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Chef Rusty Holman, the chef at Eatonville

My tablemate and I are sitting at a two-top by the large picture window at Eatonville, which provides a semi-comfortable, climate-controlled view of the parade of mini-skirts and flesh that walks up and down the bustling 14th Street NW corridor.  We’re half way through our appetizers when the food runner brings our entrees. She seems oblivious to the fact that we’re still eating our first course; she’s also a little slow on the basic laws of physics. Our tiny table barely contains all the plates she has just unceremoniously dropped off, her job here done.

The fact is, I really want more time to savor chef Rusty Holman‘s cheddar tart, this precisely executed savory pastry crammed with white cheddar, roasted tomato, and Vidalia onions, all topped with a weedy garden of microgreens. The tart is the perfect appetizer — balancing flavors and textures and temperatures with the kind of verve seen by circus bears on bicycles. (I mean that in the best way possible, really.)

The tart gives me hope that owner Andy Shallal, better known for his playpens for bleeding hearts, has indeed picked the right person to lead Eatonville’s kitchen following his ill-fated chef-search contest. But then we dig into those entrees waiting for us on the table’s edge. My “crispy chicken breast” is an odd almalgamation of fried and smothered chicken, a hulking piece of breast meat, dry and flavorless underneath its thick coating, which is not redeemed by its mushroom gravy. The “fish and grits” is a plate brimming with fried catfish, bland and muddy, which provides little satisfication without a generous scoop of jalapeno-cheddar grits to accompany it.

I would like to report that I could wash away the bad taste in my mouth with my Blue Lemon Drop, but I can’t stomach another swallow of the cocktail, which goes down like sugary, blueberry-scented serum. Instead, I’m left to drink in the wild ambiance of Shallal’s Eatonville, an homage to Zora Neale Hurston, which feels like Tobacco Road meets the antebellum charm of Gone with the Wind meets the post-radical elements of commercial graffiti art. I have to say, I’m quite fond of the interior-design mashup.