By Elana Schor - 11/19/08 05:35 PM EST
The right movie can do it for $10. A bouquet of flowers does it for $12.50. Poetry still is free. But a restaurant that creates a truly romantic mood tends to do so for a price eye-popping enough to lose an appetite.
Stepping up to fill that affordable date-night void is 1905, a new bistro off the U Street corridor that takes its culinary cues from the Mediterranean coast and its design inspiration from the Moulin Rouge. The menu is small in size, but each dish is balanced with rich, appealing flavors that echo the cozy yet opulent ambience.
Conceived by the impresarios behind Sticky Rice on H Street NE, 1905 grounds fin-de-siècle touches — engraved mirrors and lit candelabras line the walls of the second-floor dining room — with good old-fashioned comfort food.
The merguez sausage appetizer adds the soft heat of paprika to a bed of deliriously creamy polenta, with shavings of piquillo pepper lending sweetness to the meat’s smoke. A simple green salad is given an indulgent makeover by bright shallot-thyme dressing and a scoop of delicate, wine tomato compote.
These two dishes are standouts from the menu, but the décor is the key to 1905’s sensuous vibe. The 60-seat space includes a copper-topped bar with cowhide stools and several glass water fountains with antique taps. These unique casks are used to serve absinthe, the French libation that was said to give hallucinations to van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists who sipped it.
The cocktails at 1905 won’t leave you with visions, but they do create a potent effect from refined ingredients. The French Blossom combines Pinot Grigio with St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur, for a thirst-quenching take on the traditional Can-Can Martini. The Green Lantern resembles a mojito from afar but offers the more complex and pleasing pairing of basil leaves with gin and pineapple juice.
Even those who cast a quick eye over the rococo striped wallpaper and skip the cocktail menu are bound to fall under the spell of chef Joey Sanchez, a transplant from Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill. His two nightly specials are always worth trying, despite the soft sell from the low-key wait staff; a terrine of fusilli with gruyere and Black Forest ham stole the show for many customers during my first visit. (“This is what sin tastes like,” one man whispered audibly to his companion.)
Still, small bistros live or die based on their ability to turn out European staples, and 1905’s undersized kitchen makes its mark with those seemingly ho-hum entrees. The Angus burger is grilled so tenderly that it crumbles on first bite, collapsing in the mouth with a riot of buttery brioche bun, tangy gouda and onion marmalade. A handful of thick steak fries makes for an ideal accompaniment.
The seared sea scallops are another triumph of technique over formula, adding a fluff of parsnip puree that mimics the velvety texture of the shellfish, while a side of haricot verts and shiitake mushrooms is roasted to caramelized perfection.
The endive-bleu cheese salad is another Francophone classic given new life, thanks to a smattering of diced pears and a peppery dose of watercress.
Not every plate in the restaurant’s abbreviated lineup is as memorable as its atmosphere. The roasted chicken is delightfully juicy but under-spiced, and its pillow of paella is little but rice pilaf in disguise. The panzanella salad arrived without dressing, a bundle of purposeless croutons and lackluster tomatoes.
Yet low moments tend to give way to good news at 1905. The ego-free hipster servers readily agree to take back offerings that fall short, which helps any vegetarians who have trouble navigating the meat-dominated menu.
The bistro also has clear — and welcome — aspirations to become a hangout in a neighborhood dominated by noisy bars where cuisine is an afterthought.
Bottles from the accessible wine list are half-price from Sunday to Wednesday, and a jazz trio plays live on Thursday nights. The tight squeeze between the bar and the restrooms, which initially looks like an invitation to awkwardness, prompts friendly conversation among strangers.
If anything can bring sexy back to Washingtonians’ dinnertimes, however, it’s dessert. And 1905 does not disappoint in its finale: Fresh coffee arrives in a French press that encourages hands to meet across the table, and profiteroles filled with vanilla cream are designed for sharing.
One sweet in particular, the chocolate panna cotta with sour cherry coulis, struck me as a perfect emblem for 1905’s brand of romance. Sweet but not cloying, traditional but experimental, the dish has a flavor that dwarfs its small size. “I wanted to finish it,” I told the waitress as she arrived with the check, “but instead I’ll just have to come back.”