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High Notes and Low

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Restaurateurs have learned to accommodate diners' individual needs: Now nearly everyone offers vegetarian options, decaf coffee, dressing on the side. Greenwood at Cleveland Park, though, ran into trouble recently when a diner ordered the salmon entree and explained she was highly allergic to garlic. The salmon and its tamale would be safe for her, the waiter said, but the squash accompaniment was seasoned with garlic. Could she have a different vegetable? she asked. No; the restaurant has a policy forbidding substitutions. So the diner requested the salmon and tamale without the squash.

It was a busy night, and the kitchen slipped up. The plate arrived not only with the squash, but garnished with a whole head of roasted garlic. When the diner called over maitre d' David Lynch, he explained that chef Carole Greenwood "believes in the integrity of the presentation." When interviewed later, Lynch said that the diner had simply gotten the wrong plate. He added, however, "In very polite words I told her that this was not the correct restaurant for her, because garlic is already in most of the items." She got the point.
– P.C.R.

Imagine the Hard Rock Cafe in black tie, Planet Hollywood in slinky black satin. BET on Jazz, despite its souvenir shop at the front entrance, is a full-dress supper club, drawing an all-out decorative crowd.

The dining room is outfitted in glove leather banquettes and silky burnished wood paneling two stories high. Art deco curves are accented with high-tech brushed steel. A gigantic screen overhead shows jazz videos to both the main floor and the balcony, while a bandstand awaits the live musicians who play on weekends. I've seen airport terminals this size. Yet the booths and nooks carve the room into intimate spaces; not only do the banquettes feel private and comfortable, but they allow a view of the entire dining room.

Somebody's got to pay for all this wood, leather and technology. A tropical fruit drink costs $6.50. With booze it's more. Blue Mountain coffee is offered at $12 for four cups. One day the waiter greets us with a bottle of water in hand. "Do you want sparkling or still?" he almost whispers, not volunteering that it costs $5 a bottle. Another day the waiter pushing the water is more assertive: His opening words are, "We proudly pour Ty Nant."

The service needs a lot of work. One waiter forgot us. Another took forever to bring our lunches, only to show up with the wrong dishes. Our three-course lunch dragged out to nearly three hours, and cost almost $50 a person with no alcohol. On a third visit, service had speeded up so that the entrees were brought while we were eating our appetizers. Irritatingly, this is a restaurant where the hostess won't seat a party until it is complete (and turns away people in tank tops, T-shirts or sneakers).

Inconsistencies plague the food as well. One day the conch fritters were a revelation of tender chopped seafood with more flavor than any conch I'd ever tasted, in a soft and creamy batter with a veneer of crispness. The next time, the batter was heavy and gummy, the conch chewy and tasteless. The bread, too, had changed from a dense and slightly sweet coco bread that reminded me of Jamaica, to a spongy yellow bread with a sugary surface that seemed more like challah dipped in syrup.

The menu sounds refreshing, with a Caribbean lilt in addition to the usual fried calamari and grilled portobello mushrooms. The crab cakes are made with yuca and curry in a sorrel flower and papaya-lime coulis, and entrees run to curried or jerk chicken, escovitched swordfish and Bahamian grouper with chayote, boniato and plantain.

The plates are dressed up to reflect the setting. A disk of seviche is paved with overlapping cucumber slices and surrounded by tiny rounds of fried plantain mounded with mashed avocado – though the fish is so excessively marinated that it tastes chewy and sharp, slightly fermented.

If you ordered very carefully, you could skate right over the kitchen's deficiencies. A shrimp appetizer is two enormous and unusually juicy shrimp whose flavor is sealed in by filaments of fried pastry. And it's accompanied by curried rice salad, avocado and smoked marlin relish. Broiled mozzarella and portobello is homey, the cheese melted over warmed tomato slices with strips of earthy mushroom. But otherwise, the ice is thin. Crab cakes are tired and dry. Barbecued ribs, served as an appetizer, are tender, with a pleasantly chewy-crisp surface, though too sweet and badly in need of a chili jolt.

Among entrees, any variation on jerk chicken is the best bet, because the spicing is seductive without quite searing your mouth. The half-chicken (whose skin is partly crisped and otherwise flabby) comes with spinach and mashed potatoes enriched with manchego cheese. Strips of the somewhat dry but spicy chicken also enliven penne with sun-dried tomatoes, shiitakes and basil.

Fish is cooked nicely, left moist and tender, but suffers from its sauces. Escovitched versions will make your mouth pucker with vinegar yet otherwise seem unseasoned. Such red meat dishes as pork chop and ostrich burger have been a challenge to a steak knife. Surely a vegetarian would fare better here, given such options as grilled whole portobello or calabaza ravioli.

The sweets are the highlight on this menu. Passion fruit tartlet is sensational, a small disk of delicate pastry topped with an explosively rich and tart passion fruit curd, then meringue. Warm banana tart is a delicious variation on tarte Tatin. Chocolate terrine is like solid buttercream, impossibly and irresistibly rich. And coconut rice pudding, though a little bland and chewy, is endearing in its little pastry case topped with a lattice lid. In light of these, the ginger creme brulee is an anomaly, more like reconstituted custard powder refrigerated too long.

BET on Jazz is not satisfying as a restaurant, at least not yet. It works better as an event, a scene, an ode to great American music.

BET on Jazz – 730 11th St. NW. 202/393-0975. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Sunday brunch scheduled to begin today. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $5.95 to $11.95; lunch entrees $8.95 to $19.95; dinner entrees $12.95 to $23.95. Full dinner with drinks or wine, tax and tip $40 to $65 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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