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The bartender at Ellis Island has a way with everyone he does business withthe waitresses who get a joke along with every drink order, the regular who’s thinking of leaving until he’s delayed by an on-the-house beer, the students from nearby Catholic University who buy round upon round of diet sodas just so they can continue to chat or flirt with the guy. When customers start a tab, the PR-magnate-in-the-making shakes their hands, welcomes them aboard, and invariably engages them in a conversation about sports. He knows how to play his customers, and I’m impressed, at first, when he writes me into his tune.
“You’ve been here before,” he says, handing me a menu. I nod yes. He guesses that I ordered the chicken last time. No. “The salmon?” Nuh-uh. “Oh, man. A pizza?” Sorry, dude. It was the flank steak, conservatively seasoned, cooked rare, sliced thin, and served over steamed garlic-spinach with a heaping side of mashed potatoes. That was his next guess, he says.
The barkeep is hardly going out on a limb marking me for a regulareveryone at Ellis Island is a regular. It’s no short Metro ride from here to Northwest. And, as a neighborhood dentist tells me on one visit, if you live in Northeast Washington, “there isn’t anyplace else to go.”
Quality is relative to access, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town well knows. So while Ellis Island is certainly the best restaurant in its neighborhood, that doesn’t mean jack to someone who lives in, say, Adams Morgan. What matters is that it’s worth the effort to get there.
Kelly’s Ellis Island was opened three-and-a-half months ago by the people who run the Irish Timesfolks who aren’t famous for food as much as for converting camaraderie into a commodity. The menu provides a quick tour through the culinary mainstreamstandard bar food, pastas, gourmet pizzas, barbecue, great salads, and a few healthy chunks of meat. All of it’s better than expected.
EI does well with the staple appetizers. The calamari come with a tangy sun-dried-tomato-and-red-pepper dip that’s thick and strong, like a pesto. The fries are what we now commonly refer to as the “good kind”fresh-cut, with the skins intact. More interesting are the shellfish concoctions that eat like meals: a creamy oyster stew with potatoes and a black-pepper kick, and the mussels steamed in garlic, parsley, and white wine that come in ridiculously large portions (I count 19 bivalves).
The sandwichesbeef and veggie burgers, chicken breast, and turkeyare sloppy-huge and served with the good fries. The major sandwich twist is a spicy Italian sausage number that overflows a hard roll with peppers, onions, and a hot mustard sauce. (A warning: Do not eat this if you are planning to participate in any kind of physical exercise afterward.)
EI’s Italian cuisine is humdrum but rarely bad. Serving pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven no longer qualifies as an eclectic-cooking move. Still, EI’s best piesa hearty one with roasted chicken and tomatoes, a pungent three-cheese white pizza, and one graced with a colorful blend of roasted veggies and topped with fetaare without fault. The three pastas offered are recommended only if you’re not in the mood for anything else: The seafood fettuccine comes bathed in a tomato broth that’s too thin to bond the dish together, a light linguini with chicken, wild mushrooms, chive, and lemon needs to be rescued by parmesan, and the wood-oven-baked penne with chicken sausage is bone dry.
The menu claims a kinship with a commissioner at the original Ellis Island, who would thrill members of a particular ethnic group by serving their native cuisine, and at the same time pissing off everyone else. Ellis Island the restaurant, however, works to avoid a similar predicament by trying to provide something for all the regulars who don’t want to eat the same damn thing every night. By the look of it, EI is successful because it injects the atmosphere of a neighborhood bar into a family restaurant that serves food a shade fancier than home-cooked. (An example of why this is a valuable commodity: Dan’s in Adams Morgan is the only real neighborhood bar close to my house; I don’t even want to know if Dan’s serves food.) There’s even a cozy patio in the back alley.
The best meals seem almost out of place. I’ve never ordered a steak at the same joint I go to to watch the game, but EI’s T-bone is lovely, relatively cheap, and spruced up with sides of wilted spinach and creamy potatoes. The smoked-salmon filet and tuna steak are equally memorable, cooked rare if you want it, and animated by sauces (a smoked-pepper salsa on the salmon, au jus with the tuna) that you’d otherwise think had no business in a place that also features drink specials. The salads are fairly inventive (try the “uprooted,” a bed of greens topped with grilled vegetables and a tart herb dressing), the pork falls easily away from the ribs, and the wood-roasted half-chicken is just plain comforting.
These are the types of meals I spot most of the people ordering and also the ones the staff will recommend if asked. I don’t blame them. “I’m going to be eating here a lot,” says one guy who’s just been set up with a free brew by the bartender. “I don’t want no damn downtown food. That’s why I’m not downtown.”
Kelly’s Ellis Island, 3908 12th St. NE. (202) 832-6117.
A reader recommended GW’s as a “good family place,” but frankly this is not what I expected. There’s a picture of John Wayne on the wall, a used-car lot across the street, and some dude on the jukebox singing about how he doesn’t know his wife’s name. I can’t find the balls to try the reader’s favorite, a burger topped with barbecued pork, so I compromise and order a grilled cheese with bacon. The only thing that signifies “family” during my visit is a baby who makes a brief appearance in the arms of a woman who has stopped in to ask for directions. The kid’s crying.
GW’s, 1319 King St., Alexandria. (703) 739-2274.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.