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Right off the crush of U Street NW is the breezy, bubbling St. James. The sophomore effort from restaurateur Jeanine Prime, owner of the Michelin-rated Cane on H Street NE, it’s a tribute to Caribbean cuisine with an emphasis on the traditions of her native Trinidad. The name nods to a lively neighborhood in the island’s capital, Port of Spain.
The lushness and light of her homeland inspired Prime as she designed the space. Bottles, with pops of greenery behind them, line the bar on the left side of the main room, with banquettes on the right, high-tops down the center, and a palm frond mural on the back wall. With soaring ceilings, a second level perches in the back, providing extra seating or a private event space. Two-story windows in front let in a wash of sunshine, complemented by funky, filament-bulbed fixtures at varying heights. The nearly 70-seat layout invites you to hang out for a while, have some good conversations, and really get into it.
To help loosen tongues, there’s a rum-heavy cocktail program overseen by Glendon Hartley, co-founder of Service Bar on U Street, recently named one of “North America’s 50 Best Bars,” and Bar Amazonia in Blagden Alley. More than 50 different rums are on hand, including a number sourced from across the Caribbean: Appleton, El Dorado, and Plantation. For something nonalcoholic, order a Scotch bonnet fizz—just the right amount of sweetness and spice play well together with a bell pepper undertone.
Let’s talk about the food. It was supposed to have been overseen by Jeanine’s brother, chef Peter Prime, but shortly before St. James opened, he announced he was moving on to head up the kitchen at Bammy’s, the Caribbean restaurant in Navy Yard opened by Maydan veterans Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison. Now Emma Hernandez oversees the kitchens at St. James and Cane, while Alfredo Romero Contreras, a Fiola Mare alum, is head chef of St. James.
Working with Jeanine Prime, the chefs assembled a menu borrowing from the sweep of the Caribbean. Pork pow—think Trini bao buns—are plump with ground pork amped up with ginger, a few alliums, and the requisite Scotch bonnet chilies. Dip them into the side of seasoned oyster sauce for the full effect. Aloo and channa pies are another winning way to begin, evoking iconic Trinidadian doubles sandwiches. Fried dough gets cracked open so cumin and garlic spiced potatoes can be slipped inside, then topped with curried chickpeas, culantro, and tamarind.
Salt cod crudo pushes boundaries. Tender ribbons of fish come surrounded by big flavors: a hot dot of red aji chilies, a yellow pop of curried onions, and svelte light green spots of whipped avocado.
Moving to mains, tradition regains the upper hand. Highlights include brown stew chicken, grilled oxtails, and pork swimming in a coconut milk sauce with provisions (shorthand for root vegetables, such as taro, yam, and breadfruit).
The star of the show is the built-to-be-shared paratha platter, a rip and dip extravaganza. Four bowls take center stage: murtani (a chunky curry of fire roasted tomatoes, eggplant, and okra), aloo channa (curry-kissed chickpeas and potatoes), and beef and bone-in lamb chunks, each braised low and slow with an island curry blend and Trinidadian green seasoning (a flavor building, foundational mixture of onions, garlic, culantro, Scotch bonnet chilies, and lime). Pull off flayed bits of paratha bread to grab a bit here, a bit there. Finish with a dunk in pineapple, tamarind, and culantro sauces on the side. No two bites are exactly the same, keeping things interesting to the last shred of bread.
Don’t feel ashamed if you order this heady spread as a solo diner. I proudly enjoyed it all by my lonesome and was more than happy to enjoy the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Desserts get a helping hand from Prime’s high school friend Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, now a celebrated D.C. pastry chef and owner of Souk and The Sweet Lobby on Barracks Row. She makes the ginger-laced chocolate mousse dotted with crunchy chocolate pearls and featherweight profiteroles that get pocketed with house-made ice cream lashed with sauce (think coconut ice cream accented by ginger caramel). The kitchen team also produces a vivacious mango sorbet offset with sorrel syrup boasting rhubarb-style tang.
The night I visited was my server’s birthday. I knew this because she was wearing a prom-style sash emblazoned with the phrase “Birthday Babe.” She was turning 20, finally an adult after two years of “adult-ish.” I asked why 21 isn’t the bar for adulthood in her book. “Now that I’m paying rent and tuition, that feels grown up,” she cheerily shot back, before adding she was looking forward to the cupcakes her coworkers bought her to help celebrate after work.
There were a couple of small hiccups with the service—one dish misdelivered; another forgotten; each quickly fixed—but it was otherwise engaged, energetic, and relentlessly smiley. This is the kind of place where I wanted to make friends with whomever was at my table. The food will keep bringing me back, but I’ll want to linger because of the people.
St. James, 2017 14th St. NW (202) 627-2981. stjames-dc.com