By Elana Schor - 06/11/09 06:36 PM EDT
In Hollywood, the term “high-concept” describes movie ideas that can be summed up in a few words, such as the infamous “Snakes on a Plane.” But the term has acquired an equally concise meaning in Washington: nightlife on H Street NE.
H Street’s new era began in 2005 with a pirate-themed pub called The Argonaut. A circus-themed bar (Palace of Wonders) followed, as did a glamorous live music venue (Rock & Roll Hotel) and a temple for Belgian frites and beer (Granville Moore’s).
Those were opening acts for the ultimate in high-concept — the H Street Country Club, a marriage of indoor miniature golf with chic Mexican cuisine that tries to be both a high-end restaurant and a low-maintenance gaming parlor.
But the ultimate test is how many customers are satisfied. In that spirit, my experience is best evaluated in mini-golf style, with each element serving as one of nine holes.
Hole One: The Décor — Under Par
The first element inside that catches your eye is the row of mahogany lockers that line the wall. These throwbacks to 1960s gym class don’t actually open, but they set the mood for what’s to come.
Local artist Lee T. Wheeler designed the restaurant and the second-floor golf course, balancing whimsical and bizarre elements. On the upper level, pressed-tin sconces cast eerie light over a bar backed by glass panels filled with thousands of golf balls. Squirrels make frequent cameos, providing a Washington counterpart to “Caddyshack’s” gopher.
Hole Two: The Drinks — Par
The Country Club is the brainchild of Joe Englert, who opened The Big Hunt before remaking H Street. Libations are undoubtedly his forte, and Englert delivers a sophisticated menu that riffs on classic tequila drinks and working-class standards you may not have swilled since college — the “Par Bar,” for one, is a combination of sweet tea-flavored vodka and fresh lemonade. The El Luchador is downright addictive; top-shelf Sauza tequila with muddled cilantro, cucumber and jalapeño.
The beer list features Mexican favorites such as Dos Equis and Modelo, at twice the price of a less high-concept bar. To score the highest on this hole, grab a pitcher of the classic margaritas laden with fresh lime; it can satisfy five drinkers for under $30.
Hole Three: The Bar Menu — Under Par
On the ground floor, an affordable array of small plates hits the Tex-Mex mark. The queso dip is powered by a slightly bitter blast of beer and the piquant snap of pickled jalapeños, while the tamales are filled with lean beef and simmered in a smoky red chile sauce. The nachos are good enough to be added to the classier upstairs menu.
Hole Four: The Appetizers — Over Par
Appetizers in the upstairs dining room have less of an impact than the main courses. Indeed, the club manages to produce a guacamole that’s upstaged by perfectly salted chips.
The lobster tostada is uneven, its lime-and-mayonnaise dressing coating a helping of frisee greens but just three bite-sized chunks of shellfish. The standout is the sopa de pan, a hearty tomato-based soup chock-full of olives, sweet currants and croutons.
Hole Five: The Entrees — Par
Cashion designed the menu, proving an expertise with Mexican flavors that should not surprise fans of Taqueria Nacional, her lunchtime gem on the Senate side of the Capitol. The entrees are not cheap, but the portions are perfect for sharing and their sauces rival the best of Jose Andres’s Latin American cuisine.
Fish is too often smothered in cheese and grease by subpar Mexican chefs, but the Country Club keeps it simple with a seared snapper Veracruz served on tomatoes, onions and capers. The lamb enchiladas employ homemade corn tortillas with a hint of sweetness that nicely complements the spicy braised meat.
While the pork rib carnitas are not as crispy or juicy as they appear when floating out of the kitchen, the duck chilaquiles are dense, with meat tasting of coriander and garlic that falls off the bone onto a mélange of cheese and tomatillo.
Hole Six: The Golf — Over Par
It’s impossible to have a bad time playing putt-putt, but even easygoing players will be turned off by the difficulty of the course; while unfailingly clever, it is poorly designed in spots.
I watched the tunnel in the National Cathedral hole spit three balls off the green. The Lincoln Memorial was another near-disaster, with golfers whacking their balls up an 80-degree slope from the makeshift reflecting pool.
About half the holes lack the AstroTurf that usually slows down balls in play. Tension increases as the 20-something crowd drinks more, seemingly leading to destructive moments: the K Street “Lego Lawyers” hole was broken during my visits, and the Club has closed it for maintenance on some nights.
Hole Seven: The Games — Under Par
Pool, shuffleboard and skee-ball are on the ground floor at prices comparable to other Washington nightspots. There are only two tables of each game, which can make for a long wait during happy hour.
Still, the distance between the gaming area and the bar means you’ll never miss a shot bumping into the tipsy stranger behind you. The skee-ball is exactly as you might remember from childhood. Happily, there are no flimsy tickets that lure skee-ballers into misguided attempts to win stuffed animals or plastic jewelry.
Hole Eight: The Service — Over Par
The par on this hole should be set higher than others, given the challenges of satisfying thirsty players while juggling food menus. Even so, the servers’ skills vary.
Twice in one visit, a server on the top level insisted diners navigate downstairs crowds to find drinks they were allegedly “out” of on the second-floor bar. On both occasions, she was contradicted by colleagues who quickly produced the drinks in question.
Hole Nine: The Desserts — Under Par
The Club shoots under par here with ample portions and inventive presentation. The pineapple chimichanga is a textural marvel, combining the spicy crunch of a cinnamon-grilled tortilla with the ambrosia of roasted tropical fruit.
The coconut flan also uses warm pineapple to great effect, though the curls of fried dough dusted in powdered sugar called bunuelos would be better without the honey coating.
Averaging my scores yields a favorable rating, but all interested players should try the Country Club for themselves. It may be high-concept, but it’s also eager to please.