JAIMALITO'S RESTAURANT AND CANTINA -- 3000 K St. NW at Washington Harbour. 944-4400. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2-$6.75, entrees $6.75-$16. Full dinner with drinks or beer, tax and tip about $25 a person.
he original Jaimalito's was built in 1887 on an old dirt road between Santa Fe and Taos, N.M. So says the menu of the new Jaimalito's, which is about as far from a New Mexican dirt road as you can get. It is in Washington Harbour, right next to Warner LeRoy's Potomac restaurant, with a good view of the Kennedy Center and the Rosslyn skyline. Yet, as the menu points out, this luxurious new restaurant is a reproduction of the original, and the old recipes have been preserved -- except for some updating with fresh products. Even the original prices have been maintained, the menu seems to say, although I keep thinking I must be reading that part wrong.
This new Jaimalito's is sedate and hushed. Its non-smoking section is much larger than its smoking section. The waiters and waitresses seem to have graduated from very good private schools and not very long ago. The southwestern artifacts that decorate the earth-colored rooms resemble museum pieces or decorator accents. This is new-old New Mexico done in plaster, plastic and scarred wood, the equivalent of pre-washed designer jeans. Which is not to say it lacks beauty or grace; rather, Jaimalito's has far too much beauty and grace to sell itself as dirt-road old Southwest with a straight face.
So what does that imply about the integrity of the food? Just what you would expect: This is attractive, fresh food -- affluent versions of peasant dishes. Jaimalito's is the kind of Mexican restaurant where the best dish is the filet mignon.
It has learned its lines well. The menu sounds so tempting you can practically smell those Anaheim peppers, and your eyes nearly begin to smart from the Chimayo chili powder as you read about it. These seasonings are imported from New Mexico, the menu boasts, along with Las Cruces and Sandia A chili peppers and blue corn for tortillas, which is rare stuff hereabouts.
In reality, the food tastes more like Washington shopping-mall food than dirt-road New Mexican food. In some ways that may be an advantage -- the chips are modern-day crisp and light and not greasy, the filet mignon is a wood-smoke-flavored dazzler, cut about two inches thick and more juicy than many a steakhouse filet. In most cases, though, it means that this is Mexican food for the timid. The salsa with those chips is fresh and tangy but packs hardly any fire. The enchiladas are invariably mild, and the tacos and fajitas are generous in their meat but have hardly any seasoning.
This is more like food with a Mexican accent than Mexican food per se.
Among appetizers, the nachos are good, made of those delicate chips topped with a smear of refried beans, cheese, sour cream, chilies, a dab of mild guacamole and a choice of shrimp, chorizo, fajita steak or chicken. The melted white- cheese appetizer -- with a choice of chorizo; poblano peppers and onions; Anaheim peppers and mushrooms; or shrimp, cilantro and tomatoes -- is a kind of Mexican fondue, and it's not much more hair-raising. Ceviche is the best of the appetizers, if you ignore the tiny tasteless shrimp for the sake of the chunks of lime-spiked fresh fish. This is very tame ceviche; no danger of garlic breath or chili tears, but it is fresh.
Jaimalito's also has Cajun pretensions. There is a seafood gumbo that would have been quite pleasant if it were more than lukewarm. Shrimp re'moulade is four big shrimp with a dipping sauce crunchy with minced vegetables and explosive with creole mustard. And there is blackened redfish that is a scientific marvel -- I don't know how it was possible to both burn it and leave it almost raw. I've had a lot of bad blackened redfish in the last couple of years, but I still didn't anticipate how bad it could be.
Most of the main dishes are variations on a tortilla theme. The menu boasts that the tortillas are handmade in Jaimalito's kitchen. A commendable effort, but they are awfully thick and chewy. In all, the Mexican dishes are doughy and heavy, even more so when weighed down with thick, gummy melted yellow or white cheese. In fact, the heaviness outweighs the quality of ingredients in the sum of the dish. Chiles rellenos starts with a fragrant Anaheim pepper, but it is lost in the morass of its stuffing and coating. Enchiladas and tacos with mesquite- grilled steak are to be complimented on their grill-heightened flavor. But there are just driblets of mild sauce to moisten the enchiladas, and the meat in the tacos turns steamy and chewy, making the whole thing heavy and dry. The real tale is told in the refried beans, gooey and sticky, with very little flavor, a kind of mud puddle of beans.
The most successful dishes are the least Mexican, or the semi-Mexican. Platters of fajitas present nicely grilled steak, chicken, shrimp or lobster tail (how come I've never heard of Santa Fe's lobster before?) with a mix-and-match collection of guacamole, diced tomatoes with cilantro and mild herbed pico de gallo to moisten them, and a basket of warm flour tortillas. Seafood enchilada, one day's special, was fine if you considered it a southwestern-flavored cre~pe with a faint tomatillo flavor, and its seafood was good quality. The avocado salad is a plate any lunchroom would be proud to serve, so pretty is it and so plentiful with ripe avocado slices and shredded white and yellow cheeses, with a little pitcher of thick sweet-tart salad dressing to moisten it. The grilled meats in themselves are fine -- actually the best of the kitchen's efforts. Of course it takes a certain bravery to order a plain steak, chicken breast or shrimp in a southwestern restaurant that brags about making its own tortillas and importing its ingredients from across the country. But this is not the restaurant in which to seek the soul of Mexican cookery.
Even among the desserts, the ethnic ones -- sopapillas and New Mexican peach cobbler -- are heavy, chewy and dry, while a fudgy all-American ice cream pie is irresistible. But what ice cream pie isn't irresistible?
In all, Jaimalito's is a southwestern restaurant for people who like the idea of southwestern food more than the reality of it. Nothing here will sear, burn or startle (except the misguided blackened fish). It is a good place to go if your heart cries for Harbour glamour and a new urban adventure but your soul remains loyal to the old familiar steakhouse. ::