- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

It’s a rainy Monday night only days after the May 18 opening, but Jamie Leeds’ new restaurant, Hank’s Oyster Bar, is so crowded there’s a wait for a table, albeit a short one. Hank’s doesn’t take reservations, although you can call half an hour ahead and put your name on the waiting list.

Ms. Leeds has a considerable following from her fine cooking at 15 Ria a few blocks away on Rhode Island Avenue NW, and it’s true that the Dupont East neighborhood was waiting for a high-quality casual restaurant. Nevertheless, such instant success is quite a phenomenon.

The chef named her new restaurant, in what was Trio’s Pizza carry-out on Q Street, just east of 17th Street, for her father, “an avid fisherman, who loved to cook and dine on seafood.” Hank’s feels like an old New Orleans oyster bar and seafood restaurant — Acme, Felix (and the Claiborne Oyster House of yore) come to mind.

Hank’s is a genuine neighborhood place with daily specials scrawled on a blackboard, a welcoming and knowledgeable staff at the front door, and simply prepared, reasonably priced good food. Some of Ms. Leeds’ sauces are complex, but the effect is one of simplicity and the ingredients remain the stars of the day.

A reasonable wine list of about 10 each of reds and whites, most available by the glass, represent international wine-growing areas. Hank’s also offers four sparkling wines, four dessert wines and a dozen beers; the beer on tap is American. Czech, Belgian and other brews are available in the bottle. Sourdough bread is crusty and fresh, reminiscent of the San Francisco classic.

The menu, featuring an ice bar, small and large plates and a daily “meat and two,” changes frequently, reflecting what’s available in the market. Oysters can be ordered on the half shell, or in a po’ boy sandwich. They are fresh as can be. The shrimps in the shrimp cocktail (at $1.75 each) are large and very good.

Popcorn shrimp and calamari comprise an extraordinary appetizer, just as they were at 15 Ria. The tiny morsels are coated in batter and rapidly deep fried so they remain tender and sweet. Served with an excellent ravigote sauce, the dish is easily shared.

If you’re not a fan of calamari, the kitchen will make it all shrimp for a $5 surcharge. On one visit there was a shade too much batter on the tiny morsels and it was difficult to tell which were calamari and which were shrimp. But on a second visit the popcorn shrimp came to the table piping hot, clearly distinguishable and utterly irresistible.

New England clam chowder, a Caesar salad and a crab cake are other small plates on the menu. Seared tuna in a spicy soy vinaigrette arrived on a special small plate at a recent dinner. Three good-sized tuna rounds were cut about a quarter-inch thick and served in a soy vinaigrette. The dish is a good one, and would have been even better with less soy. The delicate flavor of the fish was submerged in the salty soy. Nice idea, though.

There are usually three or four daily fish specials. Soft shell crabs are in season just now, and Jamie Leeds’ soft shells are among the best in town. Whether sauteed and served on watercress with a sophisticated beurre blanc sauce as a large plate, or deep fried tempura style as a small plate, the crabs are terrific, perhaps her piece de resistance now.

Seared sea scallops, served on watercress, are simply grilled, tender and delicious. Whole striped bass, pan-roasted halibut and grilled swordfish have been on the menu recently as large plates. A classic New England lobster roll, served with good, crisp french fries, is another winner.

For those who don’t want fish, Hank’s presents a problem. The menu offers the Caesar salad, a market vegetable plate and a hamburger. In addition, Chef Leeds prepares a daily meat dish including two of the menu’s half dozen sides (diner’s choice). But at 8:30 on a recent evening, our waiter announced that the kitchen had “run out” of hamburger, and the only meat of the day was a pork chop. This should not happen so early in the evening; a Safeway is a block away.

On Monday, the meat of the day is braised short ribs; a pork chop on Wednesday, roast chicken on Thursday, steak on Friday and Saturday and meatloaf on Sunday. Hank’s goes dark on Tuesday. The short ribs, for example, are rich and moist, cooked slowly in molasses. Excellent. With a side of roasted golden and red beets and “mac and cheesy,” Monday is a fine home-style treat.

Most of the large plates are serve unadorned, so all of the vegetables, which include spinach, coleslaw, onion rings and french fries, can be ordered as a side for $2 or $4.

For the present, Hank’s does not serve desserts, but diners do get a little plate of good chocolate chunks. Desserts, or a dessert of the day, may come later. Lunch, too, may be added later but for now the restaurant is open only for dinner six nights a week and for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

Tables are close together, so it’s noisy for conversation, except for the conversations of neighbors. But that’s part of the experience. Hank’s Oyster Bar is a friendly and welcome addition to the neighborhood and Jamie Leeds’ cooking is consistently first class. Go, have fun and enjoy some fine fish. Good luck to the burgermen.

RESTAURANT: Hank’s Oyster Bar, 1624 Q St. NW; 202/462-4265.

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and until midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday

PRICES: Small plates $6 to $11; large plates $13 to $19

CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Mastercard, Visa

PARKING: Difficult street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle

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