TONY & JOE'S SEAFOOD PLACE -- 3000 K St. NW. 944-4545. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch and dinner appetizers $5.25 to $8.95, entrees $4.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.
It's a culinary David and Goliath story. Restaurant after restaurant has tried to make a hit at Washington Harbour, from the superglitz Potomac (already defunct) to the skin-deep-pretty Jaimalito's and China Regency to the sumptuous and self-impressed Hisago. Finally, a restaurant has opened without priceless chandeliers, pottery treasures or rare woods. Nevertheless, it is a restaurant I'd be eager to visit again even if it weren't part of Washington's most beautiful new cityscape.
And that's not all the good news.
It is a seafood restaurant, a plain, straightforward, reasonably priced seafood restaurant. And a very good one, which is a rarity in Washington.
Tony & Joe's Seafood Place is an attractive, airy and spacious restaurant with walls of windows overlooking Washington Harbour's fountains and river walk, but it is not nearly as beautiful as its neighbors. The floors of the entryway and the Dancing Crab Room (in honor of its parent restaurant) are set with tiny blue and white tiles, the old seafood-house look. Tables are well spaced, chairs are comfortable. Tony & Joe's is not a work of art, just a nice restaurant.
The wine list is small, mainly whites, as expected in a seafood restaurant, and most are less than $15 a bottle. It is an unassuming list with good values and limited choices.
Decor is not the thing and neither is the wine. Service, with young waiters awkwardly reaching across tables and serving helter-skelter but trying to please, is not the thing. Food is the focus at Tony & Joe's, starting with the bread basket. Crumbly, crunchy corn muffins are spiked with jalapenåos, cake-fine dark muffins are rich with ground nuts.
Except for a steak, a grilled chicken or ribs, and a couple of burgers, the menu is all seafood. And it is largely grilled, broiled, steamed or fried seafood, dressed with nothing more than basil-garlic or mustard-dill butter. This kitchen is willing to stand on the quality of its ingredients.
To start, there are oysters or clams -- on the half-shell, stewed, baked or fried. But don't take that predictable selection lightly. These fried clams are not fried frozen clam strips -- the norm around Washington -- or chewy fried cherrystones. These are soft-shell Ipswich clams, the kind that should be fried, coated with the merest shell of crunchy crumbs and cooked so their fat bellies are left soft inside. These are also the right clams for steaming, which the kitchen clearly recognizes.
Baked oysters are more complex, showing that the kitchen's simplicity is by choice rather than necessity. The barely cooked oysters are topped with lump crab meat and a buttery saffron-yellow sauce the texture of hollandaise but not so lemony. The mussel dishes -- marinara and marinie`re -- are generous and richly seasoned, though the mussels have varied so much in size that half the portion were big and plump, the others small and chewy from overcooking. Fried smelts and squid are available as appetizers or main dishes, and each shows the kitchen's facility with frying seafood so it is crisp and grease-free without being dry inside.
The two soups, Maryland-style crab with tomato and vegetables and creamy New England clam chowder, are pretty good, well seasoned and hearty, though light on the seafood.
Since this is the only downtown restaurant I know, and the only restaurant on the water, that serves the great local specialty -- steamed crabs -- dinner for many will begin and end there. The crabs are meaty and fresh, well coated with a peppery red spice mix. If you like more fire, there is a bowl of the spice mixture to season your crabs as you eat, along with a bowl of broth and one of melted butter for dipping.
Entrees are divided into crab dishes, shrimp, scallops, steamed lobster and the standard fresh fish fillets or steaks. There are also mixed seafood platters. Broiled bluefish has been memorable, its surface browned and crisped to seal in the soft moist flesh. Topped with a dab of basil-garlic butter, it was a revelation of freshness and perfect cooking. Swordfish, too, has been fresh-tasting, crusty and cooked through but not dry. Depending on what is available fresh (our waiter said none of the fish is frozen), choices include about a dozen more fillets or steaks and whole flounder plain or stuffed with crab. There is also a fine mixed platter of broiled seafood -- a tender fillet of sole or flounder, superb velvety scallops, decently cooked but bland shrimp and a crab cake, which in itself is a good bet here. The crab cake is large lumps of snowy meat barely held together and very lightly seasoned. Jaded seafood fanciers might complain that it doesn't have a lot of personality, but it does have a lot of quality.
Rarely is a fried seafood platter as satisfying as Tony & Joe's. It tastes freshly crumbed rather than pre-coated, and is fried so that each seafood is timed to its own needs. The fish fillet is sweet and fluffy under its crisp coating, squid is tender and crunchy, scallops are left just lightly cooked, and the crab cake -- though a little dryer than the broiled version -- is just fine. The only pedestrian component is the shrimp. Their texture is dry, and they taste like dull, everyday frozen shrimp, outclassed by the other wonderful fresh seafood.
With main dishes comes a choice of french fries or baked potato and coleslaw or chopped vegetable salad. French fries are the clear winner among potatoes. They are thin and curly, fried to a crusty brown, with the sweetly starchy flavor of fresh potatoes. Baked potatoes look appealing, particularly since they are served without foil wraps, but they taste damp inside. As for salads, the coleslaw is finely grated, very creamy and homey, but it needs some zest. The chopped vegetable salad is delightful, a bright mix of red and green peppers with celery and cucumbers in a vinegar-oil marinade, a refreshing old-fashioned salad. If you are an onion ring fanatic, you'll want to add Tony & Joe's to your repertoire, since they are thin, crunchy and freshly fried; they don't taste quite as much of onion as of batter, however.
Seafood restaurants, particularly around Washington, are not famous for their desserts (some are even infamous). Tony & Joe's is a trend breaker, though. Skip the predictable desserts. The cheesecake, for example, is dense and stiff without creaminess in texture or taste. And the brownie is heavy and gooey without much chocolate flavor for all its dark intensity. Order pudding -- chocolate, rice or both. Note it's called chocolate pudding, not mousse. It is thick and smooth and creamy (as well as quite boozy), with a darker skin on the top. It is sensational. Order it warm, with cream poured over it, and find someone to share it or you'll regret its generous portion after you have scraped the bowl clean. Rice pudding, also warmed and drenched in cream, is so silky, so homey, soft and comforting that you'll wish you'd worn your flannel robe and slippers to enjoy it in proper style.
From fried clams to chocolate pudding, this is a home-town kind of place. Tony & Joe's has introduced old-fashioned virtue to Washington Harbour. ::