** Station 9
1438 U St. NW. 202-667-1661 www.station9dc.com
Open: dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: U Street/Cardozo. Street parking. Dinner prices: appetizers $6 to $9, entrees $13 to $24.
Vast pools of space separate me from just a handful of diners, and the ceiling above me is so high that I'm surprised not to see stars when I look up.
Station 9 is very big -- and very empty -- when pals and I show up for dinner on a school night. That's a shame, because the space is also quite handsome, and the menu endears itself to a variety of appetites.
Pulled pork. "Mama's" salmon cakes. Peanut chicken. Coconut flan. If the lineup has a slightly familiar ring to habitues of U Street, here's the likely explanation: The chef responsible for infusing the nearby Creme Cafe with upscale twists on down-home charm -- Terrell Danley, who refers to himself as "Chef T" -- is the same guy who's supervising the stove at Station 9, which takes its name from the post office it used to be.
But isn't he competing with himself? Danley, who has worked with such culinary talents as Jeffrey Buben, Bob Kinkead and Cindy Wolf, thinks not. As he said in a telephone conversation, the flavors at Station 9 were developed to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood: "It's Asian, it's Latin, it's black, it's white."
From the street, you'd never guess what's beyond the gray stone facade of Station 9, which explains the menu and server posted out on the sidewalk on a couple visits. "We're here! We're open!" they all but shout to recruit passersby, just like the leggy young things you see in front of competing restaurants in South Beach. Those who venture inside Station 9 find a bar and dining room that unfold over 12,000 square feet (there's also a lounge upstairs) and that make a handsome fashion statement with a palette of slate, aqua and red. A tier of butter-colored booths hugs the walls on each side; near the railing, egg-shaped, espresso-colored chairs await cocktail drinkers. From a distance, the white globes illuminating the center of the room look like giant snowballs. Closer inspection reveals clusters of hundreds of clear plastic cups. Clever.
Those who find too many new restaurants uncomfortably loud will appreciate the volume at which music is played here. Station 9 is proof that you can be a lure at lower decibels.
Bring an appetite. The appetizers served here could stand in for light entrees. That salmon cake, an ho-mage to Danley's mother, is a thick, creamy-crisp patty veined with chopped parsley, celery and onions, while the "Mo' Rockin'" beef rolls yield stubby cigars of pastry-wrapped meat seasoned with garlic and parsley and super-sized with fluffy minted bulgur wheat. Station 9's barbecued pork ribs could pass for the monster order that tips Fred and Wilma's car in "The Flintstones." Rubbed with chili powder, dried thyme and cumin, the meat and bones crowd a plate on which every bit of space is taken up by smoky baked beans, which taste as if they were prepared over a campfire, and a fat pillar of pineapple-topped coleslaw. A whole ear of corn and a cake of potato salad escort the grilled-then-roasted half-chicken perked up with a vinegar-stoked, brick-colored barbecue sauce -- a summer picnic in every bite. Only slightly less imposing is chicken in a sauce of crushed peanuts, broadened with a mound of steamed rice and broccoli rabe. One of several dishes that draws on the backgrounds of its principals, this one, a Cameroonian memory for co-owner Aymeric Saha, took Danley seven tries to perfect. ("Two-way lamb," a nod to co-owner Samir Tazi's Moroccan heritage, makes a lesser impression with its messy appearance and dry bed of couscous.)
The largesse is largest on Sunday. Brunch includes an omelet station up front; breads and sweets in the rear (be sure to try a biscuit); and salads and a hot buffet of meats, grits and other breakfast staples on either side of the dining room. Admission is $24.95, with a choice of one of five entrees. Chicken and waffles are a nice twosome; the chicken is lightly battered and moist beneath its crunchy skin; the waffles are high and light and sprinkled with powdered sugar. "People have been known to fill up" before their entree and "take brunch home for dinner," Danley says of the spread.
The food isn't just generous. Some of it is quite elegant. Danley's scallops, gently sauteed and dusted with lemon zest, are the equal of those at the Oceanaire Seafood Room or Kinkead's. Broccoli rabe, enhanced with roasted peppers and tomato and a confetti of minced fried golden potatoes, helps send the plate to first class. Crisp of skin and snowy of flesh, head-on rockfish shows up as if it were caught and deep-fried mid-swim in the sea. Station 9's hamburger, served on a sturdy bun with skinny fries that quickly go limp at the table, is decent, but I appreciate the thought that goes into its condiment, a bright mince of peppers and pineapple that gives the standard fresh punch.
Service at Station 9 runs enthusiastic and attentive, sometimes too much so. I like flattery as much as the next guy, but must my waiter grade my order ("Good choice! I'm impressed!") dish after dish? One server suggested he be invited to join my posse for dessert, then sat down with us for . . . ever. And when he announced he was giving us a freebie, and I declined, he told me to "zip it." My kid brother can say that to me. My waiter shouldn't. Still, the staff bands together to try to show you a good time, and the attention to getting things right is sincere, as evinced when a waitress rushes hot sauce to the table for your fried chicken because, she says, "You have to have hot sauce!" or when the chef himself goes into the dining room to explain to a couple why their food will be a little late. "I wasn't happy with it," I overheard him apologize. Such personal attention keeps customers coming back.
News flash: Station 9 is a springboard for Danley, 43, who aspires to open a restaurant company and partner with "young star chefs." This diner can't wait to taste what he creates next.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.