Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Dinner appetizers average $4, main courses $7.50 to $12.50; brunch main courses average $4 to $5.
After countless wishbones, months' worth of firststars, and innumerable birthday candles snuffed, Washington finally has its wish - a real Creole restaurant. And while, like most wishes, it falls short of our wildest dreams, it is good enough that we can start battling over 8:30 reservations and invest our next wishbones in trying to conjure up a Scandinavian restaurant.
The best Creole food in New Orleans can be found in everything from brocade-swathed dining rooms to brick-lined bar-rooms. This new Creole restaurant puts it all under one roof, though its brick-and-stone barroom duplicates the informality but not the grunginess of some of New Orleans' favored spots.
If Creole food is a hybrid, so is this Creole restaurant, its 1890s interior of marble and crystal and tufted velour wrapped in a contemporary glass facade. 219 has borrowed the best of several decorative modes. Outdoors is a cafe with lacy black iron tables; the entry is modern-under-glass. The dining rooms are Victorian; the Bayou Room is stone-clad pub. Some find it a harmonious mix, others consider the total less than its parts, the effect bawdy. But the parts are respectable, from the Victorian paintings of significant quality to the silver napkin rings and salt shakers, the English china.
A lot of care went into planning 219. The waiters have been trained to be familiar with the food and to deliver the right dish to the right person without even taking notes. The airlines have been commissioned to fly in fresh seafood from the Gulf; thus, jumbo shrimp still have their heads on. The kitchen staff was reportedly trained in New Orleans, and understands the vagaries of sauce remoulade and cornmeal breading and okra.
Training does not always assure smooth performance, and 219 has suffered from hesitant young waiters, an insufferably slow kitchen, some uninspired dishes and airline strikes interfering with deliveries. But on later visits I found the service smoother and the food more consistently delicious.
This is one restaurant that has culinary excitement in every course, in every meal. Start with drinks; there is the milky, orange-scented ramos gin fizz, or a milk punch, heavily brandied. For licorice fanciers the sazarac or absinthe suissesse are available. For the fizz of champagne and the jolt of brandy, there is a French 75. The wine list also is extensive, expecially attentive to California but not neglectful of France, priced reasonably.
One could spend happy weeks sampling and resampling the appetizers at 219, some of which serve as main courses in the downstairs pub, the Bayou Room. First among the required samplings is barbecued shrimp, sauteed in the shell and heads in a cayenne-tinged buttery fire; it can be a main course or appetizer. Being a Creole restaurant, 219 makes a good greenish seafood gumbo afloat with okra and crab claws, and jambalaya over-thickened but echoing cayenne flames throughout the shrimp and sausage stew. Red bean soup is simple and therefore just right. Oyster stew is peppery, creamy and wonderful. Only turtle soup and shrimp creole, among the soups and gumbos, missed glory. All of them were bargains, particularly the $1.50 jambalaya. Then again, don't miss the shrimp or crab remoulade, their sauce tart and spicy with pleasing crunch. And crab royale is an extravaganza of puff pastry, lump crab, diced artichoke bottoms and hollandaise all working harmoniously. Of course there are oysters, big briny ones said to be brought from New Orleans, either straight or baked as Rockefeller (pasty, and tasting of odd smokiness), Bienville (best of the three, shrimp and crab in a thick cream) or 219 (thickened turtle soup, fairly good) or as an assortment of the three.
Main courses are easier choices. Skip the steaks if my steamy, overcooked, bland Filet Talmage was typical, its sauce just starchy horseradish cream, its oyster stuffing insignificant. Among the four poultry dishes, Cornish game hen with "dirty" rice and chicken in parchment sound interesting, but chicken Kottwitz with artichoke bottoms and mushrooms had no flair. So head for the seafoods and rest there. Poisson en papillote is a fish filet that falls into big moist flakes permeated with the wine, shrimp and crabmeat that steam with it in its parchment envelope. Shrimp Clemenceau are juicy and infused with wine, scallions and garlic, excellent if you can tear yourself away from the barbecued shrimp. The catfish is juicy within its crunch of cornmeal, though purists might object to its having been fileted. To ease the choice, you can happily do without the thin, flabby breaded turtle steak, the unexciting frog's legs. And the waiter just wouldn't let us order pan-broiled oysters. Untried but interesting were the trout marguery, crabmeat chez Pete and crab imperial. Whatever the dish, it comes with memorable, buttery rice, and a loaf of good chewy French bread.
That leads to dessert - flamed bananas or strawberries, ice cream with a syrupy brown sugar pecan praline sauce, or bread pudding dense and heavily perfumed with nutmeg and brandy sauce. All good, none as good as the appetizers. There is, however, excellent coffee served in a china pot, and the most dreadful cappuccino I have found outside of a supermarket box.
That leads to a bill of $25 or $30 a person with drinks, tax and tip. And a dinner at 219 will more than likely lead you back for Sunday brunch. In the tradition made famous by Brennan's, it serves poached eggs and hollandaise on crisply fried trout, or fried oysters crusty with cornmeal and tender and moist inside. Poached eggs are layered and sauced and combined with all kinds of things. There's an overpriced ( $7) crabmeat omelet, but the $4 to $5 entrees are fine good for the money.
The pleasures of Creole cooking are in its range - from uncomplicated stewed red beans over rice to intricately seasoned jambalaya, from the deceptive simplicity of crisp-crusted fried oysters to the elaborateness of poached eggs with artichoke bottoms, spinach and hollandaise. 219 encompasses the range, slipping less with each succeeding month, and adds a savory new dimension to Washington dining.