Before Nineteen Ten opened its doors, workmen got busy turning the front of the brick building that it occupies into a blank slate. Today, the restaurant announces itself to passers-by with a proudly generic façade. Its flat front is all creamy white, save for some windows and two doors, which open up onto a currently furnitureless sidewalk patio. Its name doubles as an address. Refusing to hard-sell with hyperboleor even specificsa sign outside reads, “Fine Food & Drink.” It might as well read, “What you see is what you get.”
Nineteen’s neighborhood, which sits close enough to both Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan that it could be considered part of either, has been aching for a restaurant like itor at least a restaurant that feels the way Nineteen Ten does when you first walk in. Everything about its design suggests the easy American bistro that it aims to be. The floor looks as if it had been liberated from an oppressive layer of linoleum and then just left as-is, distressed and discolored and a little sticky in places. The effect suggests years of foot traffic, spilled drinks, and the grinding of stools and chairs. The booths are roomy, the music decent, the rituals unique. “Oh, that’s just our wine guy,” our waitress quips, explaining the applause that has just erupted in the dining room. “It’s always exciting when he comes by.”
The tables are covered with stiff white cloths and a top layer of papera style that seems to foreshadow the kind of elegant but unfussy fare that you’d find at an upmarket grill. If you order the pork porterhouse, that’s exactly what you get. Dictionary-thick and dripping with dried-cherry butter, the pork is so hardy it practically roars, and the skin-on mashed potatoes are lumpy and manly. Try bookending the dish with an iceberg wedge covered in blue-cheese dressing and a few fingers of affordable Scotch: You might just find yourself craving a cigar.
But Nineteen’s food isn’t all about huffing and puffing. Like many modest neighborhood restaurants, it will live or die by a menu that’s predictable by design. A waitress informs us that the spinach salad is far and away the restaurant’s best sellerwhich seems about right. The greens remain firm under a well-measured splash of sweet, warm bacon vinaigrette, and toasted almonds and crumbled blue cheese add enough richness to make it the kind of thing that a light eater could consider dinner. But if the place had to claim a signature dish, it would certainly be the crab strudel. It’s basically a phyllo-wrapped crab cake spiked with capers and dill. Not exactly mind-boggling stuff, but not bad, either.
So what’s not to like? Well. Aside from the crab strudel, Nineteen’s menu doesn’t include anything terribly daring, and although I’d welcome a new restaurant that excels with dishes as ordinary as roasted chicken and meatloaf with gravy, this is not such a place. For starters, both the chicken and meatloaf are characterless and dry. Despite its advertised involvement with ginger, the former doesn’t seem to have made an acquaintance with any seasonings at all, and the latter harks back to the era when people ate meatloaf mainly because home cooks didn’t know how to make much else. Like the feta- and tomato-stuffed fried ravioli, which remind me of nothing so much as the Hot Pockets sold in most Safeway freezers, Nineteen’s meatloaf releases taste memories that have little to do with great restaurant food.
Nineteen’s kitchen routinely struggles to churn out dishes worthy of an exclamation point. In the case of the beef tenderloin, which is swabbed in buttery blue cheese, this is not such a problem. The meat is good, rich, and tender. But would it kill the staff to take some pride in the presentation? The tenderloin’s mashed potatoes droop over the edge of the plate. In fact, the side dishes grow more monotonous with every visit. Julienne zucchini seem to come with every entree. Maple glaze can’t save salmon that’s spent too long on the grill, and its side of rice seems to contain as many hard kernels as a half-popped bag of microwave popcorn. The oyster stew is little more than a bowl of melted butter and mollusk meat. The potato gnocchi, available as an appetizer or an entree and with or without sausage, are doughy.
Stringing together a few meals at Nineteen Ten is like losing your affection for your affable new neighbor as you come to realize that he’s never going to mow his lawn. The space is always welcoming, dimly lit, and strewn with art that brings to mind the Toulouse-Lautrec posters that so many restaurateurs use to convey folksy refinement. But the food doesn’t underscore the convivial vibe. The shell of the pecan tart is just as difficult to cut the second time I order it as it was on the first. It seems familiarity really can breed contempt.
Nineteen Ten, 1910 18th St. NW, (202) 483-2583.
Sea Catch is a warm, romantic, perennially reliable restaurant that sits on the banks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown. One reader thinks that the place is under-recognized: “Their seafood’s the best in town,” he writes, “certainly better than Oceanaire’s, which you for some reason decided to give a good review.” He’s overpraising a bit, but I’ll admit to having a regular post-Foundry date with Sea Catch’s bar, where I usually order a dozen iced goodies from the raw bar or a simple plate of sheer-cut smoked salmon kissed with lemon. If you find a friendly waitperson, try to get the parsnip fries served as a side dish. They’re lovely.
Sea Catch, 1054 31st St. NW, (202) 337-8855. Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.