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It’s easier to excuse surly service if the attitude is tempered with wit. For most of the evening, the behavior of our waitress at the Islander is excusable.
She acts like a funny and smart woman who goes about her sometimes thankless job with sarcastic detachment. Cold at first, she forces us to earn her attention. When it comes, she’s so genuinely charming that we don’t care much when she does things like disappearing for so long that we figure she has suddenly quit. Interaction between wait staff and customers can be so phony that we learn to appreciate this woman for succumbing to wild mood swings; at any moment it seems she could erupt with anger or regale us with acerbic cracks. Eventually, though, the humor comes at our expense.
The Islander was located in Adams Morgan for years. When it reopened on U Street in March, the restaurant brought with it a reputation for reliable, authentic Caribbean cuisine. During the first part of our meal, the Islander’s reputation is upheld. Both the chana (chickpea curry) and callaloo (pureed spinach with Caribbean herbs) are warm and relaxing, served like soup in small bowls that we pass around the table. The mango wings aren’t some sweet version of a bar-food staple but a sassy house specialty with crisp, slightly tart pieces of meat. Since the plantains are deliciousdark and a little oilywe don’t bother telling our waitress that we didn’t order them.
It’s possible, I suppose, that our silence has brought on a wave of bad karma. By the time our appetizers are cleared, the quality of both our food and our waitress’s disposition is in a tailspin. When I order the beef roti, she engagingly explains that roti is a stew wrapped in a tortillalike flat bread. “You look like you’ve had Indian,” she says. “[Roti]’s like that.” Later, she returns to inform me that the kitchen has just run out of beef, commending my decision to order goat instead. Her mood then sours. She quits looking at us. Twice she removes unfinished bottles of beer from the table. She stops by once to tell me that goat roti is unavailable as well, so I order chicken. When the entrees finally arrive, she brings me the beef roti (lukewarm and bony) and offers no response when I ask her what the deal is. The calypso chicken is so dry that I ponder splashing it with beer to see if it shows signs of life. The pineapple shrimp is gooey.
There was a time when you wouldn’t think to gripe about a U Street restaurant located east of 14th Street. First of all, there weren’t many to complain about. And if there did happen to be a restaurant in the area, you would overlook its flaws because it seemed noble simply that the owner was trying to revive the area.
But U Street has changed. Thanks in large part to a steady stream of traffic created by the 9:30 Club, the formerly barren corridor east of 14th Street has sprouted a slew of new businesses. Night life is still the area’s stock in trade, but there’s considerable variety in the cuisine, from Blaze’s Southern barbecue to Dukem’s Ethiopian and Cafe Nema’s Mediterranean.
Wannabe’s, which opened shortly after the Islander, is another new addition to the area. The menu is mostly traditional American, but there are also some of the ethnic dishes that have become regular parts of many American diets: hummus, Greek and heart of palm salads, sesame noodles, vegetarian lasagna.
The food is always decent, but if it seems less than spectacular that’s because food isn’t really the point. “Just yell if you want something,” our waitress tells us. “Seinfeld’s on.” Like the neighboring Polly’s Cafe, Wannabe’s provides an environment for public vegging out; if you hang around long enough to grow bored, there’s a game room in back equipped with board games and Ms. Pac Man. In such an atmosphere, cut-to-the-chase service is halfway expected, but it’s never so terse that you don’t want to stick around. “Just get the chili,” my waitress tells me one night, when she tires of my indecision. “It’s good. If you don’t like it, I’ll bring out something else.”
The same sort of attitude doesn’t fly at the Islander, because its intentions are different. On a later visit, Islander owner/cook Addie Green comes out to mingle with the clientele. It’s the one night my dinner is excellent; the brown chicken stew is rich and complex, both sweet and spicy without ever leaning too far either way. While explaining to some diners the history of her restaurant and how she looks forward to its being the class act of the neighborhood, Green exudes the qualities necessary for the Islander to thrive: She’s amiable, proud, and loves the culture and cuisine that are her specialties. With the competition around the Islander growing steadily, here’s hoping the restaurant grows to more closely resemble the character of its owner.
The Islander Caribbean Restaurant and Lounge, 1201 U St. NW. (202) 234-4971.
Wannabe’s Restaurant, 1344 U St. NW. (202) 332-1166.
Judging from the crowd I’m standing behind, regulars of the Blue & White Carryout are a hefty breed. A passion for fried chicken does that to you. “We’ve been out of that for an hour,” a man in the window tells me when I try to order a breast. “It’s been flying out of here today.” The thigh I settle for is served between two pieces of white breadsponges, basically, for the oil and juice that drips from the spicy, pepper-flecked batter shell. A testament to the quality of the chicken: It’s the best white bread I’ve ever had.
Blue & White Carryout, 1024 Wythe St., Alexandria. (703) 548-3867.Brett Anderson
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