St. James’s restaurant review: Bringing the fun and flavor of the Caribbean

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If things had gone as planned, St. James reportedly opened last fall and Jeanine Prime and her brother, chef Peter Prime, would split their time between Cane, their popular Trinidadian outpost in northeast Washington, and their more upscale business on 14th Street NW .

Instead, St. James opened in May with Jeanine as the sole owner and two chefs — Mexican-born Alfredo Romero Contreras and El Salvador-born Emma Hernandez — overseeing the kitchen. Chef Prime, meanwhile, is now fully engaged as a partner at Bammy’s, another island food source, at Navy Yard.

Copy all that? The pandemic has a knack for spoiling good intentions. The important thing to keep in mind is that Washington has another spot to tackle jerk wings and accras, which can be washed down with some serious rum drinks in a two-story dining room designed with thought in mind. to the owner’s native Trinidad.

“When I come home, I’m struck by the lushness,” Prime says. “You see green everywhere.” You also see green everywhere in the light-drenched St. James: in the shiny bar front, on the plant-filled shelves behind, and on top of the plates that clutter your table as you peruse the menu, especially callaloo, soup mousse-colored, thick with spinach and green cabbage, cooked with coconut milk and topped with sweet crab. As fate would have it, Prime’s owner is also from Trinidad.

Don’t expect a cozy evening. St. James is named after the bustling nightlife district of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, an attribute captured in the buzz of the dining room as the night wears on. (If you haven’t noticed, quiet restaurants have replaced payphones.) The energy of Trinidadian street vendors is also “an inspiration for our service style,” says Prime, whose young servers describe well the small plates that make up the menu.

Their eyes light up with an approving look when you say “flip wings”. Your tongue will thank you later. The St. James submerges its wings overnight in “the green seasoning” — a sassy mix of culantro, oregano, thyme, scallions, lime, and garlic — and jerk spices before to cook them in a smokehouse for several hours. The resulting pile is so soft that the succulent chicken barely clings to the bones.

I will be frank. I was initially dismayed to learn that Peter Prime, whose job at the aptly named (but since closed) Spark I first fell in love with, wouldn’t be part of St. James. Working with Jeanine Prime, however, her chefs bring admirable finesse to much of the menu. Hernandez, 30, cooked with Peter Prime at Sparks, helped open Cane and spent time in the pastry shop at the late, stately Punjab Grill. Contreras, 39, is a veteran of the prestigious Fiola Mare in Georgetown.

Resist ordering your entire meal at once if you can. Food flies out of the kitchen and is sometimes held aloft in the dining room as diners scramble to clear the catwalk, er, table, for incoming plates. Some arrivals deserve to be enjoyed quietly, dishes like pork pow, lightly moist steamed Chinese buns filled with juicy crumbled pork and lit with Habanero sauce. Or the aforementioned callaloo, whose red oil surface hints at the cayenne punch to come and whose body is deeper for a touch of oxtail jus.

The appetizer that best fits the “Modern Caribbean”, the restaurant’s slogan, is the salt cod crudo, a lightly dried black cod that is sliced ​​into firm white ribbons and presented on a black plate decorated with lively dollops of mashed fish. yellow, orange and pastel green. The fun is in auditioning the mashes and testing your limits. The colors more or less follow the traffic indicators. Green goes with avocado, yellow with curry and onions, and orange keeps you from tasting anything but the fire of Scotch Bonnet peppers for a few moments. (Ouch. I love it!)

An ocean of rum, sourced mostly from family growers in the Caribbean, dominates the bar, run by Glendon Hartley, the founder of the Service Bar on U Street and the son of West Indian immigrants. Its signature cocktail is Pineapple Chow, featuring Angostura White Oak Trinidadian rum, a floral, herbal and lemony base for a drink that blends fresh pineapple juice, lime and culantro, an herb similar to cilantro, but more spicy. The pale yellow libation finishes with a hint of black pepper and proves easy to sip during dinner.

There’s more where that came from; St. James stocks around 50 rums. Hartley channels his mother and grandmother’s cooking with a pleasantly vegetal rum punch flavored with passion fruit liqueur, lemon, mint and especially bell pepper, its bite and floral note reminiscent of meals past youth.

Obviously, St. James wants you to try its cocktails, as the alcoholic alternatives are less than 10 wines and beers – in total.

Rum is not limited to the bar. The spirit is also used to color and sweeten the sauce of brown stew chicken, another side dish to consider. The sauce, a combination of soy sauce, tomato paste and butter, is intense and delicious.

Some dishes deserve more attention. The nubby aloo pies have so little of their promised potato stuffing, you wonder if anyone is forgetting to fill the fried bread packets. And the grilled fist of oxtail, though shiny and sprinkled with colorful chili peppers, goes down like roast beef that’s overstayed its welcome in the oven.

The staff are eager to please, checking in like helicopter parents. Some diners like the bustle. Others might use fewer circles. Whichever way you vote, the enthusiasm is genuine.

The show stopper, similar to an Indian thali, is designed for a group: a spread of braised beef, goat cheese, garlic-smoked eggplant and curry-seasoned chickpeas arranged in small bowls on a platter and accompanied by flaky paratha, which you tear off and use to scoop up bites and mop up sauces. The beef, mild from slow, slow cooking, benefits from the house green seasoning and a hint of culantro. The goat, cooked in the same way, is sharpened with ginger and garlic.

You are in the row of restaurants on 14th street. But a feast like this brings you closer to the surf, sun and sand.

2017 14th St. NW. 202-627-2981. Open: Indoor dining 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Appetizers $10-$30, mains $16-$60 (for paratha platter). Sound control: 84 decibels / Extremely loud. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic Protocols: Staff members are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.

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