St. James Restaurant Rating: Bring fun and flavor to the Caribbean

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If everything had gone according to plan, St. James would have opened last fall and Jeanine Prime and her brother, chef Peter Prime, would split their time between Cane, their popular Trinidad outpost in northeast Washington, and their more upscale establishment on 14th Street NW.

Instead, St. James launched in May with Jeanine as the sole owner and two chefs — Mexican-born Alfredo Romero Contreras and El Salvadoran Emma Hernandez — overseeing the kitchen. Chef Prime is now fully committed as a partner at Bammy’s, another source of island food in Navy Yard.

Copy all that? The pandemic has a way of messing up good intentions. It’s important to note that Washington has another spot to tackle jerk wings and accras, which can be washed back with serious rum drinks in a two-story dining room designed with views of the owner’s Trinidad home.

“When I return home, I’m struck by the abundance,” says Prime. “Green is everywhere.” Even in the light-filled St. James, green is everywhere: in the gleaming front of the bar, on the plant-filled shelves behind it, and most importantly, on the plates that fill your table as you browse the menu move callaloo, the moss-colored soup thick with spinach and kale, simmered with coconut milk and topped with sweet crab. As fate would have it, Prime’s landlord is also from Trinidad.

Don’t expect a quiet evening. St. James is named after the lively nightlife district in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, an attribute that is captured in the dining room’s hustle and bustle as the night progresses. (In case you haven’t noticed, quiet restaurants have gone the way of payphones.) The energy of Trinidad’s street vendors is also “inspiration for our service style,” says Prime, whose youthful waiters are adept at describing the small plates that make up the menu .

Your eyes will light up with approval when you say “Jerk Wings”. Your tongue will thank you later. St. James dips his wings in “green spices” overnight — a cheeky concoction of culantro, oregano, thyme, scallions, lime and garlic — and jerky spices before simmering them in a smoker for several hours. The resulting stack is so fluffy that the juicy chicken barely sticks to the bones.

i will be honest I was initially dismayed to hear that Peter Prime, whose work at the aptly named Spark (but has since closed) first crushed me, would not be part of St. James. However, in collaboration with Jeanine Prime, her chefs bring admirable finesse to much of the menu. Hernandez, 30, cooked with Peter Prime at Sparks, helped open Cane and spent time in the pastry shop at late and royal Punjab Grill. Contreras, 39, is a veteran of Georgetown’s well-respected Fiola Mare.

If possible, avoid ordering your entire meal at once. Food flies from the kitchen and is sometimes held up in the dining room as guests scramble to clear the jetway, er, table, for incoming plates. Certain arrivals deserve leisurely recognition, dishes like Pork Pow, slightly chewy Chinese steamed buns stuffed with juicy, crumbled pork and lit with Habanero sauce. Or the aforementioned Callaloo, whose red oil surface hints at the Cayenne punch to come and whose body is deeper for a spritz of oxtail juice.

The appetizer that best aligns with the restaurant’s slogan, “Modern Caribbean,” is Salt Cod Crudo, lightly salted black cod cut into firm white ribbons and presented on a black plate lined with bright yellow, orange, and decorated with pastel green purees. The fun is in showing off the purees and testing your limits. The colors more or less follow road signs. Green goes with avocado, yellow tastes of curry and onion, and orange keeps you from tasting anything but the fire of Scotch Bonnet Chilis for a few moments. (Ouch. I love it!)

An ocean of rum, mostly from family-run producers in the Caribbean, dominates the bar, led by Glendon Hartley, founder of the Service Bar on U Street and son of West Indian immigrants. His signature cocktail is Pineapple Chow with Angostura White Oak Trinidadian Rum, a floral, grassy, ​​and citrusy base for a drink that blends fresh pineapple juice, lime, and culantro, an herb that resembles coriander but is spicier. The pale yellow libation is topped off with a hint of black pepper and is easy to slurp through dinner.

There’s more where that came from; St. James stocks about 50 rums. Hartley channels his mother and grandmother’s cooking with a pleasantly plant-based rum punch flavored with passion fruit liqueur, lemon, mint and most importantly paprika, the bite and floral notes of which are reminiscent of teenage meals bygone.

Of course, St. James wants you to try its cocktails, as the alcoholic alternatives are fewer than 10 wines and beers — total.

Rum isn’t limited to the bar. The spirit is also used to color and sweeten the gravy for the brown chicken stew, another small plate to consider. The sauce, a combination of soy sauce, tomato paste and butter, is intense and delicious.

A few dishes could use more attention. The crunchy aloo pies have so little of their promised potato filling that you wonder if anyone forgot to fill the packets with fried bread. And the fist of grilled oxtail, while shiny and sprinkled with brightly colored chilies, goes down like roast beef that’s exceeded its capacity in the oven.

The staff looks forward to your satisfaction and checks in like helicopter parents. Some guests like the excitement. Others could use fewer circles. Whichever way you choose, the excitement feels real.

The stunner, akin to an Indian thali, is meant for a group: a spread of braised beef, goat, smoked garlic eggplant, and curried chickpeas, arranged in small bowls on a platter and accompanied by flaky paratha, which you tear off and bite into to scoop and whisk sauces. The beef, softened by low, slow cooking, benefits from the house green spices and a dash of culantro. The goat, similarly cooked, is spiced up with ginger and garlic.

You are on Restaurant Row on 14th Street. But a festival like this puts you close to surf, sun and sand.

2017 14th St. NW. 202-627-2981. Open: Indoor dining 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: appetizers $10-30, entrees $16-60 (for paratha platter). Soundcheck: 84 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance; Toilets are ADA compliant. Pandemic Protocols: Employees are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.

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