“It’s like they want us to move in,” says a friend halfway through a meal at the Hibiscus Cafe, where it seems our supply of water, wine, and coffee is replenished after every sip. I’d bark at her for being so easily taken in by the predictable pampering, but my thoughts are with Sharon, a gorgeous red wine and ginger sauce (yep, sauce Sharon) that’s ladled over my smoked rack of lamb in small pools. If I were paying attention, however, I’d have to agree with my date’s assessment of Hibiscus’ service. Honest to God, when the host compliments me on my outfit (T-shirt, bad shorts, shower sandals), I don’t think he’s trying to be funny.
Hibiscus’ staff pampers in an effort to be cool without sacrificing the elegance you expect when you unload the big bucks (around $17 an entree). The help is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and well-versed in both highfalutin foodspeak and casual profanity. “Shit’s good, isn’t it?” a server inquires about my smooth and creamy bowl of carrot-ginger soup.
It’s with genuine affection that our waiter on one night tells us of all the time he’d spent making better money at other restaurants only to return to the Hibiscus because it’s “just so fucking cool.” Dark because of a short supply of windows, as well as the shade of the highway that runs above it, the Hibiscus is like a space-age saloon, decorated by spastically shaped tables, pointy high-back chairs, and bright strips of lighting that look like remnants from a neon-factory explosion. Pump some smoke in and fill it with mercenary Martians, and the Hibiscus Cafe could be the cantina from Star Wars.
Our waiter’s life story is interrupted by a loud clank from the kitchen, which sits in plain view of the dining room, separated from it by a row of silver bars. The waiter explains that over the years (three to be exact) the Hibiscus has dabbled in brunches and lunches, but the workload has proved to be too heavy for the cooking staff, which is composed only of family members and the few others who know how to “get it right.” The kitchen now serves its Caribbean-inspired cuisine six nights a week.
Besides the ubiquitous jerk buffalo wings, Hibiscus’ appetizers are eclectically prepared seafoods: lightly seasoned shark sandwiched between slabs of deep-fried sourdough, jumbo shrimp with scotch bonnet peppers, fritters of seafood smothered in a cream sauce spiked with ginger. Hibiscus prepares a different soup fresh each day. Each of the ones we tried is a must, even at five bucks a bowl. The spinach and crabmeat in particular satisfies a craving we didn’t even know we had. After silently consuming the peppery broth, whose consistency and appearance resemble swamp water’s, another dining companion prone to existential mood swings confesses to feeling “vicious and mean.”
Hibiscus offers gourmet-style pizzas as main dishes, although we found they function best ordered as an appetizer, if not skipped altogether—the other entrees are simply too good to pass up. The seafood Creole, served over pasta with tomato sauce, isn’t as spicy as expected, reminding us more of an Italian than a Caribbean dish. But the shrimp, mussels, and chunks of salmon that tangle with the noodles are plentiful and undoubtedly fresh. The blackened red snapper (or mahi mahi on some nights), rolled in a zesty powder of Cajun spices, and the shrimp curry both require steady gulps of wine to combat the heat. The grilled salmon distinguishes itself with a bed of gingered black beans and the melodious avocado-mango vinaigrette that it swims in. Two chicken breast filets come stuffed with a spirited mix of crabmeat, spinach, and potato chunks that remarkably retain their cubed shape despite an almost liquid softness.
The encounters we have with our food at Hibiscus are vaguely sexual. Yet the allure of the restaurant remains puzzling. Before even meeting the waiter on her first visit, my existential friend proclaims Hibiscus her favorite restaurant save Nora but can’t even begin to say why. On a Saturday night, we broker a deal over the phone to score the chef’s table, located in the kitchen, figuring that we’d find the secret to Hibiscus’ appeal simmering over a stove. We don’t discover any magic, just a jerked quail, made plump with sweet potato mousse and covered with a smoky sauce that faintly reminds me of Sharon—we attack it like vultures. The kitchen is too orderly to make for interesting theater, and we don’t even get our asses kissed as on previous visits.
On the way out, the host who lined up the table doesn’t say anything about my clothes but instead thanks us for being polite. The next time in, my waiter asks if I want to order the lamb again, and another server nonchalantly asks if I’ve finished the book I’m reading, which I don’t even remember telling him about.
Hibiscus Cafe, 3401 K St. NW. (202) 965-7170.
Paru’s claims to be “the most authentic” Indian vegetarian restaurant in town. If you disregard the decidedly American decor—the dining room reminds me of the kitchen in an Iowa farmhouse—you have to agree. During lunch, Paru’s serves an assortment of specials for around six bucks apiece. A favorite is the platter of curries—I usually get the spinach (mild) and chickpeas (far from mild)—that comes with a parotta for dipping, a samosa, and a lassi (mango or regular). The women who run the place are, frankly, slow. So plan on wasting some time at the newsstand a few doors down while you wait.
Paru’s, 2010 S St. NW. (202) 483-5133.
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