Jolie shoots before she dines. K.C. Bailey/Sony
The Movie : Salt>"/>
The Dinner: Pappardelle and IPA at Volunteer Park Cafe (1501 17th Ave. E.).
Jolie shoots before she dines. K.C. Bailey/Sony
The Screenplate: Clocking in at 93 minutes, Salt is an unfussy, efficient summer action movie with just enough twists to keep you guessing whether Angelina Jolie's assassin is heroic or hissable. Her CIA spy, Evelyn Salt, is a field agent who spends about five minutes at home, where she pretends to be interested in cooking (but doesn't), kisses her dog and husband goodbye, then goes out to sling grenades, jump from speeding cars, hurl herself through windows, improvise explosives, and fire several thousand rounds of ammunition. Oh, and she has other skills, like speaking fluent Russian and milking spider venom, but she doesn't pretend to be domestic and homey--which explains a large part of her international box office appeal. Her male fan base doesn't want fresh-baked apple pie; gunfire, explosions, and a cool, sexy sneer are what she's expected to provide. So what would she make of the cutesy little Volunteer Park Cafe...?
A neighborhood favorite on East Capitol Hill, Volunteer Park Cafe has been grandfathered into a residential neighborhood as a century-old grocery; and technically it's also a market that does takeout business. With outdoor seating and chairs often dragged onto the sidewalk to follow (or escape) the sun, it's an inviting oasis where a tired mom can take her kids for a mid-afternoon snack. The place does a brisk lunch and weekend brunch trade, and (indoors) its large central table encourages a communal dining vibe. Since parking is so limited, VPC has a strong locals-only vibe in the very affluent 98112 zip code. (You might as well be dining in Madison Park, though no one wants to admit it.)
Proprietors Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke are equally foodies and curators of the three-year-old VPC, which has a meticulously casual vibe. Yellow-painted walls and discreet retro jazz keep the mood mellow. My companion's Coke came in a vintage-style glass bottle, just as they were served 105 years ago at the same grocery. It's like a younger, hipper Martha Stewart's creation, the VPC, where the presentation is more thought-out from the director's side of the camera than ours. While figuring out what to order from the small, not-inexpensive menu, I ordered an Elysian IPA priced at $8.30 (WTF?), and got a cheaper, tasty Acme instead. Not what I requested, but...
Salt has a better grasp of confusion and clarity. The Cold War-style plot, hatched in '70s Russia, proposes that an elite band of English-speaking Commie double agents has been dispatched to America while the tykes are mere kids. Weaned on martial arts and The Brady Bunch (no, really), this sleeper cell is finally called into action even though the Soviet era is two decades in the grave. CIA hottie Salt is skeptical when a defecting Russian spy confesses the whole scheme (Salt is overladen with exposition and flashbacks), then comes the kicker. She's a mole, too, the defector tells her and her CIA bosses (Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor among them). Arrest her!
Instantly Salt goes on the run, escaping government captivity, dashing through traffic, riding the Washington, DC subway, and returning home long enough to discover her meek scientist husband has been snatched. (German actor August Diehl doesn't make much of an impression as the spider expert who keeps specimens in their apartment. But the spiders are important later.) Australian director Phillip Noyce is a pro with momentum; as in his Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games (or Rabbit-Proof Fence, for that matter), he understands how character is action. Jolie's Salt never hesitates, never slows down, never bothers to explain to us (or anyone else) whether she's a double-agent or not. The ambiguity is rather thrilling, even though there are plenty of clues which side she's on. After being denounced, Salt spends most of the movie in motion, either assassinating or preventing assassinations, depending on your (her) perspective.
Volunteer Park Cafe is considerably more unhurried (at least on a weeknight), which is a strong part of its appeal. The waiter--who of course knows my companion, a local resident--recites the specials; we instantly forget them (chalkboard? Hello?) and choose from the small, changeable seasonal menu. I opted for the Spring Pappardelle ($19), mainly for the promise of veggies plus "pancetta & Grana." What it means is bits of pasta, potato, asparagus, spinach, and bacon in a little bowl. Pretty, tasty, but little. (This is a house specialty, and not from the "small plate" side of the menu.) The result is precious without being quite pretentious, too expensive for what it is. Then there's the cloying, annoying Web site: alwaysfreshgoodness.com. Jesus, but could you be any more smug than that?
Secret agent Salt is no less self-satisfied with her lethal skills in Salt, and Jolie hints at her bad-girl Hollywood past as she casually steals whatever item of clothing she needs to assume another disguise. She knows she's bad-ass, and she's got as much swagger as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The role seems influenced, too, by Jolie's in the guilty pleasure Assassins, though without quite so much nihilism. Here, our heroine makes sure to save the family dog from CIA arrest and detainment at Gitmo. And, in a role originally written for a man (one that Tom Cruise briefly entertained), Jolie proceeds with total forward confidence. Even when she dons a Russian fur cap and curls her lip at us soft capitalists, the audience goes along. (Granted, this is for only about 10 minutes of doubt.) In its final scenes, Salt reveals itself to be a superhero prequel of sorts, probably the launch of a distaff action heroine trilogy. (Salt. Pepper? Paprika?) I would have no problem paying for Parts II and III.
Unless you're a neighbor, however, the Volunteer Park Cafe doesn't encourage the same desire for a repeat visit.