Never do business with your family is a common refrain in the human civilization based on enduring patterns where some businesses run by family members together never even materialize and/or the new business that eventually materializes turns out to be quite bad. Whatever the story behind St. James, a much-anticipated modern Caribbean restaurant supposed to be run by siblings Peter Prime and Jeanine Prime that ended up opening with just the sister Jeanine (with the brother Peter no longer involved and also leaving H Street’s Caribbean restaurant Cane; the reason for the shocking break-up is not publicly known), my wife Jun and I had high hopes for this newcomer with a name inspired by a popular district within Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain. One of our biggest regrets since we had moved to DC last year would likely be to miss our chance to visit Cane while it was a critical darling in the DC dining scene with chef Peter at the helm because St. James was just not very good.
I admit we are not experts in the Caribbean cuisine, which has rich heritage with diverse influences from West Africa, East India, Europe and elsewhere in the world combining into a fascinating melting pot of food. That does not mean, however, we don’t have the sense to appreciate when a food is delicious or not. We didn’t expect the salt-fish fritters (accras) to have the surprisingly tough texture outside; if that is the way the fish was to be battered and fried in the Caribbean tradition, so be it but it was hard to tell whether the way the dish was prepared was intentional. Same goes for jerk wings, supposedly marinated for 12 hours and smoked over Jamaican pimento wood but somehow lacking the smoky flavor or the crispy texture we were expecting.
The main dish we shared together, a platter of paratha bread accompanied by an assortment of goat curry, beef, vegetable curries (consisting of potatoes and chickpeas) and eggplant murtani, was even a greater disappointment, especially considering the relatively hefty $60 charge. The goat was the best of the bunch, and the vegetables weren’t too bad but neither of them had the showstopper type of amazing flavor that we were expecting, and the beef and eggplant were forgettable. I took our server’s recommendation to order a side of Haitian-style black jasmine rice which turned out to be a smart choice as the paratha bread turned rather soggy after five minutes. We left the restaurant wondering whether the Caribbean food is inherently not that good or the restaurant just missed it badly.
Getting a reservation at St. James via Resy is not too difficult. The pedestrian quality of the food is in stark contrast to the rum-centric cocktail list (I did like the West Indian Old Fashioned with Caribbean rum blend a lot) and the charmingly exotic dining space that makes you feel like dining at an upscale restaurant in the seaside Caribbean. I cannot recommend St. James in its current form as a dining destination in DC. Perhaps we should closely monitor where chef Peter next ends up in his journey.
KenScale: 7.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 6.75/10)
Address: 2017 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009
Reservation via Resy