Tom Sietsema: Eat at Joe’s, the latest outpost of a Miami stalwart, but skip the stone crabs

Correction: The restaurant review in this WP Magazine, which was printed in advance, misstates the chef de cuisine’s previous place of employment. Billy Klein worked at Cafe Saint-Ex, not Bar Pilar.

Before Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab welcomed the masses in January, the offshoot of the century-old, still-has-a-dress-code Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach threw itself a whale of a party. More than 1,000 guests showed up, including heavy hitters from the worlds of politics and media. They chased back 700 pounds of the signature stone crabs with top-shelf spirits and must have spread the word, because the D.C. joint is jumpin’ on a Monday night, almost every table spoken for in a part of town that normally turns sleepy after the office lights dim.

Is Woodward Table shuddering? Are those beads of sweat on the window at BLT Steak? Those and other nearby restaurants now face stiff competition for the hearts and expense accounts of diners. Joe’s, operated by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, brings not just sizzle downtown, but a formula for success that mixes a marquee brand with a striking space, the former Union Trust Bank on the corner of 15th and H streets.

Which explains the monumental bar inside, dressed with marble columns, Palladian windows and leather stools ringing the central black granite counter. To appreciate the venue’s dignified bones, you should view the watering hole from the second-floor terrace, off of which are five of Joe’s six private dining rooms. The sprawl can accommodate 475 diners.

The main dining room, however, is a sea of genericism. There’s little to distinguish the corporate-beige interior from a testosterone-fueled steak or seafood house you might find in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Even so, there’s much to like about a place that still bothers with linens, bread baskets and tuxedos for waiters. Joe’s army of servers is, for the most part, well-versed in the history of the institution, which counts branches in Chicago and Las Vegas, and the back stories of its title dishes.

A local, Billy Klein, helms the kitchen. Best-known for his time at the neighborly Cafe Saint-Ex in Logan Circle, the chef de cuisine has the daunting task of overseeing more than 50 cooks.

Dinner commences with a selection of breads, including tasty pretzel sticks and onion bialys baked in-house, and an explanation of the menu that includes a little discourse on those stone crabs, which come in three sizes and from the Florida Keys. The delicacy, with a flavor similar to lobster, turns flamenco-colored when cooked (on the docks, at which point the claws are chilled and shipped off). While they account for a third of the restaurant’s name, however, the stone crabs here are damp and ordinary, not close to the sweet treasure I’ve encountered elsewhere, including at the Miami Beach destination. Some claws are also stringy. Expect to use the accompanying mustard sauce if you order any.

A round of applause for the oyster shuckers, who make sure your specimens on the half-shell are free of grit. Let’s also hear it for whoever fries the calamari to a golden crackle, leaving the rings and tentacles tender. A nice balance to the excess at Joe’s is the chopped vegetable salad, a mound of shredded lettuce, chickpeas, bell peppers and more, bound in a creamy vinaigrette.

Diners interested in fishing should know that the mahi-mahi with its herbed crumb topping and mustardy vinaigrette is a far better catch than the grouper paved in limp potato slices and glossed with chive butter.

Joe’s prime meats include a respectable New York strip steak and a more succulent bone-in rib-eye, the dry-aged version of which reveals a nice mineral tang and a $65 price tag for 24 ounces. But you don’t have to shell out a Grant and a Jackson to enjoy a steak dinner. There’s a very good, $19 chopped steak with sauteed onions and mushrooms, which receives a bit of ceremony when a server pours on a splash of garlic butter and beef juice. Presented à la carte, main courses are better with a barge of nutmeg-laced creamed spinach or a field of Lyonnaise potatoes, apportioned for two or three to share.

Seared scallops on a raft of braised pork belly is a contemporary spin on surf and turf, more so because the underliner for the crisp meat is shredded kale and cabbage splashed with bacon vinaigrette. The combination is very appealing.

The sleeper of the lot is Joe’s fried chicken, its crust sheer with cracker meal.

Gregarious service and a generous nature help hide a truth: There’s some ordinary eating sailing out of this kitchen, too. Your server may try to talk you into “Joe’s” grilled tomatoes, but don’t bite unless you want a mush of cottony tomato heaped with creamed spinach and American cheese. The same goes for “Jennie’s” mashed potatoes, a ringer for spuds from a box. (Both accompaniments dispel the theory that dishes named after actual people, in this case, founder Joe Weiss and his wife, tend to be reliable bets.) Don’t bother with the oysters Rockefeller, laden with so much cheese the flavor of the seafood is all but erased, or the “colossal” crab cakes, which are well-endowed but sadly dry.

Joe’s specialty, one learns over the course of a few meals, isn’t subtlety.

Dessert! You’ve probably already eaten a week’s worth of calories in one rich sitting, so why not? The pies, sweet and fluffy, come in as many shades as a paint wheel; I could have stopped at the C’s — caramel, chocolate, coconut — and left a satisfied customer, although the signature Key lime pie delivers a tang that I find refreshing after a feast. More than once, my table has been the beneficiary of a gratis slice after a waiter has overheard us talking about a pie we didn’t order. That’s how I discovered the pleasure of the “Havana,” a soothing spin on the super-moist tres leches cake.

Big and brash, Joe’s is an import that already feels as though it should be part of the opening montage in “House of Cards.” No less a VIP than the first lady dropped in for dinner before the restaurant was even a month old.

The menu here won’t surprise anybody. The tug at Joe’s is more about comfort, Washington-style: proximity to power.

★★

(Good)
Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab

750 15th St. NW. 202-489-0140. joes.net.

OPEN:
Dinner 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to
10 p.m. Sunday.

METRO: McPherson Square.

PRICES:
Dinner appetizers $7.95 to $16.95, main courses $16.95 to $57.95.

SOUND CHECK:
79 decibels/
Must speak
with raised voice.

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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