News & Politics

August 2004 Hank’s Oyster Bar

An appealing neighborhood restaurant with flaws in both cooking and service.

Hank's Oyster Bar has shortcomings, but it's a smash hit with its neighborhood and worth a visit.

Arrive any evening much past 6 pm and you'll have a wait for a table at Hank's Oyster Bar, chef Jamie Leeds's new seafood restaurant. The place was an instant hit. It helps that she opened near a strip of 17th Street lined with an assortment of sandwich shops and low-priced food-as-fuel places that are supposed to appeal to the area's young residents. But Leeds, along with a few neighbors like chef Johnny Monis at nearby Komi, knows that her target audience has a more sophisticated appreciation of food than most places in the neighborhood offer.

Almost any evening finds Hank's packed with a cross-section of the neighborhood–groups of young people meeting for dinner, gay and straight couples out on dates, empty-nesters who have moved back into the city to live in a lively neighborhood. The volume is loud, the place is hopping–it feels like an urban restaurant.

Leeds has taken the premises of Trio Pizza & Subs, stripped out the dropped ceiling, and opened the place up to light and the sidewalk. The restaurant seats about 65, and in good weather, tables on the sidewalk seat another 20. A small bar, which serves beer and wine, seats eight and is often pressed into service for eating. The kitchen is small, and Leeds has kept her menu small–she's not offering dessert because she's reluctant to serve anything not house-made, and there's not space for a pastry kitchen.

Fans of Leeds's cooking at 15 Ria will notice several of her signature touches–a list of small plates that includes fried popcorn shrimp and calamari, and her Meat & Two specials, which change each day and come with a choice of side dishes. It's an appealing menu–raw-bar items, small plates, large plates, daily specials based on what's available, and side dishes–marred in the restaurant's early weeks by inconsistent performance.

Oysters on the half shell are a good way to start a meal at Hank's. Cold and briny, they're priced at about $2 each and come from a changing variety of regions. Another very good dish on the small-plates menu is Mediterranean-inspired griddled squid, the squid's tenderness and sweetness emphasized by the strong flavors of olives and capers. The crab cake is made with good lump crabmeat, but its texture is softer and creamier than the best versions around. Grilled scallops, a special one day, were perfectly cooked and nicely complemented by a peppery watercress salad. The daily Meat & Two special, priced from $15 to $19, is a good deal. One Wednesday's smothered pork chop, moist and tender, was accompanied by very good mac-and-cheese and terrific roasted beets. You can make a fine dinner of four home-style vegetable sides for a reasonable $16. Molasses-braised short ribs and citrus-roasted chicken are also very good.

The star of the menu is the lobster roll, a generous portion of lobster salad served New England­style on a buttered, toasted roll and accompanied by a pile of Old Bay­seasoned fries. The lobster roll–a regional American specialty perfectly done–is reason enough for a visit to Hank's. The oyster po' boy, on the same kind of roll, is less successful. New Orleans­style French bread with its soft interior and crackling crust is a better vehicle for fried oysters.

The problem with the kitchen is lack of consistency. Any restaurant with a menu that depends heavily on frying should do it perfectly, and the frying at Hank's has been far from perfect. The signature popcorn shrimp and calamari have been undercooked. French fries on one occasion were cold, on another soggy. A beautiful, plump soft-shell crab was fried until every drop of moisture was gone. Fried oysters were overcooked.

The other problem is service. The young waiters are pleasant enough when you get their attention, but they appear to have had little training. Tables go unattended while they chat on their cell phones or to one another.

Leeds has put together a very appealing wine list, with modestly priced ($19 to $49) wines that complement the mostly seafood menu. There's also a good selection of beers on tap and in bottles.

I like Hank's Oyster Bar. I'm happy to have it in the neighborhood, and despite its problems, I'll keep going. I hope its problems are the result of its being unprepared for immediate popularity. Leeds is a talented chef and has created an appealing restaurant that deserves the chance to live up to its potential.

Hank's Oyster Bar

1624 Q St., NW; 202-462-4265. Open Wednesday through Monday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Valet parking Thursday, Friday, and Saturday is $10. No reservations; call a half hour in advance to be put on the waiting list.

Atmosphere: A loud and popular restaurant in a busy urban neighborhood.

Food: Good seafood, inconsistently prepared. The Meat & Two specials provide a nod to carnivores.

Service: A young, often inattentive staff.

Price: Main courses, $13 to $19. Dinner for two, about $65.

Value: Often very good.

Bottom line: An appealing neighborhood restaurant with flaws in both cooking and service.