The television over the bar at Oohh’s and Aahh’s has “White Men Can’t Jump” on mute, which is fine by me. I can pretty much fill in the dialogue from memory, down to the courtside trash talk. Just a few steps away, on another TV, an employee has cued up a vintage Jackson 5 video, much to the dismay of a young colleague who would like to hear something from, you know, this century.
If any restaurant can peel back the layers of modern Washington — to reveal the still beating heart of Chocolate City, a town that once marked time with a go-go beat — it’s Oohh’s and Aahh’s. Chef and owner Oji Abbott, 44, is the guiding light behind the business, and he’s old-school. He’s analog in a digital environment. He’s a P-Funk bass line in a Lil Wayne world. He’s the man who puts the soul into soul food.
More than a year ago, Abbott branched out from his debut restaurant, a matchstick-thin piece of real estate on U Street, and opened a second location of Oohh’s and Aahh’s in a Walmart in Brightwood. The new space is the anti-Walmart: It looks to pamper those who enter the place, starting with the people who greet you and look after your every need. They’re more charming than a couple on a first date. The guy with the orange hair, silver bow tie and black dress shirt? He’s the coolest waiter in Washington, and not just because he indulged my desire to talk about the Nats’ offseason moves.
But with his new outlet, Abbott wanted to do more than extend his brand. He wanted to free Oohh’s and Aahh’s from its carryout roots. He wanted to ditch the clamshell containers and give his customers a plated, full-service experience, a laudable move at a time when soul food continues to push back against its stereotype as a “poverty cuisine.” Abbott’s act strikes me as a righteous response to what writer and historian Adrian Miller pointedly described as a “black-on-black crime”: the tendency of African Americans to hate on their own food. Oohh’s and Aahh’s is a safe space to love soul food all over again.
The menu remains much the same from the one on U Street, although Abbott has reintroduced a few sandwiches that he had to jettison from the original location because of limited space. Prime among the returning heroes is Abbott’s steak sandwich, which features meaty, mouthwatering strips of marinated rib-eye layered into a cornmeal-dusted roll. This is not a Philly cheesesteak. This monster is closer in spirit to a sausage, peppers and onions sandwich, with the juicy, medium-rare rib-eye standing in for the links.
All the Oohh’s and Aahh’s classics are here. The turkey chops, the sweet-and-sour teriyaki salmon, the meatloaf smothered in gravy. But when I pull up a chair in Abbott’s place, I can never resist the bubbly call of the deep fryer, which turns out long, thin and golden fillets of fried fish like no one else. The whiting immediately reminds me why the fish has been a staple at Washington fish houses since the 1970s, when the Nation of Islam began its push to import the frozen product from Peru. The foot-long lengths of fried whiting, curled and irresistibly crispy at the tips, easily break apart into finger food, custom-made for Abbott’s preferred sauce, Frank’s RedHot, with its powerful cayenne kick.
The fried crab cakes are prepared Maryland-style, spiked with Old Bay and Abbott’s own seasoning, which adds a tickle of heat to these big balls formed with fresh ivory sections of lump and jumbo lump — and very little binder. The fried chicken wings were my only disappointment, mostly because my order came smothered with a house-made barbecue sauce, which all but deprived the dish of its inherent crackle.
Abbott doesn’t favor extremes. Like many formally trained chefs, he aims for balance, which is what you’ll find even with dishes better known for their higher frequencies. Take the blackened catfish, which he grills on a flat-top. His seasons the fillets with three kinds of pepper — black, red pepper flake and chili powder — but this power trio is attenuated with sugar, which brings order to the dish. Same goes for the grits that accompany Abbott’s tight curls of grilled shrimp: The chef doses his porridge with sugar, which aligns well with the heavy cream and the corn’s natural sweetness, but he balances out the grits with salt. The servers will warn you the grits are sweet, but don’t sweat it for a second. They’re terrific.
In my experience, soul food restaurants start to lose steam when it comes to sides. Not Oohh’s and Aahh’s. Abbott’s collard greens are toothsome and goosed with just the right amount of hot sauce. His mac and cheese is served in a fat, tightly packed scoop, more a casserole than a cluster of elbow macaroni loosely held together with cheese sauce. Regardless, Abbott’s five-cheese blend adds a ton of character to this softened mass of pasta. Even more impressive: The chef makes canned string beans crave-worthy, infusing the supermarket veggies with a pungent garlic perfume.
At present, the glassware behind the bar at Oohh’s and Aahh’s stands at attention in perfect little rows, untouched by human hands. Abbott still doesn’t have a liquor license, largely because he doesn’t think he’s ready for one. He wants to make sure all his current systems are airtight before adding anything new, and, yes, he’s fully aware he can bolster his bottom line with a robust bar program.
But to Abbott’s mind, the cash flow is less important than his character and reputation, which tells you everything about why he runs the best soul food restaurant in Washington.
Besides, the chef adds, “People should be coming in to get a great meal. They should not be coming in just for drinks.”
5933 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-882-2902, www.oohhsnaahhs.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Takoma, with a 1.2-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $5.95 to $17.95 for appetizers and salads; $6.95 to $14.95 for lunch entrees and specials; $9.95 to $23.95 for dinner entrees.