At 1905, It's 'Absinthe and Acid Jazz'
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, April 24, 2009
The buzz: I feel like my eardrums have been taking a beating lately. The places that have been opening up -- the buzzing Policy restaurant and lounge at 14th and T streets NW, the minimalist lounge Stir across from Verizon Center -- are all about thumping music and massive crowds.
Enough. I just want good music in a cozy room, where I can have a drink or two and catch up with friends. That's what draws me to 1905 on a Thursday night: The atmospheric little French bistro in the Shaw neighborhood hosts a night called "Absinthe and Acid Jazz," with the wonderful Cricket Fusion Quartet jamming in the corner and absinthe drink specials at the bar. The lights are turned down, and candles flicker in glass cubes on every table.
Marco Mancuso and Denise Drewery, a consultant and an interior designer who live near Gallery Place, have scored the prime tablein the window, with a view of Ninth Street below. It's their first visit, but they're enjoying the dinner and live jazz. "It's kind of macabre," Mancuso says, looking around at the vintage chandeliers, large mirrors and textured wallpaper, "but still cozy."
"There are lots of places in D.C. that are minimalistic and cold," Drewery says. "So I think having a place that's cozy and romantic is great."
The scene: Since 1905 opened in a walk-up last year, the two-room restaurant and bar's turn-of-the-century decor has been one of the coolest-looking spots in town. The cocktails and service can be hit-and-miss. But with Absinthe and Acid Jazz, 1905 has hit its groove.
Beginning at 10 p.m. every Thursday, the Cricket Fusion Quartet plays improv jazz, . Sometimes Robert "Mousey" Thompson, who played drums with James Brown's band for more than a decade, sits in. But mostly, the focus is on Joe Brotherton, who leads the band on fluegelhorn and trumpet. Almost all the songs are created on the spot, Brotherton tells me during a set break. "We might play a standard every now and then, but it's mostly improvising."
Meanwhile, at the bar, pitchers are set up for pouring absinthe, the potent French liqueur, though most people are sipping cocktails or glasses of reasonably priced French wine. When someone does partake in absinthe, it's a big production that involves sugar cubes soaked in alcohol and lit on fire before being added to the drink.
"Absinthe and Acid Jazz: It sounded good," says co-owner Joe Steger with a laugh. He keeps everything low key. Though the kitchen is open until 11, you don't have to order dinner if you want to grab a table. "That's not us," he says. "If you just want to sit down and listen to the music, it's fine."
It's the up-tempo jazz groove that was calling to Norman Arrington, who's perched at a corner table with friends. "The music drew me in," he says. "I was outside waiting for [his friends], and I said, 'I want to go in that place.' I heard that music. That music was jamming, you know?"
Oh, I know.
"I like the atmosphere and the decor," says Bill Johnson, a regular who works as an interior designer who brought Arrington and Michelle Morgan, an actress from New Jersey to check out 1905. "They're more of an avant-garde place."
"It looks like a cool little spot to hang out," Morgan says. "It reminds me of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland."
On Ninth Street above T Street, 1905 feels off the beaten path, even though it's on the same block as the better-known Etete, DC9 and Nellie's Sports Bar. David Barnhart, who works for a public affairs firm, says that he has lived around the corner since last fall but that this is the first time he has visited. "I was thrilled to discover it. I eat up and down U Street, and I'd never seen this." He gestures at the crowd (a mix of black and white, young and old, laughing and grooving to the music) and says he'll be back. "It's very mixed. It's what U Street should be . . . a cool local place where people can have good food and be themselves, with great entertainment."
On your plate: The crispy roast chicken with paella is the big winner; it's the featured dish on Thursdays.
In your glass: There's a full cocktail menu and a decent selection of wines by the glass. Absinthe drinks are $10 ($9 on Thursdays). Other cocktails are $10-$12.
Nice to know: Although Thursday is my favorite night to drop in (and the only night with regular live music), 1905 is a great spot to visit early in the week: Bottles of wine are half-price until 7 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday.
In February 2009, Tom Sietsema wrote about 1905 as part of a longer review.
Your first few minutes at 1905 Restaurant, on the second floor of a narrow townhouse in the Shaw neighborhood, are likely to be spent admiring the decorating skills of Mick Mier. He's one of the restaurant's four owners and the artist responsible for creating a warm and rich environment, dipping into his own collections to make a fetching first impression. An antique chandelier casts a soft glow on a communal table made elegant with a raised centerpiece that suggests the Victorian era; vintage fabric hugs some of the benches. And the pressed-tin ceiling that looks as if it's been there forever is actually embossed paper washed with gold paint. Mier says he aimed to create "a speak-easy feel" at the fledgling restaurant, whose unassuming entrance on the street reinforces his vision.
The atmosphere is important. Most people probably won't remember 1905, which takes its name from its address, for its service. Then again, maybe they will, because it's not the best-timed or the most attentive. Servers tend to give you three seconds to order after you've been handed the menu, but they are nowhere to be found when you need another drink or the check. Food is auctioned off to diners. "Who gets the soup?" a waiter wants to know. "The panzanella? The polenta?"
The lucky patron gets the polenta. The starter is a soft comfort set off with slices of spicy merguez sausage. The tomato-and-bread salad, on the other hand, has no business even being on the menu, winter tomatoes being tasteless (and croutons accounting for much of the heft in the mix). The soup, creamy tomato with crawfish on one visit, would have been okay had it not been for seafood that tasted past its prime.
A small kitchen and a line cook hired from Good Stuff Eatery, the hamburger joint on the Hill, limit the number and range of offerings on the menu, though the owners see that most of their (customer) bases are covered. Little tweaks here and there would elevate some of the eating. Steak au poivre is shy on the promised pepper, for instance, but I like the cheesy potato gratin and the thin asparagus that serve as its escorts. Tender scallops come with a too-sweet parsnip puree and haricots verts beefed up with sauteed mushrooms. The dish that garnered the most praise after three visits paired crisp and juicy chicken with a shrimp-veined sort of paella. Author! Author!
Dessert is better drunk than chewed here. Which means the coffee shows up in a French press and the beignets are dull and doughy. Chocolate panna cotta could probably coax a smile from Bill Cosby but not from any self-respecting Italian pastry chef. It's just standard-issue chocolate pudding.
1905 caters to a young and urban clientele that seems not to mind the deafening noise when all the tables are full and probably appreciates the half-price bottles of wine served before 7 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays. I wonder if they, like me, would rather meet the guy who hung the wallpaper than the one who cooked their dinner.
(Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009)
Talk about a stroke of luck: 1905 has picked the perfect weekend to unveil its new rooftop deck.
Where the dining room is a dark, atmospheric French bistro, the roof feels more like a beachy escape, with a short bar counter and plenty of railings where customers can stand around and admire the view. (Check out the Washington Monument in the distance, and remember to keep this place in mind for July 4 plans.) It’s pretty spacious, too, with several nooks where groups can congregate, though not as large as Nellie’s or DC9 down the block.
The beer and cocktail list is seasonally appropriate: DC Brau and Allagash beers on tap, and a bottle list that ranges from Avery White Rascal and Port City Pale Ale to 16-ounce cans of PBR and the light Pilsner 100 from El Salvador. Meanwhile, the Dark and Stormy was calling my name and didn’t disappoint.
Food is available from downstairs, but there’s also a light rooftop menu of snacks with deviled eggs and sweet, spicy chili wings. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. See you there?
-- Fritz Hahn (May 17, 2012)