- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Can you judge a book by its cover? “Yes,” said a colleague recently, “That’s why I never read ‘Anna Karenina.’ ”

Too terrifyingly thick?

The same colleague also said about the Argonaut, an unassuming-looking restaurant at the intersection of H Street and Maryland Avenue Northeast — a crime-prone spot of the District — “You took your kids there? What were you thinking?”

Too terrifying?

OK, so the neighborhood and the Argonaut’s appearance leave something to be desired, but if you give this place a chance, it just might pleasantly surprise you.

We went on a Wednesday night when the restaurant serves free children’s food and “SpongeBob SquarePants” plays on all screens.

Fun and worthwhile — at least for the children.

Except the waiters were entangled in some kind of silent, internal tiff that caused us and a few others to be ignored for 10 to 15 minutes.

What to do next? Leave? Complain?

As we were scheming about our next move, the waiters ceased being seized up, and a couple of 90-Minute IPAs and some chocolate milks arrived quickly. The evening continued in much the same fashion. The staff was attentive and informative and left no dirty dishes untouched or orders in limbo.

Billed as an old-English-style tavern, the space is dimly lit and furnished with mismatched chairs and tables, in line with the exterior. To some, this calculated shabbiness will be quaint; to others, it might seem pretentious.

The reviews of the food, though, should be more homogenous, whether you’re on the quaint or pretentious team — because the food here goes beyond being just that. It’s more sophisticated than most bar food and features coastal fare from Chesapeake oysters to California-style fish tacos.

Speaking of which, the tacos are fabulous and, at $11, a good value. The crispy tilapia is accompanied by two sauces: salsa cruda with its biting lime-chili-cilantro flavor and a rich-creamy remoulade. The dish also comes with a tasty cabbage-cilantro slaw and slices of perfect, fresh avocado (a test for a restaurant). In this case, the grade was made.

Other winning dishes were the shrimp and grits served with collard greens and the delectable black beans - they must have been simmering for hours.

The only ill-conceived dish we encountered was the Dutch East India salad, a concoction of lemon- and curry-spiked lump crab meat, papadum crisps and mango pickle. We’re all for complex flavor combinations, but there still needs to be some cohesion, and this dish had none.

The children’s menu — though consisting mostly of the usual dishes such as macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders — offers a welcome smaller version of fish tacos and sides of fresh fruit.

True to its “tavern” billing, the restaurant also serves a long list of beers — many of them craft brews — and a respectable number of wines, mostly domestic.

So, it would be said of the Argonaut that it has something for everyone, and somebody even said it’s a place for foodies. We won’t go that far, but in terms of value, food preparation and atmosphere, the Argonaut far exceeds first impressions, and it’s no wonder it has become a favorite neighborhood joint for many locals.

So, no you can’t always judge a book by its cover — or a restaurant by its facade.

RESTAURANT: The Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE, 202/397-1416

HOURS: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. (dinner served until 11 p.m.) Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday (dinner served until midnight); 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday (dinner served until 11 p.m.)

PRICES: $5 to $12 starters, $9 to $21 entrees, $7 desserts

PARKING: Limited street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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