The Washington Post

Southern Efficiency: No cliches

Southern Efficiency’s Country Captain, a lesser-seen Southern tradition that melds curried chicken with Carolina Gold rice. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Pimento cheese. Shot of Belle Meade. And the Tennessee bourbon goes down, not unpleasantly, like liquid splinters of wood.

If you haven’t guessed by now where I am, here’s another clue: The watering hole’s neighbors are the sherry- and ham-minded Mockingbird Hill and oyster-oriented Eat the Rich. Both bars are the creation of Derek Brown, who added another reason to visit their block in Shaw in December with Southern Efficiency, a toast to some of the treasures below the Mason-Dixon line.

That means scores of brown spirits (“a neatly tailored list,” Brown calls it) behind the bar. A handful of cocktails are pre-made and dispensed in single-serving Mason jars. “Like opening a beer,” says a bartender as he reaches into a refrigerator and pulls out a Stone Fence, a blend of Old Overholt rye, apple cider and bitters. Imagine an apple juice box for adults.

Chef Julien Shapiro chops and stirs in a kitchen that produces the food for all three eateries. Consequently, he says, his menu items for Southern Efficiency had to be practical, easy, doable in batches — “as efficient as possible” while also “representing an element of the South,” but not necessarily the obvious icons.

So, no fried chicken. Instead, Shapiro offers the less-seen Country Captain, tender curried chicken bedded on Carolina Gold rice, a one-dish supper made sweet with raisins, crisp with almonds and fragrant with cardamom. The chef also makes a terrific peanut soup, a beige bowl that rallies the taste buds with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions and a duel between sherry vinegar and sour cream in most spoonfuls. The heartiest of the lot is the lamb-rich Hoppin’ Gilson, a play on Hoppin’ John, in which black-eyed peas sub for the traditional rice. It was the perfect quilt during the Winter That Wouldn’t End.

A pulled pork sandwich reminds me I haven’t left Washington; cheers for the grilled potato roll, but where’s the tang in the shredded meat?

Like the food, the restaurant’s interior brings the South to mind without resorting to cliches. Warming up the entry is a display of pale green seltzer bottles, and ringing the bar are stools made from tractor seats.

“We wanted to evoke the lunch counters and diners” of the South while avoiding “Disney reproductions,” says Brown.

Does he have another joint in his future? The entrepreneur swears this is his last opening for a while, unless, he teases, he can carve out a two-seater amid the three bars.

1841 Seventh St. NW. 202-316-9396. Entrees, $12 to $13.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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