By Elana Schor - 09/10/09 09:33 PM EDT
Washingtonians have seen the LBE kick in several times in recent years. First Brasserie Beck was followed by an even more affordable spot for moules frites, Granville Moore’s, and then Pete’s Apizza struck gold with artisanal pies just months after RedRocks fired up its pizza oven in Columbia Heights.
Room 11 and Cork share more than just a concept. Both feature local cheese and charcuterie, olives cured in-house and a tantalizing salad that pairs the bitter snap of fennel with a briny tangle of trout. The two spots even share desserts, thanks to the Paisley Fig label founded by former Café Saint-Ex pastry chef Lizzy Evelyn.
Still, Room 11 does take care to spotlight unique aspects of its lineage. Its four co-owners, including chef Ben Gilligan and bartender Dan Searing, cut their teeth hosting weekly Punch Club parties in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, and their pleasingly sour ’Ti punch has made a welcome migration to the new menu.
Gilligan is also proving his mettle with a sandwich press, grilling a rotating cast of panini that can emerge on the dry side but never fail to pack in flavor. Any panino with marinated figs or cippolini onions makes a perfect mate for a bracing draught of Victory’s Hop Devil pale ale (just be careful of its 6.7 percent alcohol content).
The bar’s design is both unassuming and eye-catching, fitting the template of an easygoing local haunt. Wine bottles are stored above the zinc bar and chilled by refrigerator, and scarlet accents match the modern art hanging on the back wall.
A mounted chalkboard lists each day’s special panino, salad and cocktail. The drink is priced around $8 a glass, and it spotlights refined ingredients such as Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur or fresh watermelon juice.
But space is another element that may give Cork aficionados an unpleasant case of déjà vu at Room 11. The interior seats only 15 people, managing to be smaller than even the tiny English basements of Columbia Heights, and the exterior patio seats barely twice that number. Outdoor tables are now highly coveted, with waits as long as an hour, while lingerers are shoehorned into the cramped inner room.
Room 11 is fortunate to have a cast of mellow servers, some of whom have already developed a knack for engaging customers to prevent any mass departures. When the weather turns chilly and the patio becomes less desirable, however, one suspects the co-owners may have to buy stock in a heat-lamp company.
Of course, an LBE rendering of Cork wouldn’t be complete without a stellar wine list. The selection is not especially groundbreaking — you may have tasted several of Room 11’s varietals at other bars — but its quality is uniformly good and its price point is outstanding, as the most expensive glass rates a mere $10.
The house red wine, a Campo de Luz Garnacha, relaxes its initial noseful of tannins into a drinkable mélange of plum and wood notes, while the Angeline pinot noir gives the palate a sweeter hit of berries and vanilla. The white wines include more complex grapes such as French Cotes du Gascogne and smoky Viognier, as well as more traditional Chardonnay and Riesling.
With such irresistible and affordable wines, not to mention a seductive Moscow Mule mixed drink made with citrus vodka, thirst is bound to turn to hunger that a panini can’t quell. When that happens, Room 11’s Tunisian meatballs are highly recommended.
Served with a tzatziki yogurt sauce so thick it could defy gravity, the handful of piquant meatballs arrives bathed in a tomato sauce that bursts with chili and garlic. Cut open, each ball reveals twirls of fresh parsley and onion. The dish’s casual richness makes you feel like a guest at the best dinner party of the year.
The gazpacho is also a winner, trading the usual lightness of the summer staple for a saltier, more peppery take that could make an excellent base for a Bloody Mary. The same cannot be said for the lamb cutlets, which use such uneven cuts of meat that half my plate was taken up by pure fat.
Yet no culinary misstep is too major to overshadow a perfect dessert — and Room 11 has three of them. Paisley Fig, co-owned by Evelyn and Nicole Ferrigno, works baking magic with less sugar than in normal pastries, relying instead on unusual spices and vivid textures.
The dark chocolate torte finds a masterful medium between the fluffiness of mousse and the dense warmth of a typical chocolate “bomb” or lava cake. The pistachio linzer tart avoids predictably cloying berry filling for a subtler slice of sweet, moist apricot, throwing the whole plate for a loop with a scoop of wild blueberry ice cream from the local ice cream shop Moorenko’s.
It’s the honey goat cheesecake, though, that makes Room 11 unforgettable. Scooped in a delicate petal atop a red wine sauce, the cake lacks a crust but doesn’t need one. Tangy and fragrant, the entire thing will collapse in four melt-in-your-mouth bites.
The same dish is available at Room 11’s somewhat-sibling in Logan Circle. But for Columbia Heights and U Street residents seeking a cozy new hangout, the Little Brother Effect is an undisputed mark of distinction.