Two things happened this summer when Sam Adkins opened a 42-seat restaurant in honor of his sister, who has only a first and last name.
“I scored some major little-brother points,” says the chef of Sally’s Middle Name on H Street NE. “I erased every unreturned phone call from Day 1.”
What’s good for sibling harmony turns out to be a plus for the increasingly appetizing neighborhood. A local can never have too many dinner options, after all. Sally’s Middle Name also made its kitchen crew happy, by adding onto checks an 18 percent gratuity that’s shared by servers and cooks alike. Everybody wins, including those of us who aren’t math whizzes.
Anyone who writes regularly about restaurants ought to have “seasonal” and “small plates” on a cut-and-paste string on their laptop. Hardly a week goes by in Washington that a chef isn’t talking about how tight he is with fall, winter, spring and summer and how his food is meant to promote sharing at the table. Adkins, who previously cooked at Jackie’s in Silver Spring and Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan, adheres to that popular script, but stick with me, because among his small plates are some big pleasures.
Consider one night’s chowder, which, like all the dishes at Sally’s, is advertised on a big chalkboard across from an exhibition kitchen and on one of the white-tiled walls on the other side. The bowl wasn’t business as usual, but enticing with blue catfish. “I’d like everyone to eat as much of it as possible,” the chef says of the signature ingredient. An invasive beast with a clean flavor profile, blue catfish sounds like the Jekyll and Hyde of the sea. Pitching in: coins of purple potatoes, smoky bacon and a broth of hot milk and fish stock that makes me wish Sally’s served a bread basket.
Have you noticed how chicken parts other than wings are making inroads as appetizers? Sally’s boards the bandwagon with “New Bay” chicken thighs that riff on traditional Old Bay seasoning with fenugreek and black mustard seeds in the spice blend. The ideal dip is a puddle of green goddess dressing, cool and creamy with mayonnaise, tarragon and lemon juice.
Riding another popular wave at the moment, the restaurant plays up vegetables, and not just in ways that make a diner feel he’s eating a bunch of side dishes. As at Garrison on Capitol Hill, Sally’s makes a mission of getting you to finish your beets or beans, for no other reason than because they taste good. Baby beets with roasted pears and mustard seeds? The trio is at once earthy and sweet and sassy. Skinny filet beans sparked with garlic and anchovy? Move your fork, please. (Well, most of the time. I’ve had a wimpy version of the tender French green beans here, too.)
Given the nature of the menu, published fresh online every day, most dishes don’t stick around for long; avoid getting attached to anything, in other words. The exceptions include a smattering of small plates without strong seasonal ties, including pickled fried Swiss chard stems in a delicate beer batter and a rabbit poutine built with tangy goat cheese curds from Pennsylvania. Both are nice to see at the end of the day, like a parking meter with time on it or your dog waiting on the other side of the door. (Or custard-filled doughnuts, among the few desserts.)
Try not to order everything at once. The food, served on mismatched china, comes out almost as fast as you can read this warning, and the tables aren’t big enough to accommodate more than several at a time. Besides, this is, for the most part, food you want to spend a little time with. Leisurely eating lets a diner appreciate, say, the contrast between sweet white scallops and their piercing base of salsa verde. Proper pacing allows the recipient of the lamb belly — seasoned as if it were shawarma with sumac, lemon and caraway — to better appreciate meat and spice, and the seafood fan to savor the crackle of a soft-shell crab that has been dusted with rice flour and carefully fried. (Co-owner and Adkins’s wife, Aphra, can’t tolerate dairy or gluten; at least a few items on the menu are prepared with her in mind.)
Some small plates are teases. Eating one night’s collard greens with duck confit, a fine marriage between the South and France, I wished the kitchen offered entree portions. (Please, chef?) Almost always, I want the service to be smoother. Sally’s employs a few waiters who seem more intent on hanging out, or pushing diners to order more food, than on considering what diners might actually want or need.
In his youth, Adkins was the kid who liked to eat sushi at the counter rather than at a table. So the open kitchen at Sally’s, a carry-over from the previous occupant, Pizza Parts & Service, suits him just fine. Says the chef, “I like people to see what goes on with their food.”
Sally is pleased. That makes two of us.
Location: 1320 H St. NE. 202-750-6529. www.sallysmiddlename.com.
Open: Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Weekend brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Prices: Small dishes $4 to $15.
Sound check: 72 decibels /Must speak with raised voice.
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