First Bite

Chaotic, With a Sweet Finish

Co-owner Dan Searing, left, behind the bar in the tiny Room 11 on 11th Street NW in Columbia Heights.
Co-owner Dan Searing, left, behind the bar in the tiny Room 11 on 11th Street NW in Columbia Heights. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There are just 15 seats in the new Room 11 in Columbia Heights, and all of them are spoken for when four of us show up on a recent weeknight. We follow the lead of those who came before us, put our name on a waiting list and keep our fingers crossed for one of the tables on the adjoining outdoor patio.

It's hot inside. Chaotic, too. What appears to be a lone bartender is struggling to keep pace with everyone's liquid needs, while the servers bring to mind fish swimming upstream as they compete with customers to get in and out of the front door with food and/or empty plates.

The epic wait for a bottle of wine gives us the chance to take stock of the new watering hole. There's a zinc-topped bar fronted with cheery red stools, and sheer brown curtains framing the front window, which looks out onto the street. Wine takes up what little space is left in the 680-square-foot location (the bottles are stowed in racks high above the cream-colored dining room).

The food we see leaving the tiny kitchen looks familiar -- too familiar. Surely my friends and I aren't the only diners suffering from cheese plate and charcuterie fatigue these days. There are also five pressed sandwiches, including a combination of fennel, cauliflower and roasted garlic that tastes like a mistake, and half a dozen "bites" to consider.

That latter category includes an unevenly dressed salad of fennel and trout and a bowl of tender meatballs draped in a marinara sauce spiked with harissa. Ben Gilligan, the cook and one of four owners here, says he hopes to expand the selection down the road.

"I have a sweet spot for Asian food," hints the Australian native, who tells us he met his business partners (they include Paul Ruppert of the Warehouse Theater and Gallery) through the local music scene.

Come dessert, we're happy campers again. Not only are we eating our last course alfresco, we're enjoying the handiwork of Paisley Fig, the same local company that sweetens the finish at Cork Wine Bar in Logan Circle. A honey-laced goat cheesecake served with a red-wine reduction is particularly nice.

Spelled out in tiny tiles on the floor, the restaurant's name borrows from Room 11's street address and is "meant to evoke a cozy atmosphere," Gilligan explains.

Only after it was christened did the cook recall why it rang a bell with him: "Eleven was my detention room in high school."

Room 11, 3234 11th St. NW. 202-332-3234. Bites and sandwiches, $4-$10.

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