Ever get the feeling that the grand plan for “revitalization” involves nothing more than Xeroxing Tysons Corner and faxing it downtown? If it can happen in Times Square, it can certainly happen in D.C. Questionable taste already prevails: Ever see the lines at the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood? Not to mention that the MCI Center is hardly more than a food court with two-star prices.
To some degree, restaurateurs hold the key to what could either become a classy downtown rebirth or a hack Disneylandor, if BET Holdings honcho Robert L. Johnson has any say, perhaps a little of both. His latest enterprise, BET on Jazz, is a glittery, yupscale vamp on the company’s existing suburban concept, BET Soundstage, and if first impressions count for anything, Johnson’s found a groove.
So call a few days in advance, at least: Where all these people ate before this place came along is beyond me. In terms of pure demographic coddling, black D.C. has been famously ignored by the city’s restaurant community, and BET on Jazz is no Georgia Brown’s. This place is too sexy to become an equal-opportunity power haunt: Sam Donaldson would probably turn into a bat when faced with all of BET’s artificial moonlight, and the outgoing mayor is the only politician in town with the clothes, not to mention the allegiances, to really work this room.
The interior is a two-story supper-club throwback that urges patrons to order champagne and catch a contact high off the decor. Wall-side booths are angled open to invite visitors to stop by. Fresh orchids sit atop every table, and the entrances are flanked by statues of disembodied heads and limbs playing jazz instruments. On most nights, entertainment appears in the form of one Big Brother-sized screen above the neon-lit bar and a smattering of small monitors elsewhere. Naturally, the programming comes courtesy of BET.
The profusion of boob tubes is enough to prompt a guy at the bar to ask if dinners come on TV trays; a fair and funny enough question it seems and then our food arrives. BET’s Caribbean cuisine is artful, daring (if you’ve never indulged, now is the time to try ostrich), and marginally witty (“alligator pear” is avocado). And on our first visit, the food outshines even a neighboring diner’s flowing, shock-hued robe.
The compositions are dizzying without being overdone. Shrimp, bound with katafi, are transformed into pastries and paired with a bright smoked-marlin relish. Bahamian grouper, sauced with a biting citrus marinade that’s been reduced and finished with Bacardi, is nearly outdone by its accompanying mash of sweet potatoes and plantains. Lamb chops, stuck with a branch of fresh Jamaican thyme, ooze juice like a saturated sponge, so hang on to your bread basket. Even though our waiter greets us with a stock spiel about BET, he turns out to be funny (“If you’re not sick of bananas yet…”), and understands the menu enough (“I’m from the islands”) to come up with a cheap wine that pairs well with dishes that never commit to being sweet or savory. By the time we settle the tab, my friend is openly wishing his boss is in a soulful mood the next time she decides to blow a wad feeding her staff.
It’s a refreshing change, at a glam restaurant, for the biggest bang to actually come from the plate, but after a while the rest of BET seems to fight back, and eventually the taste turns sour. The menu’s got more drop-dead stunners red snapper is a poached cloud of delicate meat shot through with garlic and fume blanc; the silken, sherry-spiked pumpkin soup could give Henry Miller a boner but on later visits it seems that the kitchen has forgotten how to bring on the funk. Both the grilled pork chops and the sauteed swordfish are doorstops, and many dishes, especially the salads, are marred by produce that passed its prime days ago. If you’re in the mood for duck, save your money and walk to Chinatown.
Worse is the increasing feeling that you’re sitting in some Epcot version of the Cotton Club the restaurant’s even got a gift shop. As an idea, a free jazz club with good food is a welcome one; just try the food at Blues Alley. But the appeal of BET on Jazz’s vibe lasts only as long as your tolerance for Johnson’s notion that live jazz doesn’t have to involve live people. The only night we’re entertained by an actual band, the singer spends most of his time displaying a strange repertoire of facial tics that we eventually discover are exaggerated winks directed toward women at the bar. On the rest of our visits, we’re treated to cable television, which is hardly the mood-setter that the big screen suggests it to be.
Emboldened by a friend who manages to get into any restaurant wearing flip-flops, I dress down for a lunch visit and am nearly denied entrance to an empty room. The TVs are in screen-saver mode, displaying only the BET logo. There’s a disc playing, and no one seems to notice that it skips.
BET on Jazz Restaurant, 730 11th St. NW, (202) 393-0975.
Apparently unamused by omelets, one reader insists that “waffles are the only way to eat eggs at breakfast.” And until I visit The Waffle Shop, I assume she’s talking about the egg in the batter. But it turns out that patrons of the breakfast-counter restaurant consider the titular item to be nothing more than a side dish. “Two eggs over hard, bacon, hash browns, and a waffle,” is one man’s request. Another calls for “a waffle, an egg-and-sausage sandwich, and grits.” Truth be told, my order is a little more than I can handle but let it be known that syrup pairs surprisingly well with a ham-and-cheese omelet.
The Waffle Shop, 3864 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, (703) 836-8851.