal’s burgers come in a handful of flavors — beef (brisket), shrimp, spicy lamb-and-pork — with the last patty getting the most thumbs up at my table. But the kitchen needs to rethink its wimpy buns.
Lunch is the most dispiriting meal. The sunlight pouring through the windows on a winter afternoon is sharp contrast to the uninspired work of the kitchen crew. A big bowl of what sounds enticing in the reading — curried chicken soup with udon noodles and a soft egg — doesn’t add up to much in the mouth. Arsenal’s grilled cheese sandwich is mostly thick slices of bread, with a veneer of barely warm, unmelted Taleggio and some sweetness from apple butter. The vapid potato chips alongside won’t satisfy; one taste is enough to demonstrate that homemade isn’t always better. Arsenal’s porchetta sandwich is even more of a curiosity. The thin and fatty shaved meat suggests turkey rather than pork. What you taste is mostly condiment (pepper relish) and bread (cottony baguette).
Service is as variable as the weather. One night, we were swooned over by staff who identified a critic. Is Arsenal so generous that everyone at the table gets a gratis taste of beer that matches their main course? Unrecognized, however, this diner had a plate dropped so hard on the table, my french fries went flying. “Done with that?” another server asked when he saw a barely touched bowl of gummy sweet potato gnocchi with salty duck meatballs.
Bluejacket and the Arsenal were said to be eight years in the making — more worth the wait for drinkers than for diners.