September 15, 2015 – Several months ago I received a text message that said, “We’re having dinner at Joe’s. You have to try this place.” The message was from my friend and colleague Paul Raak. Since Paul is a self-professed “meat and potatoes” Midwesterner I figured Joe’s had to be special if he was recommending it.
It took several months before our schedules coincided but finally we met at Joe’s. More specifically Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab.
The building at the corner of 15th and H Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., is a historical one. The African American entrepreneur James Wormley opened Wormley’s Hotel in 1871. It catered to the rich and powerful of the day. The hotel was the scene of the Wormley Hotel Conference during which representatives of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden negotiated the Compromise of 1877 that resulted in the Hayes family moving into the White House.
As we entered the restaurant Paul asked me if it was part of a chain. The answer, I said, is yes and no.
In 1913 Joseph and Jessie Weiss opened a restaurant in their Miami Beach home. The specialty of the house soon became the unusual stone crab. Found in the western Atlantic from southern New England around Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Belize, the stone crab is harvested by breaking off its claw. That’s all. One crab. One claw. The crab is tossed back into the ocean and immediately begins to regenerate a new claw. A marvel of self-preservation. Fortunately for us also a miraculous self-sustaining food source.
The family operated Joe’s Stone Crab for more than 90 years. In 2000, they partnered with Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. The new partnership opened the first Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago. That was followed by a second restaurant in Las Vegas. The D.C. presence premiered in January of 2014, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the original Joe’s Stone crab.
Inside the restaurant is all warmth. Dark woods and leather. Tuxedoed maître d’. An impressively professional wait staff.
I told Bridget, who was tending our table, that I thought I should try the stone crab because that’s where it all started. But, I told her, I had never eaten it before. I needed guidance. She explained that the crab claws would arrive cold and cracked. It would be up to me to strip away the broken pieces of shell and extract the meat.
She also said the traditional accompaniments to stone crab were hash browns and cole slaw served family style. Paul ordered the salmon au poivre. The hash browns and cole slaw worked for him.
A few minutes later Miguel showed up. He made the cole slaw tableside. Cole slaw Hungarian style. Bridget told us the restaurant still uses Joe Weiss’ grandmother’s recipe. The chopped cabbage is marinated in apple cider vinegar. Miguel skillfully mixed it with mayonnaise and a pickle relish.
Bridget delivered the stone crab claws on a plate all by themselves with a light mustard sauce as an escort. Clearing away the broken shell and extracting the meat is messy business. It’s worth the effort. The slight sweetness of the meat is mellowed by undertones of ocean. The chunks of crab dipped in the mustard sauce were delightful.
The hash browns were nicely done. Their crispy warmth was a fine contrast to the cold seafood. The sweetness of the cole slaw brought the savory flavor of the potatoes and the salt water tang of the crab together exquisitely.
When I was done with the meal I had crab everywhere. The cloth napkin that came with the table setting made no progress whatsoever toward cleaning my hands. Fortunately, no sooner had the dishes been cleared than I found a metal bowl placed on the table with instructions to cup my hands over it. Juice from a lemon was squeezed over my hands and I was given a warm wet cloth with which to wash. Paul received the same cleansing treatment even though he had a fork to eat with.
Did I say the service at Joe’s is peerless? Well, I certainly should have.