“Burying the lead” is what journalists call it when they don’t get to the major point of a story, sometimes called “the nut graph,” within the first few paragraphs. I’m about to serve you an example of just that, and please bear with me, because the new Mulebone, formerly known as Eatonville, is worth it.
Some background: Eatonville, from the owner of the Busboys & Poets chainlette, opened on 14th Street NW with a splash and then a crash six years ago when owner Andy Shallal came up with the idea of hiring a chef via a contest and his original pick was canned before he started. (Runner-up Rusty Holman, now with Due South, stepped up to the plate.)
For most of its run, Eatonville, a reference to the Florida town where author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston was raised, was a hospitable and affordable place for gumbo and fried green tomatoes. But in that time, the neighborhood exploded with bigger draws, many of them with bars as seductive as their menus. Shallal, an Iraqi-born artist and activist, knew he had to re-brand Eatonville, and after talking to 50 chef applicants, the one-time candidate for mayor in the District recast the restaurant as Mulebone in February. The name is a nod to the controversial play written by Hurston and Langston Hughes that took 60 years to get produced.
The new place doesn’t look vastly different from the old. What you may have liked about the interior before the switch — the colorful murals, the glittery chandeliers — remains in place. Indeed, the physical changes are for the better: lowered ceilings to create a more intimate vibe and displays of clothes and art for sale, curated by Desiree Venn Frederic, founder of the Nomad Yard Collectiv. Of the frocks and baubles, Shallal says, “I like layers in my spaces.” Clotheshorses may see it as an opportunity to multitask.
Before Mulebone, Shallal’s focus on bringing people together tended to trump feeding them memorably, a point the restaurateur conceded seven years ago when he told me food wasn’t his first priority. Is that still the case, now that he has hired Joseph Paire to take over the kitchen? An alumnus of Todd Gray’s Watershed in NoMa and Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown, the chef, 33 and a District native, is cooking notches better than his résumé suggests.
The menu, divided three ways, retains a Southern tilt. Act 1 has been described by staff as “things to get you started, like tapas” and “social plates,” no doubt because they’re meant to be divvied up. Within the genre, there’s something for everyone, including vegans and diners with gluten allergies. Both groups can get around one of the best ways to start a meal here, a pyramid of crisp black-eyed-pea fritters rising from a chunky base of tomato sauce, a winning combination with roots in West Africa that manages not to remind you how virtuous it is compared to the rest of the script. It’s simply delicious.
The chef does to catfish what many of his brethren do to chicken: slice the white flesh into strips and fry them into “tenders.” But Paire’s appetizer rockets to the moon, thanks to a barely there cornmeal sheath and a steamy center whose cayenne and paprika marinade adds a nip to every tuck (of the fork).
As for salads, appearing in Act 2, Paire makes kale seem fresh, with a plate of greens scattered with crisp fried oysters, panes of aged white cheddar and a vinaigrette that sharpens the eating with mustard and sherry. Kale returns in Act 3, in the guise of a lovely pesto swirled into a soothing “risotto” formed from farro and quinoa and dabs of vegan “cheese” that add little more to the discussion than “What’s that?”
The Southerner at my table gives the brined fried chicken a thumbs-up for its crackle and succulence but, like me, agrees that the entree’s honey glaze should be shown the door. The cloying collard greens on the plate should also be rethought. Meanwhile, the drinkers in my midst approve of the cocktails, most of which smack of having been shaken and stirred by a serious mixologist.
Fish steals the scene in Act 3. Trout, served skin-on, for more flavor, reclines on a bed of Carolina rice flecked with all sorts of things — parsley, thyme, black-eyed peas — that compel you to scrape the plate till it’s white again.
And a trip to bountiful follows every request for shrimp and grits. The pearly seafood is sauteed just enough to warm it, while the grits, from Byrd Mill in Virginia, swell with cream and mascarpone, the latter added as a finishing touch. Glistening red peppers and spears of scallions help paint the picture.
Paire’s pork loin is on point, too. Rectangles of pink meat edged in crisp bacon and shored up with a robust maque choux (corn salad) make a glamorous pig-out. The crunch? Sweet potato cracklings, a sly touch.
Paire makes his own desserts, a handful of confections that pay homage to the South but come with a personal stamp. Banana pudding suspends creamy fresh fruit in a not-too-sweet custard treated to vanilla wafers “made in-house, just like everything,” a proud server tells me. A slice of pecan pie arrives with an overlay of sweet potato puree on a shortbread cookie crust, a great idea that would be improved by a fully baked base.
Mulebone’s servers are the chatty sort who were probably hired more for their energy than their polish, and that’s fine to a point; technical finesse is easier to teach than genuine warmth. Each of my waiters has been quick to ask if we’re Eatonville veterans and then explain the turnaround (which does not, contrary to earlier reports, include “The Chew” co-host Carla Hall as a formal consultant). And each has been overzealous about asking me how I’m enjoying my every bite — sometimes even before my fork has moved from plate to mouth. Paying attention to diners is a good thing; hovering and interrupting, when customers are clearly engaged with one another, is annoying.
Shallal leads by example. He owns the joint, but he’s not above ferrying dishes from hot stove to grumbling stomachs. He also takes the time to “touch tables,” industry-speak for interacting with customers, going so far as to (briefly) sit on a neighboring bar stool to chat someone up. The joy in the room, a beacon for African Americans in particular, is as palpable as the kick in the gin-driven “Weston’s Guitar.”
News alert: “I’m a foodie now,” says Shallal. And he walks the talk.
Therein, by the way, is my nut graph. In his dressed-up restaurant, mingling retail therapy and his best all-around chef, Shallal shows he cares more about what’s on the table than ever. At the same time, the owner stays true to his original mission. All it takes is a look around the room to see how well it reflects the city it serves.
Location: 2121 14th St. NW. 202-332-9672. mulebonedc.com.
Open: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $16, main courses $16 to $26.
Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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