Building Bridges With Southern Charm: Tom Sietsema Reviews Eatonville
** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 77 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
Andy Shallal will be the first to say it: "I'm not a foodie."
That might sound audacious, coming as it does from a Washington restaurateur in 2009. But it's true. Remember the singing waiters at the late Mimi's American Bistro in Dupont Circle? Meatloaf with a side of "Memories" was a Shallal gimmick. Despite his ownership of the three area Busboys and Poets restaurants, the Iraqi-born artist and activist has, until recently, been more interested in creating community centers that happen to serve food than in hiring a noteworthy chef for his restaurants.
That changed this year when Shallal, with an eye on pop culture and a flair for the theatrical, announced plans to stage a reality TV-style competition to find a chef for his new venture, Eatonville, a Southern-themed tribute to the Florida town where author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston was raised. Shallal, 54, devoted $25,000 and four weeks to narrow the list of candidates. In an unanticipated twist to the story, the restaurateur's first choice parted ways with him at the New Orleans airport after an eating tour of the South went sour. Shallal returned to Washington and phoned the runner-up.
Enter Rusty Holman, 35, who won the judges' admiration for a creative spin on hush puppies but acknowledges he isn't the engaging storyteller the original hire was deemed to be. If there's any embarrassment at not having been chosen in the first place, Holman, a North Carolina native who last worked for the Rookery, a private club in Washington, isn't saying. As he put it in a telephone conversation, "I ended up getting the job."
That's news to (mostly) cheer at Eatonville, which made its debut in May and delivers plenty of Southern charm in the dining room. Fried green tomatoes lashed with zesty red-pepper aioli and served with corn salsa? Check. A pork chop that's pounded thin and breaded like schnitzel, and reminds us what pork should taste like? Check, too. His macaroni and cheese, meanwhile, is simple, creamy comfort in every bite. And if you leave without ordering the delicate lemon poundcake, that's your loss.
Holman doesn't hit every ball out of the park, and early on it took me a few dishes to sort the "okay" from the "all right!," but the guy knows his way around the South. His gumbo set off with a tiny island of rice tickles the back of the throat with its heat; black-eyed peas tossed with crisp green beans and a soft tarragon vinaigrette makes a nice change of pace from the usual house salad. Tradition takes a holiday with those hush puppies, which are crisp, hollowed out and filled with tender shrimp sauced with creamed leeks. The result, circled with a red creole sauce and garnished with lacy fried onions, sits upright. It's an edible vase that doesn't last long once it lands on the table. Mahi-mahi isn't a Southern catch, but it comes across as one in its preparation, which highlights a brassy, fruit-forward barbecue sauce. Golden fried catfish perched on a puddle of grits, zipped up with jalapeño, is made even more intriguing with tomato butter.
Some like it light, and for them, I'd suggest the golden beet salad sprinkled with goat cheese and splashed with a lovely, thyme-kissed vinaigrette. Holman also offers a fine savory tart of caramelized Vidalia onions and roasted tomatoes garnished with micro-greens and ringed with a shimmering parsley puree.
The restaurant scene is larded with crab cakes. I tend to be a purist when it comes to what I like, which is mostly crab, minimal seasoning and a whisper of binder. Eatonville's fried crab cake is packed with sweet seafood and comes with gentle hits of mustard, herbs and lemon zest. Crisp and golden, it's a patty with mass appeal, and I appreciate the details: pickled onions and a toasted bun. The fries that ride shotgun on the plate are said to be made in-house but remind me of the freezer-case variety.
When the kitchen slips, it's mostly in minor, easily fixable ways. As in, the hash of sweet potatoes and andouille sausage would be better if the tubers were cut into smaller chunks. As in, the oysters in the po' boy sandwich don't need so much batter. Holman's Cajun Mushroom Loaf, on the other hand, needs more of a makeover. The main course I tried had the texture of pudding. And his shrimp etouffee is an unpleasant swamp.
Nods to the South are clever but kept in check. Thus your cocktail arrives in a Mason jar with a handle, and rocking chairs dress up an area near the bar in the rear of the 250-seat restaurant, a loud and vivid setting wrought from floating tin ceilings, glittery chandeliers and murals that reflect Eatonville's theme. Any question of whether Shallal is competing with himself by placing his new eatery across the street from the original Busboys and Poets is answered by what's on the menu at Eatonville.
There are two similarities to its sibling, one of them unfortunate: Busboys and Poets is not known for its stellar service, a problem shared by Eatonville. Everyone means well here, and the hostesses couldn't be more charming, but when it comes to being efficient, the servers aren't. Waters are forgotten, multi-tasking appears impossible, and there's only a 50-50 chance that someone will check on you after your food is dropped off. Ultimately, smiles can get a server only so far.
The link I like is the mix of patrons. The mustachioed owner, a frequent schmoozer here, applauds the easy mingling of races and ethnicities in his restaurants. "We work together" in Washington "but rarely play together," he says (accurately, I have to agree, even in the Age of Obama). Eatonville is yet another of the entrepreneur's attempts to build social bridges.
Shallal might not be a "foodie." It doesn't matter. This time around, he's got one in the kitchen. And he's off to a fine start.
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Metro: U Street. Underground parking. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $6 to $12, entrees $9 to $18.