By Mike Laws - 07/28/11 12:14 AM EDT
Quick: What’s the sexiest color scheme there is?
Time’s up. Still stumped? The answer is pink-and-purple. This is beyond question. It’s even been scientifically proven. (Prince is a scientist, right?)
Or you could stay a touch more earthbound and check out 901 Restaurant & Bar, a not-even-two-month-old venture from the people behind the Capitol City Brewing Company. Located smack in that Bermuda Triangle of downtown D.C. that’s equal parts Penn Quarter, Metro Center and Chinatown, here’s a newcomer to the scene whose website boldly declares it the home of “D.C.’s sexiest eats.” SEXY is even emblazoned in bold letters across its awning.
A certain onus falls on an establishment like 901 to live up to its self-styled billing — which means, probably, walking a well-trod middle road between competing notions of just what makes something sexy. Hence the place’s lambent mood lighting; its crystalline central
dining room display; its soft-house soundtrack (plug “The Field” into Pandora and you’ll get a good idea what dinnertime at 901 sounds like). A private dining room cordoned off by red-velvet rope and canopied in translucent white silk rounds out the scene.
So there’s essentially no way to sit for an hour at 901 and not be aware of what it’s pulling out all the stops trying to achieve — indeed, of its whole raison d’être (French: sexy!). But if the place runs the risk of effectively bludgeoning patrons with its trappings, it manages to avoid trouble by way of the fine fare on offer, as well as a wait staff that’s about as good as any you’re likely to encounter in the metro area.
The first element contributing to 901’s winsome culinary formula is its gentle encouragement to share dishes with that special someone; in fact, “Sharing” supplants “Appetizers” as a heading on the menu. Within that section lies a vast, globe-trotting multitude of selections, from beef carpaccio and tuna tempura to Prince Edward Island mussels and crab-cake sliders. Especially satisfying is the Craft Beer Churrasco, which, while it fails to live up to the exoticism conjured by its description (beer-marinated chicken and beef tips, chili pepper crème, crispy basil), nevertheless proves a lovable take on your good old-fashioned shish kabob.
But ultimately, what proves most charming about 901 is its refusal to cater only to the best-coiffed and sharpest-dressed D.C. diners — refreshingly, this is decidedly not a place that keeps its nose aloft, looking askance at the odd lone diner or tut-tutting the notion of embracing comfort-food options. (Pretentiousness; arrogance: not sexy!) To that end, 901’s mission statement holds that it is the ideal downtown spot to “mix fine French wine with hamburgers” or “have a beer with haute cuisine.”
In this light it makes sense that some of 901’s best dishes are also among its least chichi. So while the off-the-menu swordfish in a mango-chipotle glaze is rightfully recommended by Omar, our ebullient server on a recent visit, the restaurant is equally at home grilling up the Bacon Burger, with an artisan sweet-potato bun just sturdy enough to support the appetizingly drippy-gooey smoked cheddar, beer-braised onions, bacon, garlic aioli and mass of beef housed within. It might be hard to imagine hitting the dance floor after polishing off this behemoth, but that’s a minor quibble.
Similarly successful — and similarly ecumenical in terms of swankiness — are the desserts and drinks on offer. A long list of cocktails, none of them beneath $9.95, shares menu space with an even more exhaustive index of wines (organized, helpfully, by way of descriptors that themselves tend toward the purple side of the English language: “Florals and Buttery Toasty Oaks,” “Softer, Sweeter and Delicious”). The array of tipples is rounded out by a bevy of exclusive and regional beers — the crisp 901 Lager and creamy Oatmeal Stout are standouts — that Omar is more than willing to portion out into test-tube-like sampler glasses for a parched party. Still, if you’ve got the coin to drop, you could do far worse than a 901 Lynchburg, a summery, refreshing blend of bourbon, sour mix, simple syrup and Sprite with a twist of orange. Inasmuch as it’s advisable to choose an adult beverage to beat the heat, this is the one to do it with.
Just be sure to save room; 901’s strongest suit might just lie in its variety of pastries, torts and other sweets. Here a chocolate crème brulee gets an unexpected zippy boost from the inclusion (again) of chipotle, making for a sweet treat that increases in smoky heat as it glides along the palate. That’s the most off-kilter item on the dessert menu, to be sure, but 901 is just as adroit with strawberry shortcake, doughnut bread pudding in a coffee crème anglaise, or cheesecake. At $15, the sampler of all the desserts effectively doubles the price of any one offering; it’s worth it.
Sumptuous and decadent yet still somehow familiar and comfortable, 901’s desserts offer a final clue as to just where this place wants to go — and how high it could climb. Sure, its take on sexy runs a touch to the predictable, and no, it’s not yet a downtown destination, but as long as Washington has an appetite to unwind in style, the sky’s the limit.