GEORGIA BROWN'S -- 950 15th St. NW. 202-393-4499. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate nonsmoking section. Prices: appetizers $4.25 to $7.95, entrees $9.75 to $16.95. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $35 to $45 per person.
WHILE WASHINGTON AS A city is predominantly black, its downtown restaurants are all too often largely white. But something extraordinary happened this summer. Georgia Brown's has brought together blacks and whites in a rare equal mix, along with a mingling of young and old, politicos and constituents, underlings and bosses. At Georgia Brown's the lines have blurred; here the division is over how to cook the collards.
Food and nostalgia are powerful forces. The word got out quickly: In mid-summer, even a rainy day brought a lunchtime crowd that kept the entrance packed past 2 p.m. D.C. Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis had staked out a window table as her territory. A young man from Arkansas had come for the second time, and was putting the kitchen through his standard Southern test -- smothered pork chops and pecan pie. (It passed.) The old McPherson Grill regulars were back on their home turf. A debate was raging over collard greens, Georgia Brown's grassy, quick-cooked style vs. longer-cooked down-home style.
At first this New South restaurant was offering only quick-cooked collards, but a public outcry persuaded the restaurant to offer the down-home option (which is still not cooked long enough for some of us); the long-cooked have been far and away the favorite. Georgia Brown's has proved itself capable of change.
The food has considerable room for improvement, but I'll get back to that. Everything else about Georgia Brown's works like a dream. The dining room makes you hungry to look at it, with gold fettuccine-like sculpture snaking across the ceiling, wall lamps that look like wedges of citrus fruit, and an open kitchen promising to hustle over your garlic grits and hoppin' john. Banquettes are encircled by curved wood dividers the color of peaches in late-afternoon sun; they not only feel cozy, they allow that Washington necessity of being seen without being overheard.
And the service glides along in a most hospitable Southern way, as waiters roam the room with glass pitchers to refill your iced tea, your faintly medicinal peach tea or your lemonade, too weak but generous nevertheless. The puffy, lightly browned biscuits that arrive as soon as you're seated are pretty good for big-city fare, along with light and delicious -- albeit too sweet -- corn sticks.
Like many restaurants nowadays, Georgia Brown's keeps the same menu (and prices) at lunch and dinner, but changes the specials at each meal. Its wine list is an all-American collection with prices so low that it encourages you to order by the bottle and try something new.
The list of food is pretty reasonable too. But it's one of those detailed modern menus that too often make everything sound much better than it tastes. Head-on shrimp with garlic and spicy sausage on a bed of white grits. Duck, okra and spicy sausage gumbo with hoppin' john. Who could resist? How could you know that the shrimp would be mushy, and that the powerfully hot sausage jolts your palate, overwhelms the shrimp and tastes like an afterthought anyway, or that the gumbo would be gooey, its broth murky and bland?
Until those collard activists take on more causes, you'll have to be as careful as a crab picker to cull this menu's nuggets. There is work to be done on the dry short ribs with their watery gravy, the effete pan-fried chicken that is only breast meat and stringy from overcooking, the barbecued chicken breast with its simpering sweet sauce, the catfish stew (the menu isn't kidding when it describes it as "a light broth") and a "vine ripened tomato" salad that tastes as if winter tomatoes had been specially stored to be brought out as a joke in tomato season.
You have to look to the end of the appetizer list for the single best dish at Georgia Brown's: crispy fried chicken livers with spicy sausage gravy. It's a tangled mound of greaseless, crunchy, cornmeal-coated livers that are wonderful -- impeccably fresh and sweetly smooth. The dish is spicy, just enough to activate rather than numb your taste buds.
Another outstanding dish is an entree, the smothered pork chop with spicy sausage gravy. It's not a typically Southern long-cooked pork chop, but a lightly grilled one, yet tender and juicy; and the gravy is more delicate than its name would suggest. The happiest surprise among entrees is the shrimp perlau. Given my disappointment with two other shrimp entrees -- mushy shrimp in both a wimpy shallot-coconut milk-scallion sauce and an unbalanced sausage-garlic sauce -- I was astonished at the depth of flavor in the perlau, which is a kind of cross between jambalaya and pilaf, quite spicy and intensely flavored with seafood. Even the shrimp in this case were not mushy.
Crab cakes are just fine here, though a bit too creamy. Grouper is fresh and cooked exactingly, but it's an unattractive, clumsy-looking fillet that seems to have no seasoning. The minted peach chutney that comes with it is just cold raw sliced peaches, and the grilled cucumber garnish is simply warm and dry. The red onion and the rice are highlights of this dish. Beef tenderloin medallions are a safe bet if you want something familiar and don't mind the sweet bourbon-pecan sauce. As for vegetable side dishes, when the lima beans are not undercooked, the succotash is wonderful. Neither the red rice nor the grits can hold a candle to the potatoes au gratin that came with one day's special.
While the entrees are a minefield, the appetizers all have something endearing about them. If you add a dash of peppered vinegar and ground black pepper to the creamy pink she crab soup, it brightens considerably. The chunks of cornmeal-crusted fried catfish have that irresistible interplay of crunch and juiciness that makes us crave fried foods. Sweetbreads with asparagus on toast are smooth and elegant, and the black-eyed pea cake could grow boring but it's saved by being teamed with nicely grilled shrimp in one case, and by a fragrant tomato relish in another. Clams with bacon and spicy sausage in white wine taste mostly of that same hot but otherwise unexciting sausage that does in some of the shrimp dishes. If you're interested in sausage, wait until rabbit sausage is listed among the specials. While I can't fault the chocolate desserts here, what stand out are the Southern fruit desserts. Cobbler comes warm (usually, anyway), with a scoop of fine vanilla bean ice cream melting over its golden topping -- halfway between a biscuit and cake. I've had the cobbler with green apples with the skin on, all the tartness left to tingle against the sweet dough. And rice pudding brulee, which tastes richer than ice cream is surrounded by refreshing fruit -- mangoes, berries, whatever's in season.
Modern, light Southern cooking -- it's here, but it's not what sings at Georgia Brown's. Skip the fibrous, new-style collards. Don't look for nostalgia in your blackberry-topped duck salad. Dry grilled vegetables and watery light stocks don't satisfy the stomach, much less the soul. Crispy. Smothered. Creamy. Such terms are the salvation of Georgia Brown's.