This shouted exchange went on for another round or two until the customer held his menu up to the waiter and pointed: "Rugola, red and yellow tomatoes served with a basil, cilantro and lime vinaigrette."
Eleventh Hour is a restaurant for the young or at least those with young, resilient eardrums and larynxes. It's for people who are used to conducting a social life at high decibels. Its music plays to a different beat each evening, but all of them are earsplitting. The crowd, too, is given to shouting, laughing and general noisiness.
No wonder. Eleventh Hour looks like a playground for adults. Wander through its warren of rooms and you'll find a dance floor in one, a fireplace sunk into the wall of another, a couple of bars, a showroom's worth of leather sofas and walls the color of raspberry jello, punctuated with square cutouts that could be cubicles for storing your lunch box and galoshes. Only the front is a conventional dining room, with blond wood tables and glass doors that open, French style, to the sidewalk cafe when the weather is right.
The front bar has funky three-legged stools with one wheel like a wheelbarrow. In the rear, looking up from the large, puffy leather sofas you'll see wooden swoops and swirls in colors and shapes that could have been inspired by Playskool. If even a table with plastic lawn chairs seems too formal, you can dine on a sofa and a coffee table.
Maybe playground is an exaggeration. At full tilt, a meal at Eleventh Hour feels like supper at a frat party. Probably a freshman frat party, since the staff seems to be just learning the house rules. Several waiters in succession ask you whether you want a drink which is always a sign that it's not going to come anytime soon. When clearing the first course, the busboy carefully takes your used silverware from your appetizer plate and places it on your bread plate. Then a waiter comes along and removes that silverware and brings you a fresh supply. And so the service continues: slow, a little absent-minded. A waitress fills your wineglasses to the brim, so efficiently that at a table for four she can remove the bottle after one pour.
The whole thing is just starting to seem like a joke until you taste the food. It's unexpectedly professional. Decidedly French. The chef, Vincent Torres, worked at Provence (when Provence was French), and it shows. I've eaten a lot worse food in an expense-account dining room with white tablecloths and classical music.
This is no nachos-and-bruschetta appetizer list. With soups and salads, you can choose from 19 first-course possibilities. Whole squid are roasted with a delicate stuffing of chopped shrimp, scallops and oyster mushrooms, dressed with olive oil, fresh herbs and a scattering of tomato and black olives. The dish smells faintly of garlic and definitely of the south of France. That North African lamb sausage, merguez, is popular in France but little known here; it's wonderful at Eleventh Hour, sliced on the bias and covered with melted cheese and a light tomato sauce. More of the French coastline: salt cod fritters, precisely shaped and lightly crumbed logs of potato and fish, too salty but irresistible in a chunky tomato sauce with cilantro and chilies. Tempura shrimp, too, have a hit of hot pepper in their thick green parsley sauce. That sauce would do honor to anything, but it's in especially good company with these remarkably juicy shrimp in their light and puffy batter. And like any restaurant with Gallic inclinations, Eleventh Hour serves steamed mussels. These are small and a bit shriveled, but their broth of sherry, ginger and lemon grass is delicious. As for the salad of warm marinated flank steak, its style and size strike me as more an entree than an appetizer.
Logic suggests that where there's a Provencal chef you should favor the fish entrees, but experience leads me to recommend otherwise. Instead, look for quail plumply stuffed with a smooth mousse of quail meat, chestnuts, eggplant and dried figs in a very good Marsala wine sauce with pine nuts. Or lamb loin cut into quarter-inch slices and grilled crusty and rare, its dark sauce light in texture and heartily flavored. Pork is grill-striped, juicy, well-bred meat in a gentle Spanish-style almond sauce. Its asparagus accompaniment is the best of the vegetable side dishes most of which are ill chosen and slapdash. Asparagus is also the star of a lovely, creamy risotto.
If the test of a restaurant is its sauces, Eleventh Hour goes on the honor roll. Fortunately, it also serves good bread with which to sop up every bit.
Dessert, though, is barely an afterthought. The kitchen produces its own tiramisu, but it's a wan version. The rest of the sweets, we're told, are not made in-house. Standard stuff.
Eleventh Hour is an urban pioneer in the scruffy repertory-theater neighborhood of the Source, Woolly Mammoth and Studio. The street looks like a corner of Lower Manhattan where tourists would never venture. And the restaurant itself is the kind of place where you worry you might be turned away if you're not wearing something cool and black. But while you might approach the place with trepidation, one meal is likely to make you want to try more.
Which is not so easy. I called to determine the restaurant's hours, and an answering machine assured me it was open for dinner at 5 o'clock every evening. That evening, though, I found my guest waiting outside the door. The restaurant was closed for a private party.
"We're not usually open on Mondays," the person in charge gave as an explanation.
"But your answering machine says you're open every day."
"We'll have to change that."
Eleventh Hour 1520 14th St. NW. 202/234-0886. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for five or more. Separate nonsmoking area. Prices: appetizers $4.95 to $9.95, entrees $11.95 to $20.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $60 per person.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company