Jenna Mack had no interest in becoming a restaurateur. An events professional, she bought Old Engine 12 in Bloomingdale more for the party space than anything else. At the most, she figured she might host pop-ups in the century-old building, a former firehouse.
Then she tried chef Peter Prime’s cooking — not the lasagna or mussels from Old Engine 12’s menu, but the food of his native Trinidad. “It was a big platter of meat, piled with mouthwatering oxtails, lacquered chicken and more,” Mack recalls. As she dug into the feast, she announced, “THIS is the restaurant!”
Out went the pizza oven and granite slab tabletops and in went avocado fritters, midcentury modern furnishings and a fresh name: Spark at Engine Co. 12. It’s a crazy-loud but enormously satisfying addition to the neighborhood, not to mention an uncommon taste of the Caribbean in the District. Who doesn’t want more jerk wings in their lives? The slow burn of the seasoning and the juicy flesh make for orders that don’t last long once they hit the table.
Prime refers to his new menu as “the food I like to eat back home,” but given his résumé — training at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and jobs at Equinox and the late Citronelle in the District — I suspect what his audience is eating is more refined. Spark’s thyme-flavored beef patties are swaddled in puff pastry, for instance. Scored red snapper swims to the table whole, crisp, snowy, soy-sauced, fantastic. The glossy chicken, meanwhile, is a tip of the hat to Trinidad’s Asian population, says the chef, who makes his own version of hoisin sauce for the main course, each bite of which rewards the recipient with hits of ginger and star anise.
Among my few nits are brown paper boats instead of real plates for Prime’s food. It deserves better packaging.
Exposed brick, roll-up front doors and some tall boots on a window sill underscore the building’s past. Otherwise, the structure has been retooled to accommodate the gatherings Mack imagined when she took over the property in January. The second floor is a 1,500-square-foot ballroom, while the third level can entertain 20 or so guests in the “captain’s lounge.”
Mack’s only involvement in the menu is with dessert. Figuring “no one is going to want to eat bread pudding or chocolate cake” after Prime’s rib-sticking appetizers and entrees, she tested some ideas at home before asking Prime to revise them. One of them is the Urban Legend, so named for the childhood myth that Coke and Pop Rocks, eaten together, would explode in the stomach. At Spark, the notion is disproved with banana fritters, over which a diner sprinkles the animated candy and a Coke-and-rum syrup. Snap, crackle, fun!
Just like Spark.
1626 N. Capitol St. NW. 202-299-9128. sparkat12.com. Dinner entrees, $12 to $24.