THERE IS nothing more baffling than a good chef who seems to have lost his focus, or a good location that can't seem to find its audience. In its first year, Cabanas, down on the Georgetown waterfront, has tried out two experienced and seemingly dependable chefs -- first, former Tahoga chef and Colvin Run sous-chef Brian Wolken, who left Cabanas for Butterfield 9 and has since left there as well; and now Hector Guerra, whose long resume is famously studded with stints at various French, Italian and Salvadoran establishments owned by Yannick Cam or Roberto Donna. Wolken's tenure followed a crash course in "authentic" Mexican cuisine that apparently stoked a cocksure bravado but didn't keep his cooking (nor, apparently, his temper) from heading south. In the Guerra regime, the cuisine is described as Nuevo Latino, but much of the menu is the same. More strangely, while the cooking has improved, the result is still oddly uneven.
Which is a shame, because Cabanas, corporate sibling to Washington Harbour bookends Tony & Joe's and Nick's Riverside Grille, which it adjoins, is a good-looking spot, a place you'd like to like. It feels more expansive than it is -- it's one of the long, curvilinear spaces on the Harbour's lower level -- and the fountain patio offers sidewalk dining without the traffic (although the boats tying up along the river do add a whiff of diesel every once in a while).
The interior decor, a mix of warm wood and cool metal, including a fireplace that anchors the conversation pit, is sparse but striking. (Frida Kahlo seems to be the patron saint, gazing down from various reproduction portraits.) Although there are no true cabanas outside, there are gauze-draped booths lining the back wall that suggest changing rooms and "Great Race" romantic encounters. The far more tech-sleek lounge area seems like the latest in the neighborhood's attempt, a la the short-lived Harbour Club, to attract a techier, nu-U or Dupont Circle South-type crowd in addition to the waterfront's polo-shirt regulars, but it's not unattractive, and the martinis are thoroughly proficient.
The kitchen staff does understand that chilies as ingredients are as much about flavor as heat. (The menu's original headline was a quotation from one of the first European priests to explore the New World, who wrote in 1622 that "Without chiles, Mexicans don't believe they're eating," which sounded far more of a threat than was necessary.) Strange, then, that the kitchen seems determined to keep both tightly in check.
Orders for both the thin-pounded pork sabana, which has a chile-based adobo sauce, and the orange- and chipotle-rubbed mahi-mahi specified extra spice, as was recommended, but without success. The fish was virtually naked, in fact; not only that, but the request for "grilled less done than most people" brought it out barely whitened and raw, which doesn't suit that fish, and which seemed like a burst of petulance on the kitchen's part. (The dish is no longer on the menu.) The ceviches -- there are several choices -- are generally good, but not consistently; the mixed shrimp and scallops ceviche in particular has seemed a little dispirited, probably because of the too-timid dash of jalapenos, and at least once the dominant flavor was salt.
In fact, one wonders how closely Guerra is monitoring his line, since so many of the errors seem to be not in the concept but in the prep work. Cod bacalao is served with a nice stew of chorizo, tomatoes, roasted peppers and roast potatoes, but the fish hadn't been soaked long enough, and was oversalty and tough. (And the promised tomato-rose wine broth had either been forgotten or its elemental makeup evaporated by the salt.) Coconut-fried shrimp was nearly a best bet -- the coconut-ginger rice was delicate, the tomatilla salsa refreshing and the fried sweet plantains really good -- but was sabotaged by the shrimp themselves, which were no more intriguing than any pub version, and worse, had a faint whiff of iodine.
The chicken breast pieces for the mole had been pounded thin, as if for swift cooking, but then overdone to the dry stage. What is even more baffling is -- after an entire year -- still to be reading the menu's description of the mole as the "fusion original [that] combines chilies and chicken from the old world with chocolate and spices from the new world." Not only are the chilies stuck in the wrong hemisphere, particularly bizarre on an ethnic American menu, but indigenous Americans were using moles -- sauces of ground nuts, spices and sometimes chocolate -- on turkeys and other birds long before the chickens arrived. (Actually, adobo, which combined chilies and the Europeans' vinegar, might be a better first-fusion candidate.)
There are certainly good dishes at Cabanas. The chili-dusted calamari is one of the best things on the menu, dry and crisp. The shrimp quesadilla, though somewhat restrained with the seafood (and at $6, reasonably so), is surprisingly satisfying; a chorizo version was okay and would have been fine if the sausage had been patted dry of some of its grease. The corn and crab fritters are good, and the jicama-radish salad that accompanies it is even better. Gazpacho with a scattering of croutons, avocado dice and a little crabmeat, is a good if not great version. A whole grilled red snapper veracruzano with polenta was quite good, but a plate for the bones would be useful.
The guacamole is temperamental. Some days it's great, almost pure avocado meat, ripe and chunky and buttery (though that welcome weightiness means that the delicate, and in their own right fine, yucca chips can't even make a dent in the dip). Other times, it might have been taken off the grocery shelf. And one night, the guacamole was so oversalted as to be inedible, but the waitress, informed of the slip, merely said "Okay," without offering to replace it or take it off the check.
The salsa is clean-flavored and fresh, but just slightly sharp, some days only barely. (The red corn tortilla chips are rather better than most, served hot and crisp.)
Maybe one should take Cabanas' name as a hint, and stick to the lounging thing. Good drinks, pretty good nibbles, nice space; even live music on Sundays. It's by no means bad. It just ought to be better.