Oohh’s and Aahh’s is a soul food restaurant so good even the canned green beans shine
If any restaurant can peel back the layers of modern Washington — to reveal the still-beating heart of Chocolate City, a city that once marked time with a go-go beat — it’s Oohh’s and Aahh’s. Chef and owner Oji Abbott, 44, is the company’s flagship and he’s old school. It is analog in a digital environment. It’s a P-Funk bass line in a Lil Wayne world. It is the man who puts the soul in the food of the soul.
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More than a year ago, Abbott branched out from its first restaurant, a matchstick-thin property on U Street, and opened a second location of Oohh’s and Aahh’s in a Walmart in Brightwood. The new space is the anti-Walmart: it seeks to pamper those who enter the place, starting with the people who welcome you and take care of all your needs. They are more charming than a couple on a first date. The guy with the orange hair, the silver bow tie and the black shirt? It’s the coolest server in Washington, and not just because it satisfied my desire to talk about the Nats’ offseason moves.
But with its new outlet, Abbott wanted to do more than expand its brand. He wanted to free Oohh’s and Aahh’s from its take-out roots. He wanted to ditch the clamshell containers and give his customers a full-service experience, a laudable move at a time when soul food continues to push back against its “poverty kitchen” stereotype. Abbott’s act strikes me as a fair response to what writer and historian Adrian Miller has ostensibly described as a “black on black crime”: the tendency of African Americans to hate their own food. Oohh’s and Aahh’s is a safe space to love soul food again.
The menu remains much the same as U Street, although Abbott has reintroduced a few sandwiches that he had to throw out of the original location due to limited space. First among the returning heroes is Abbott’s Steak Sandwich, which features mouth-wateringly meaty marinated strips of rib eye layered in a cornmeal-dusted roll. It’s not a Philly cheesesteak. This monster is closer in spirit to a sausage, pepper and onion sandwich, with the juicy, medium-rare rib eye replacing the links.
All the classic Oohh’s and Aahh’s are here. The turkey chops, the sweet and sour teriyaki salmon, the meatloaf topped with gravy. But when I take a chair in Abbott’s place, I can never resist the fizzy appeal of the fryer, which produces long, thin, golden fried fish fillets like no one else. Whiting immediately reminds me why the fish has been a staple in Washington fish markets since the 1970s, when the Nation of Islam began its effort to import the frozen product from Peru. Fried foot lengths of whiting, rolled up and irresistibly crispy at the ends, easily separate into bite-size pieces, tailor-made for Abbott’s favorite sauce, Frank’s RedHot, with its powerful cayenne tang.
Deep-fried crab cakes are made Maryland-style, spiked with Old Bay and Abbott seasoning, which adds a touch of warmth to those chunky balls formed with fresh ivory sections of chunks and chunks — and very little binder. The fried chicken wings were my only disappointment, mainly because my order came smothered in homemade barbecue sauce, which pretty much robbed the dish of its inherent crunch.
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Abbott does not favor extremes. Like many formally trained chefs, he strives for balance, something you’ll find even with dishes best known for their higher frequencies. Take the blackened catfish, which he grills on a dish. He seasons the fillets with three kinds of pepper – black, red pepper flakes and chili powder – but this potent trio is toned down with sugar, bringing order to the dish. The same goes for the oatmeal that accompanies Abbott’s grilled prawn tight curls: the chef doses his porridge with sugar, which pairs well with the heavy cream and the natural sweetness of the corn, but it balances the oatmeal With salt. Waiters will warn you that the oatmeal is sweet, but don’t worry. They are great.
In my experience, soul food restaurants are starting to falter when it comes to sides. Not Oohh and Aahh. Abbott’s Collard Greens are mouth-watering and spiced up with just the right amount of hot sauce. His macaroni and cheese is served in a big, tightly packed spoon, more of a pan than a bunch of elbow macaroni loosely held together with cheese sauce. Either way, Abbott’s Five Cheese Blend adds a ton of character to this soggy pasta mass. Even more impressive: the chef makes canned green beans taste-worthy, infusing supermarket vegetables with a pungent garlic flavor.
Right now, the glassware behind the bar at Oohh’s and Aahh’s stands at attention in perfect little rows, untouched by human hands. Abbott still doesn’t have a liquor license, largely because he doesn’t think he’s ready to get one. He wants to make sure all of his current systems are airtight before adding anything new, and, yes, he’s fully aware that he can bolster his results with a robust bar program.
But for Abbott, cash flow is less important than character and reputation, which tells you all about why he runs the best soul food restaurant in Washington.
Moreover, the chef adds, “People should come to have a good meal. They shouldn’t come just for a drink.
5933 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-882-2902, www.oohhsnaahhs.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest metro: Takoma, with a 1.2 mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices:$5.95 to $17.95 for entrees and salads; $6.95 to $14.95 for lunch dishes and specials; $9.95 to $23.95 for dinner entrees.