If Southern food is rooted in its sense of place, Due South is that road trip you’ve always thought to take. The Navy Yard restaurant, helmed by chef Rusty Holman of Bayou, is a meandering map of the region’s best-known eats.
Maybe you’ll start in Charleston with some shrimp and grits, and work your way through the low country for some citrusy pickled shrimp. In Georgia, you’ll slurp Brunswick stew, the tomato, corn, okra and bean soup that gets its smoky flavor from bits of brisket and pulled pork. There’s Alabama white barbecue sauce for the wings, and Mississippi comeback sauce (it tastes like Thousand Island dressing) for the french fries. The brisket, topped with a pepper and chili sauce, hails from Texas — even though Texans prefer sauce on the side, if at all. Holman isn’t a stickler for regional authenticity. And of course, there are the dishes that belong to all of the South (cornbread, collard greens, pimento cheese) or nowhere at all (the obligatory vegetarian eggplant, goat cheese, portobello stack).
The food is from all over the South, and the man who makes it has a similarly far-flung background. Holman was raised in Durham, N.C., by parents who came from Arkansas. He trained in California and worked in Spain, Colorado and St. Croix. But no matter how far away he roams, “I always end up coming back to the South,” Holman said. He led the kitchens at Eatonville on 14th Street NW and then Bayou in the West End, and was prepared to move back to his native North Carolina until Bayou owner Bo Blair made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: partnership in sister restaurant Due South. The latter opened in the Lumber Shed building in September and came with a $35,000 smoker, his shiny new toy.
“Some North Carolinians would probably say it’s not totally authentic,” said Holman, whose sauce falls in between the vinegary eastern style and the tomato-based western style. But unless you have a die-hard affinity for one side of the state, chances are you’ll lap it up. That was the case with another one of Holman’s not-the-way-your-mother-made-it dishes: squash puppies. The fritters are studded with jalapeño and served in daubs of roasted jalapeño aioli. We didn’t leave a crumb behind. “Okay, well, those didn’t stand a chance,” said our server, when he returned a few minutes later to collect the empty plate. The scenario repeated itself later, with peanut butter pie.
Dishes like the squash fritters set the tone for the restaurant’s ambitions. Yes, there are wings and pimento cheese and burgers here, but Due South is better-groomed than its pulled-pork peer down the street, the more casual and sporty Willie’s Brew & Que. If you’re already in the South — the Southeast waterfront, that is — and want barbecue, Due South is the better choice. But it can’t touch the quality of barbecue put out by DCity Smokehouse, at least before the latter’s pitmaster left to start another project recently.
Don’t expect your smoked meats to come on a bun for dinner. Other than the burger, sandwiches are served only for lunch and brunch. But it’s worth ducking in midday for a juicy (and weighty!) fried chicken sandwich, spiced up with that jalapeño aioli and purple slaw.
Other than the meats that come out of Holman’s smoker, Due South’s modest comforts lie in its greens and beans. Don’t ignore the “Extras” section of the menus, where smoky red peas with ham hocks and briny collards — or an oozy mac and cheese that left strings of fontina, jack and cheddar stuck to my chin — await.
Skip the Cobb salad, drenched in dressing, though. A pimento-bacon burger was cooked beyond the requested medium-rare, and dry — as were the nubby, herbed fries that accompanied it. The pickled okra outshone the bourbon chicken liver pâté it came with, and we wished we could have ordered it solo.
And don’t count on the menu’s grand tour of the South taking you to Nashville. Due South used to serve hot chicken — one of the trendiest dishes of the year — but it took the spicy fried chicken off the menu just as it got hot.
“People seemed to either love it or they didn’t think it was authentic to the places in Nashville,” said Holman. “There’s a chance it could come back for spring.”
The restaurant has its own beers: an IPA brewed by Goose Island and a utilitarian lager brewed by Blue Point. Cocktails lean toward the sweet side: The Savannah Sparkler, a prosecco-and-gin cocktail, goes heavy on the Creme Yvette, and the .38 Special, a whiskey cocktail with Averna and Cointreau, is syrupy. But don’t write off the drinks: A sweet tea julep, served appropriately in its metal cup, is less saccharine than both of the aforementioned. An Earl Grey simple syrup adds depth to a citrusy Dixie 75. And at brunch, our whole table slurped down spicy bloody marys, with a crunch of pickled okra and green beans on top.
Service is chipper. On one visit, our female server seemed keen on joining our girls’ night; on another, our server congratulated us for our superb ordering skills. “You guys nailed it,” he said, and I half-expected a high-five to follow. “Y’all come back,” said one server after lunch, in a folksy twang undetected until that moment. It felt forced.
The ambiance feels a little like that, too. The food may evoke a sense of place, but something about the Navy Yard’s homogenous, high-end buildings, as well as the futuristic Yards Park — all visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows — does the opposite. Due South’s decor checks off all the boxes for the prevailing restaurant aesthetic: rustic and industrial, with barnwood and Edison bulbs and nautical rope chandeliers strung from its exposed-HVAC ceiling.
But for a cuisine that leans on evoking a sense of hominess, it’s still a restaurant shoehorned into a glass cube building in a brand-new neighborhood that feels like it could be anywhere. You will have a nice meal and a fine evening at Due South, but not necessarily a special one. The missing ingredient — and Due South is not the only D.C. restaurant that strives for it — is charm.
Location: 301 Water St. SE. 202-479-4616. duesouthdc.com.
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $4 to $16, entrees $14 to $32.
Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud.
Tom Sietsema is on vacation.
Correction: A previous version of this review referred to Due South as being on the Southwest waterfront. It is in the Southeast. This version has been corrected.
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