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Utter the words “selling out” and everybody tut-tuts with self-righteous condemnation, thinking of the great Faustian bargain: the formerly do-no-wrong artist sacrificing identity and ideals in order to cash in with the mainstream. But this reaction ignores a more complicated, more messy reality. There are, in fact, degrees of sellout, gradations of intentnone, perhaps, as fascinating to ponder as the calculated grab for glory by the upstart on the margin.
Over the past three years, the tiny, 10-seat SBC Cafe developed a faithful clientele with its attentive renditions of South by Southwest faresmooth black-bean soup, cornbread, butter-drenched barbecue shrimp cribbed from Cajun master Paul Prudhomme. SBC was the kind of place that people found out about secondhand and then passed off as their own discovery. Being next to a gas station, tucked away among the big-box sprawl of Herndon, gave the cafe a poetic charm, and customers fell hard for the place, many driving in from the city to eat there.
An audience quickly became a constituencya demanding one. Customers beseeched Mark and Hana Sakuta to move the restaurant into the city, so they wouldn’t have to slog out to the outer reaches of the Virginia ‘burbs in rush hour. Heck, they’d even pony up the dough to make it happen: Mark Sakuta estimates that his customers accounted for nearly three-quarters of the financing of 21P, the place the Sakutas opened last December in Dupont Circle.
But a restaurant is more than a building and a handful of recipes (which is what, by the way, the new owners of SBC Cafe got in the deal), and charm is a hard thing to transplant. Sakuta’s new restaurant is as far from its scruffy roots as Dupont Circle is from Herndon, with a space that resembles an aging fern bar, a smart and efficient but sometimes cheerless staff, and dinner for two edging into three digits.
The menu strikes an uneasy alliance between the likable, stick-to-your-ribs fare that made SBC so beloved (Cajun meatloaf, tamales) and the more fussified cooking that tickles urban sophisticates (crudo, seared tuna, beet salad). Occasionally, the two strains are merged, to odd effect, as in an appetizer of Cajun-spiced veal cheeks. The meat is slow-cooked to peak softness, then set out with a jeweler’s precision, three pieces to an order. Luscious, though precious.
For all of the soup and Cuban sandwiches that Sakuta was dishing out in Herndon, something in him must have longed for the chance to play around a bit with his food. His ideas are often better than they seem. A porcini-dusted halibut sounds like a disaster, a miscalculated twist on blackening. But that fine grind of dried mushrooms yields a deep, rich earthiness that plays nicely against the pearly, sweet fillet of fish, and a wild-mushroom ragout provides a neat echo effect. A Wagyu beef stew inspires doubt, but Sakuta sets the tender hunks of meat atop a bowl of noodles perfumed with star anise, ginger, and lemongrass to create a kind of New American pho.
The new Kobe is kurobuta pork, a sometime special that Sakuta’s staff pushes with all the urgency of a Tex-Mex chain pushing margaritas. The dark-colored meat from the English breed is supposed to result in a chop of almost melting softness. No such chop showed up on my plate, although the parts nearest the bone were tasty and assertively porky.
Too often, Sakuta is prone to needless experimentation (a soft-shell crab coated in crumbled tortilla chips) and the lure of the kind of generically upscale dishes that, in the absence of stellar product, are turning New American cuisine into self-parody (a soft tuna tartare perched atop a tangle of hijiki, an unaccountably dull beet-and-arugula salad).
On two of my three visits, my servers steered me away from the seafood stewat $28, the most expensive item on the menu. Wise servers. A new hire on my final stop did not, however, allowing, “There’s a lot going on in there.” There was a lot going on, all right: a lot of wrong. The saffron-scented broth was unspeakably fishy, and it was packed with fish more soft and mushy than supple and firm.
For exactly half the cost, and for a far greater return, you can have the Cajun-spiced meatloafa welcome reminder of what made SBC Cafe so appealing. Or another bargain charmer, the blue-corn tamale, lushly sweet and ringed with a smoky adobo sauce. The servers will tell you that the chef “undercooks” his shellfish slightly, to excellent result in the beautifully done shrimp and scallops spilling from the tamale; those buttery barbecue shrimp, however, are closer to rawstill gray insidenot to mention a trace bitter from too much filé. And let’s just say that the chef overcooks his gumbo, and not slightly. He works from a roux the color of Vegemite. But snatch it from the stove a few minutes earlier and it might well rival the best in the city.
I don’t blame the Sakutas for trying to make a go of it in the city. I wish, though, they had made more of a commitment to the kind of humble, reasonably priced food that made their rep. In trying on a new, more upscale identity, they are in danger of losing sight of their old one. It would be a sad irony if their ambitions turned 21P into a place that is indistinguishable from the kind of smooth, charmless restaurants that eat up so much space in this citythe kind of place that inspired all those customers to beat a retreat to Herndon.
21P, 2100 P St. NW, (202) 223-3824. Todd Kliman
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