The week between Christmas and New Year's is strange. If you celebrate, you are recovering from the frenetic, garish, in-your-face cheeriness of Christmas and even if you don't, the world gets quieter and the streets are easier to navigate, with many people off from work or away celebrating with family and friends. And if you are a parent like me, you are nursing a much-depleted wallet and a pounding headache from too much booze and too-loud, brand new Christmas toys.
This between-holiday lull was the right time for my husband and I to go to The Room (800 St. Paul St.,  438-7889, theroom800.com) for some recovery. The small, chill spot, located in the space formerly occupied by Red Emma's and owned by Andre Mazelin, opened this past spring.
When we got there, the place was pretty full, but quiet. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye played on the speakers. A group of people that seemed to be a family entertaining some out-of-town guests (a smattering of adults of various ages, two cute kids) all hung out on the orange couch in the furthermost part of the café. Other people sipped drinks and stared at their phones near the windows that look out onto St. Paul Street. Vintage-looking lightbulbs hanging over the bar gave the space a golden, inviting glow. There were a few of the small, narrow tables open but my husband and I choose to hunker down at the wide, smooth, wooden bar.
It's a small space, and the menu seems engineered to make the most of that—the website describes their selection as "nothing fancy, just really good." There are just three options on the light fare menu—the appetizer-like avocado toast ($7), hummus ($7), and a veggie wrap ($7.50)—but we eschewed those options for some of the slightly heavier stuff. My husband had the caprese panini, with mozzarella, basil, tomato, and pesto ($8.50). He also had a can of locally produced Oliver Espresso Brown ($6), a chocolatey and smooth beer. I chose a glass of Revolution Malbec 2014, the only red wine available (according to the website, a Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2015 is usually available as well).
I had the La Cubana ($9.25) with smoked honey ham, chorizo, house made pickles, swiss cheese, and yellow mustard. It's hard to mess up panini, I think, but both of our sandwiches were appropriately crisp on the outside and melty and cheesy on the inside. In mine, the pickles were crunchy and tasty. Coupled with the mustard, they were a tangy accompaniment to the smoky meat and mellow cheese. The Room wasn't really messing with the original recipe, but, they did it just fine. I also had the seasonal salad—the waitress told me that for now, it was apples, feta, and walnuts tossed in a vinaigrette dressing on a bed of spinach. The vinaigrette was a little bland, but the feta and apples mixed the salty with the tangy and sweet, giving it some extra umph. The paninis come with either chips or fruit. I opted for kettle chips, because the holiday season isn't over yet—might as well indulge for a little longer.
Other panini selections: the Four Cheese Mashup ($7.50) which features swiss, cheddar, mozzarella, and feta; the Lemon Basil ($8.25) with mozzarella, feta, lemon zest, basil, and pesto; and the Turkey Spinach ($9) with turkey, spinach, provolone, and local apple preserves.
If there is a drawback at The Room, it's that they don't offer heavier dinner options. It's not a place for a steak and potato meal, or five-course dinner, but it's hard to even call it a drawback because Mazelin knows his parameters and works adeptly within them. The café closes at 8 p.m., so it's not a dinner place, anyway, more of a spot to meet up after work to unwind. Or, a place to grab breakfast or lunch, since the menu works well for those meals, too. A chalkboard sign lists their offerings of locally produced bagels, which you can have alone or as breakfast sandwiches like the Crouching Tiger (roast beef, cheddar, kimchee, and aioli) or the sushi roll (lox, avocado, and Sriracha cream cheese).
One of the brightest spots at The Room is Mazelin himself, who plays a most gracious host without being overbearing or annoying. This, I imagine, serves a few purposes: It welcomed us, but also gave the only other members of the wait staff time to prepare our orders, in addition to taking new ones and serving the customers who were here before us. It took a little bit of time for us to get our food. We hardly noticed, however, as we chatted with Mazelin and an actress who had stopped in on her way to play rehearsal. Turned out that this is her first acting gig in years and over a glass of wine and some avocado toast she told us about how she plans to memorize most of her lines (she's mostly hoping that no one notices if she forgets a line or two, she said), and the costume that she envisions for her character.
Another woman, apparently a regular, chatted with us over her own glass of wine. She was going to see The Roots perform at The Fillmore in Silver Spring. Their opening act, she said, is the classic go-go band Rare Essence, which then lead to a debate about DC-based go-go music and Baltimore club. Mazelin brought up the differences between Baltimore club and club music from Chicago and New York. With our food long gone, and each of us nursing our second drinks of the evening, it was a satisfying way for my husband and I to pass a quiet, post-holiday weekday and the conversation with Mazelin, an added bonus.