There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Nightclubs and restaurants rarely cohabit successfully. Their motives conflict: Beat-heavy, gear-shifting dance music stirs the ears and heart, but does nothing for the nose or mouth. And forget about conversation. Keep in mind that nightclubs are different from bars; fabulousness is premium at the former, while the best of the latter celebrate the humdrum. Bar-restaurants are common, and some are even quite good. But the term “nightclub-restaurant” is still trying to earn a permanent seat in the lexicon.
Take Eleventh Hour, which aims to be a nightclub-restaurant with equal emphasis on both fabulousness and food. The folks at the doorsome of them leggy, all of them immaculately dressedmake it clear that not just any schmo can come insidemore a statement than a hurdle, I’d say, because a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes pass muster.
Eleventh Hour’s design, which includes a glass front wall opening onto 14th Street NW, is self-consciously funky, borderline witty, and surprisingly functional. Floating wafers of blond wood start above the bar and run along the ceiling, seemingly ending at a wide strip of gold lighting, only to re-emerge later, jutting downward to serve as an entryway to the lounge. Warm-colored, free-standing walls enclosing the lounge are perforated with squares, and the leather couches are nice enough to make you mindful not to dribble your martini. The place isn’t very big, but if you take a walk around, nooks appear out of nowhere. The lighting is soft and, if you arrive early enough, so is the music.
It’s a nightclub-restaurant cliché that obsessive attention to detail ends at the kitchen door. Eleventh Hour has tried to distinguish itself by opening that door to chef Vincent Torres, formerly of the justly renowned but comically highbrow Provence (which will reportedly reinvent itself this fall). Subsequently, Eleventh Hour’s menu is nearly as ambitious as its interior design, running from an appetizer of grilled lamb sausages to an entree plate of roasted duck decked out with dried figs and eggplant purée.
Given Eleventh Hour’s proximity to the Studio Theatre, it’s a shame the salads we order are burdened by too many ingredients that taste either unripe or past their prime; plays are always more enjoyable when the pre-theater meal is kept light. So consider the appetizers a consolationEleventh Hour shines with the small stuff.
Green mussels are steamed just so, fragrant with ginger, sherry, and lemongrass. Grilled portobello, spiked with herbed balsamic vinegar and lightly pungent goat cheese, is basic but delicious. I could do without the blanket of cheese covering the lamb sausages; the grilled meat chunks could hold their own as a gamy treat. Load up on bread and you could call the vinegar-marinated flank steak dinner; as Torres further proves with a succulent filet mignon entree served over a mushroom-and-shallot frittata, he knows how to coax flavor out of good beef. He’s not bad with squid, either. The fried calamari are worthy if you want to keep it simple, while the stuffed-and-roasted calamari are a menu highlight: Each squid is plumped with a wondrous mixture of shrimp, scallops, oyster mushrooms, garlic, and bay leaves.
Whatever the savvy Torres demonstrates with his openers is diminished considerably by the main courses. Sautéed halibut is a disaster: Eating the fish is like chewing on rubber, and the asparagus gratin beneath it is pocked with bits of brown that could be taken as evidence of reheating. Grilled tuna steak, escorted by cold oven-dried tomatoes, is just slightly better. The veal paillard, while fork-tender, provides a compelling argument for table salt.
Given the chic setting, it’s relevant to point out that the food isn’t much to look at. Risotto is supposed to be subdued, but the plate we order, flavored with truffle butter and very little asparagus, is so blindingly white that we wish someone had sprinkled it with somethinganythingjust to remind us it’s actually there. And perhaps the most creative entree on the menu, quail stuffed with chestnuts, eggplant, and puréed figs, arrives as two mounds of what looks like discolored oatmeal. It’s quite tasty, actually, but should we be spreading it on something?
Not all the entrees are bummers. The cloudlike sun-dried tomato-and-goat cheese ravioli, for example, is artfully restrained, each well-crafted pillow dripping mellow sage butter. But each misstep only underscores Eleventh Hour’s shortcomings as a restaurant. For one, comfort is reserved for the couchbound. The dining room, which also serves as the dance floor, is furnished with plastic chairs that you might recognize from your friend’s sparsely appointed patio. The stools in the bar area, which also has a few tables, are significantly less tacky, but they’re torture if you plan to sit on one through a couple of courses. Some of the servers are pros, and all are friendly, but too many seem confused about working dinner. One tells me that she’s tried nothing on the menu, and after bringing me the stale, flavorless fruit tart that she has heard is good, she can’t tell me if the desserts are made in houseeven after checking with the kitchen.
But despite the fruit tart that may or may not have dropped from the sky, it’d be nice to see Eleventh Hour blossom. I’ll go back if for no other reason than to succumb to the couches, and if its neighborhood is going to be gentrified, it’d be hard to ask for a foxier anchoreven if it doesn’t push “nightclub-restaurant” into the lexicon.
Eleventh Hour, 1520 14th St. NW, (202) 234-0886.
Allegedly the frita, otherwise known as the Cuban hamburger, is prepared today just as it was by Cuban burger-cart operators generations ago. It’s done justice right outside the Clarendon Metro station at La Cantinita’s Havana Cafe. Topped with enough shredded and fried potatoes to serve as both a garnish and a side, the burger’s something of an odd bird; the meat patty itself is so soft and mushy it barely holds its shape. But it’s also irresistible, having been seasoned and marinated enough to emit a sharp tang. And at $3.95, the frita’s reasonable as hell.
La Cantinita’s Havana Cafe, 3100 Clarendon Boulevard, Arlington, (703) 524-3611. Brett Anderson
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