Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. AE, BA, CB, DC, MC. Reservations.
Food: Southern Comfort
Style: Down-home hospitality in city-slicker glitter
THE DISCUSSION WAS LONG and, what's more, long-distance, over whether authentic jambalaya can contain vinegar, and how soupy it dared to be. But the debate collapsed with one clincher of a question: "Did you enjoy eating it?"
Yes, yes, yes. The jambalaya at W. H. Bone might not pass inspection by a New Orleans Jambalaya Commission, since it was as soupy and green as a gumbo, powerfully dosed with thyme and that unorthodox addition of vinegar. But it sure tasted good.
So, all you Southerners, leave your culinary genealogies at home and try W. H. Bone with an open mind and an open mouth. You'll discover some good home cookin': The fried chicken - here called a gospel bird - crunches when you bite into it, and oozes meaty juices. The catfish stew could generously serve a family, but a lone eater has a hard time stopping - one more taste of firm catfish, another bit of corn, a last spoonful of cabbage and carrots just because they are so fresh, and again a sip of the tomatoey broth, smoky from its bacon and accented with enough pepper to remember but not enough to scare you away. You may think you've had pecan pie before, but did you know it could taste almost like butterscotch, and need not be cloyingly sweet? And in case you never could abide chitterlings, you ought to try again, because the fried chitterlings at W. H. Bone are subtle and crispy. Try to find another restaurant in Washington that lists a dozen a la carte cooked vegetables, not a frozen one in the bunch. Or try to find okra better prepared in a restaurant within a hundred miles, for here it is barely battered and deep fried, still crunchy and not the least bit greasy or slippery. Greens cooked with chunks of salt pork, squash (in summer the yellow crookneck variety, in winter, acorn) sauteed in bacon drippings. Beans and dirty rice and sweet potatoes and hoppin' john and cabbage - will Washington ever again be satisfied with iceberg lettuce salad and frozen French fries? Even the bread basket is a treasure, filled with homemade biscuits, dense cornbread with crisp edges and pale, soft rolls.
The dishes at W. H. Bone are identified by their states - Georgia peanut soup, Maryland fried oysters, Alabama pork chops, Virginia Smithfield ham with red-eye gravy, even a strip steak from the Bronx. If I had to guess from the menu I'd have said the chef (though I've heard he's from Georgia), was from Mississippi, had a soft spot for Louisiana and North Carolina but carried a grudge against Alabama. Those great citterlings are identified as belonging to Mississippi, as is the catfish stew. (Next time I'd be sure to sample the Mississippi bar-b-que pig tails and pig feet.) The Lousisiana gumbo and jambalaya may not capture hearts from New Orleans, but I haven't found their match in Washington; and while the Bayou country's shrimp remoulade could have benefited from more paprika and less mustard, it still was worth eating. North Carolina's spareribs were not - how could one expect it at Waterside Mall? - smoked over wood, but their brick-red barbecue sauce was as zesty as a southerner could wish after a sojourn in open-pit land. Florida is represented proudly by as fine a filet of red snapper, simply and beautifully broiled, as one sees hereabouts. But poor Alabama, though its bacontinged country vegetable soup is wonderful, suffers being indentified with thick, starchy fried corn, and banana pudding and bread pudding better used as mortar. Arkansas might also question its sweet potato pie, which demonstrates a leaden touch in th crust as well as the filling; and Maryland can breathe a sigh of relief that the oversalted crab cakes, tasting more like salt cod than crab, were attributed to Georgia.
But such are the vagaries of home cooking. The homemade chocolate ice cream was rich and chewy, the vanilla a bland ooze. The peach cobbler consisted of fresh fruit with a deliciously crisped biscuit topping, but excessive sweetness drowned its charms.
Niggling complaicts maybe, in light of the fact that at last someone has brought a full menu for real, freshly cooked Soutern food to Washington. But this is no hole-in-the-wall with rock-bottom prices. That sumptuous fried chicken costs $7.50, as do the chitterlings. The catfish stew, at $6.50, is the cheapest dish on the dinner menu. With appetizers from $2 to $3.50 and desserts from $1.35 to $2.25 (for that pecan pie), you can easily spend $35 a couple once you have gone through drinks or wine and left a tip. At lunch a tuna sandwich starts things going at $2.65, and $3.50 to $4.50 is average for main dishes; I have spent $10 for lunch, but admittedly consumed two days' calories in the process.
You may not be used to paying such prices for ham hocks or fried porgies, but you don't usually eat them in a velvet cocoon, either. W. H. Bone is a beige-suede-and-velvet labyrinth of deep sofas and crystal chandeliers, contemporary brass lamps and art work chosen by a well-trained eye. It bears a striking resemblance to Bloomingdale's, except that the lighting is dimmer. The waiters wear black tie and pour your house wine from an ornate pressed glass decanter. You wipe your barbecue-stained fingers with heavy linen, quench your thirst from balloon glasses. The crunch of the chicken is drowned by a very good trio playing jazz.
The service falls somewhere between familiar down-home and hotel-school smooth, with waiters introduced by name. But, like the food, the rough edges are compensated by other attentions; I may not care that my waitress is named Gail, but I do care that she tries to see that I am dining well.
W. H. Bone is an oasis in Southwest Washington, and so its tables are filled on a weeknight both early and late. Yet there is no crowding, no rushing. Some of the most sophisticated clothes in Washington can be seen at W. H. Bone's tables, but so can rolled-up shirtsleeves and open collars.
At last there is something of the South in Southwest Washington.