One silver lining of the lengthy delay is its debut coincides with peak soft shell crab season. Owner Jeanine Prime takes advantage, setting the lightly fried crab atop spiced coconut curry in which swim quarter-sized taro dumplings. This Indian-meets-West African dish is representative of the cross-cultural melding that Prime aims to showcase across the menu.
Billed as “modern Caribbean,” St. James honors its namesake vibrant district within Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, and its melting pot of influences from West Africa, East India, China, Portugal, France, and other geographies (2017 14th Street NW).
“The food and history of the Caribbean is rich and diverse and I’m proud to celebrate and share them,” says Prime, who also runs H Street’s acclaimed Caribbean street food spot Cane.
Prime was slated to run the restaurant with her brother, chef Peter Prime, who parted way with both Cane and St. James this year. He just joined the kitchen at Navy Yard Caribbean spot, Bammy’s.
St. James pulls on the thread of the Trinidadian and East Indian cuisine focus at Cane to craft a tapestry beyond the island. Prime worked with current Cane chef Emma Hernandez and Fiola Mare alum Alfredo Contreras to shape the menu.
Situated in a sun-drenched space “evocative of being at my home in Trinidad,” says Prime, diners will find dishes like callaloo, a stew-like meal that appears in various forms throughout the Caribbean basin. It’s made from a base of pureed spinach in coconut milk spiked with chilies. Here, it’s topped with creamy crab meat.
“The Caribbean experience that most people have is a takeout spot, from just Jamaica or Trinidad. I’m here to create a space that celebrates Caribbean culture in entirety and diversity,” she says.
The fiery scotch bonnet pepper is another tasty thread woven through the menu. She says these particular chilies, “both spicy and flavorful,” are used heavily across the region. Peppers give a kick to the curry that bathes whole jumbo shrimp dish, as well as in the salt cod crudo, a ceviche-style, house-cured fish flanked with a chili pepper puree. The peppers even punch up a refreshing, zero-proof fizzy drink.
Prime also is proud to highlight lesser-known dishes. In the Haitian black rice, jasmine rice is deeply simmered in shrimp and djon-djon mushroom stock.
“I’m excited to showcase Haitian cooking, something that many people here may not have been exposed to,” she says.
The 67-seat restaurant revamped the dark, moody atmosphere of the location’s previous tenant, Quarter + Glory, with a brighter, lighter, and airy aesthetic. “I love how lush the Caribbean is,” she notes, so she brought in brilliant hues and a palm-leaf mural that runs across the length of the wall and up to the mezzanine.
Downstairs, the angular bar tiles — splashed with a green that lands somewhere between sea foam and hunter — glimmer at sunset and provide a glamorous backdrop for a cocktail program led by D.C. mixologist vet Glendon Hartley (Service Bar, Causa).
“I want to utilize the ingredients and spirits of the Caribbean as much as possible, especially things I had from my childhood,” says Hartley, whose parents were born in Trinidad.
The Pineapple Chow, inspired by the namesake popular Trinidadian street food, uses Trinidadian rum, pineapple, shadow beni (a cilantro-type West Indian herb), black pepper, and lime. A more spirit-forward drink is the West Indian Old Fashioned, with Caribbean dark rum, cocoa, chai, and curry, which “integrates fully into most of our dishes,” he says.
On the sweeter side, Prime works with fellow Trinidadian, Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, owner of Capitol Hill bakery The Sweet Lobby and Souk for desserts. There’s a chocolate mousse shot through with ginger, plus profiteroles in flavors like bananas foster.
Later in the summer, a small patio right along 14th Street and brunch service will enter the mix. Prime plans to launch a late-night menu to sate nearby bar-goers. She also plans to partner with younger chefs “to give them a space to develop, grow, and showcase their talent,” she says.