First Bite

Tom Sietsema reviews Next Stage by Jose Andres

tom sietsema
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It lifted the curtain on cowboy caviar salad for "Oklahoma!" and chicken shawarma for "The Arabian Nights." With last weekend's debut of an Edward Albee festival at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, its airy self-service cafe introduced pre-theater patrons to potato chowder and Waldorf salad.

The dishes, appearing at Next Stage by Jose Andres on the center's third floor, are nods to the acclaimed American scribe's plays set in New England and New York, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "At Home at the Zoo," respectively. Behind the food is Jose Andres Catering With Ridgewells, a joint venture between Washington's celebrated Spanish chef and the veteran catering firm based in Bethesda.

The drill: Grab a tray, scan the short menu nearby, get in line at the food counter and let the nice young man behind it call out your request to his fellow cooks.

Repeat patronage has taught this customer that beef turns in a better performance than poultry, and salads are more impressive than soups. That's your cue to ask for the winy short ribs, an entree made comforting with buttery whipped potatoes, red cabbage and slightly undercooked baked beans; and one of the constants on the evolving menu, the Thai salad, which deserves a long run. Poached shrimp, crisp snow peas, crunchy peanuts and a zesty dressing aren't just pleasing: They also won't put anyone to sleep by the second act.

Soups need rewrites. The onion soup is said to be made with local beer and Vidalia onions, but the thin liquid I tried wasn't much better than Lipton. "Julia Child's" chowder, while thick with potatoes and mushrooms, was vapid and also misleading: The menu description erroneously refers to Child as "the Connecticut food icon." For much of her long life, she called Massachusetts home.

The cafe's 200 seats sweep across a concrete floor set off by a "river" of shiny Mexican beach pebbles, punctuated here and there by costumes from Arena Stage's vast inventory. The scenery is eye-catching.

From their vantage point, the cooks catch an even better show: a view of the Washington monument.

1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-600-4100. . Salads and sandwiches, $8 to $12; entrees, $19.

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