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“How you folks doing tonight?” the restaurateur asks a group of six. As he’s talking, he circles his index finger in the air, as if he’s stirring the ice in a giant cocktail, making sure he’s pointed to everyone at the table. “Is the food good? ‘Cause if the food’s not good, just tell me. I’ll do something about it.” With their collective nods and smiles, the diners wordlessly assure him that everything is fine. He strides on.
The man works the room much like a politician. He swoops from table to table, conveying intimacy without getting bogged down by it, quickly releasing himself from each group to earn some more votes elsewhere. Given that the restaurateur is James Carville, this personal style shouldn’t come as such a shock. He’s surprisingly lean and lanky, at least in relation to his head, which is, of course, the part of his body that we’ve all seen so many times before. Just not in person.
It would be too much to say that Carville is a natural in his new role. Great front-of-the-house guys bring a certain calm to the dining rooms under their command, and calm does not come easily to Carville. He’s a bit fidgety; his body is always cocked to pounce. But like all great political operators, he knows how his schtick will play to an audience, and the audience at West 24, the restaurant that Carville opened with his wife, Mary Matalin, is one he knows pretty well.
Go on the right night, and West 24 can make the Palm seem utterly secular by comparison. I personally know a grand total of one certifiable political operator. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years. Then I run into him at West 24. Twice. Once, he’s with Lisa Myers. The night of my third visit, an organization called Politicalchicks.com has a table set up outside. Inside, there’s a party being thrown by the Young Republicanswhich, honest to God, I always assumed was a punch line, as opposed to a real-life organization.
Whether or not West 24 weathers into the kind of institution that all political hangouts aim to become obviously remains to be seen. But it’s not off to a bad start. Tahoga and Red Sage alumnus James Reppuhn dollops mounds of sturgeon, whitefish, and salmon roe atop corn blini rounds and calls it “American caviar”; fries soft-shells to a crackery crispness; sets pan-roasted cod in a pool of wild-mushroom-studded sweet yellow-corn sauce that I’d gladly eat with a spoon from a bowl; and throws smoky nubs of andouille sausage into an oyster-crawfish seafood stew to create a “redneck bouillabaisse.” The crust of an apple turnover flakes and flakes and flakes. It’s all quite good. And that’s just one meal.
Southern cuisine, from its haute incarnations to fried chicken served in a bucket to the modestly rendered dishes of West 24, is pretty blunt food, and its proud lack of nuance should play well with Crossfire junkies. The food isn’t priced to shock (most entrees fall in the $17 to $19 range; lunch is cheaper), and it’s not prepared to, either. Curling jumbo shrimp around andouille coins is about as showy as Reppuhn getsand even then he pairs the arrangement with grits and succotash. Granted, a more exacting kitchen would probably insist that fried green tomatoes be made with green tomatoes (ours are red) or that a tossed salad contain pristine greens.
But West 24’s kitchen generally does an admirable job of presenting unsullied Southern fare that’s worthy of feeding to valuable allies. The extra side dishes tend to fall flat; both the sautéed kale and the stewed tomatoes and green beans are watery. But vegetables can be handled with a certain grace. The chilled, jalapeño-sharpened yellow-tomato soup is clean and meana diner at a table nearby dubs it “ragin’ gazpacho.”
Hardy entrees are the kitchen’s forte. Both the grilled veal chop and pork rib chop are thick, juicy, and pink as you want them to be; the former is served nestled against a buttery jumble of herbed spaetzle and glazed turnips, the latter with creamy, polentalike grits. One entree includes a crisp-skinned, confit duck leg and tender hunk of breast, but your attention will likely be held by the crunchy risotto-and-wild-rice cake lurking near the plate’s edge. Similarly, the soft, steamy cornbread-sausage stuffing bursting from the cavity of a roasted quail is reason enough to book a table. Slop the stuff around in the viscous pan gravy and you might just consider not heading home for Thanksgiving this year.
West 24’s basement-level dining room is wrapped in cherry wood and French country landscape paintings. If for some reason you woke up here from a long dream, you might guess that you’d landed in the Upper East Side. But even a delirious person would soon catch the scent of Washington blowing through West 24’s air. Politics are inescapable. In the bar, it’s the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners and White Sox are tied, and all of the televisions are tuned to the Debatewhich hasn’t even started.
West 24, 1250 24th St. NW, (202) 331-1100.
Saigon Star is a clean corner restaurant on Broad Street that serves fabulous spring rolls with a chunky, hot peanut sauce that you will wish were available by the jar. But pho is the Vietnamese restaurant’s attractionit’s what everyone is eating here at three in the afternoon, and one imagines that the same would be true at the proper dinner hour. You can see through the broth despite its dark, complex helix of flavors. The thin meat slices absorb the perfect amount of juiceeat the whole, beefy, noodley bowl with chopsticks, and you’ll still feel the hot broth sliding all over your tongue. Go ahead: Pile on the sprouts. You’ll want the bowl to last as long as it can.
Saigon Star, 1113 W. Broad St., Falls Church, (703) 241-8582. Brett Anderson
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