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Jan 20, 2012

Hello! My Name Is Pinot Noir

If your New Year’s Resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine, this post is for you. You should also keep reading if you are stuck in a rut, afraid of leaving your cozy oenophilic comfort zone. Do you always find yourself asking for a glass of California Cab (or Zinfandel, or Pinot Grigio - insert your default choice here)? There is an amazing world out there waiting to be explored!

A big part of the fun is getting to know the grape personalities. Spicy, brooding, animalistic Syrah; juicy, fun Grenache; flowery, sensual Viognier… I am personally very fond of Pinot Noir, - the fickle, elegant grape with fantastic food affinity and beguiling aromatics, which comes to the pinnacle of its expression in Burgundy, France.

Old vinesJust like with learning a new language, there are some basics that you need to get out of the way first, such as the framework for explaining what you like or do not like about a certain wine. Even more importantly for foodies, you will need it to understand and describe the relationship between food and wine. Let’s take a look at a couple of those concepts.

Acidity

Washington-20120116-00676I think of acidity as a flavor sparkplug. Ever thought about why you put lime and lemon juice on your food and even in your beer? It is the so-called “strategic” use of acidity: it makes food taste better, more focused. That is precisely why restauranteurs love crisp, clean, acidic wines. Acidity in wine helps to stimulate your appetite by setting your digestion into motion and it also helps to break down the fattiness in the food you eat (the same way we use the acidity in vinegar or citrus to marinate different foods). It creates a magic chain reaction of wanting a little more food, then a little more wine, then a little more food… you get the idea. It is useful to remember that higher acidity is typically found in wines that come from a cooler climate, as grapes do not get physiologically mature as quickly and do not get as ripe as in the warmer parts of the world.

New World vs. Old World

The term "New World" wine is used, quite literally, to describe wines from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, etc. If we look at the statistics of what people are drinking in this country, we will see that sales of reds are dominated by bigger, fruit-forward wines that taste of sweet oak and ripe fruit. Whites include plush Chardonnays and other wines that tend to have a touch of sweetness to them. In general, the New World is dominated by international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.).

Old-World wine-making has a different philosophy: it is about subtle, earthy, mineral flavors that make one focus more on the place where the wine was made, and less on the grape. Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot (and also happens to be the name of my favorite wine bar in NYC :-)); it is used to describe the unmistakable sense of “placeness”, unique soil composition, climate, etc. of the wine’s birthplace.

There are definitely proponents of both styles out there as demonstrated by global wine sales. Neither one is necessarily more valid than the other; it is a matter of individual taste. I personally have a preference for European wines for several reasons. First, because I like my wines “lean and mean” (as opposed to the “friendly”, easy-to-quaff wines of the New World). Second, because I find a great deal more values in the $12-20 price range among European wines (which is what I typically spend on a bottle of wine, and I always look for more flavor bang for my buck). And last but not least, because oaky, alcoholic, and fruity New World wines are on average less food-friendly and versatile; it is hard for them to stand up to the more zingy, complex flavors I enjoy so much. On the other hand, I find that earthy, highly acidic Old-World wines set me up for a high pleasure payoff with a wider variety of foods.

Resources

Depending on your personality, feel free to dive in and enjoy the wild ride, or build a solid wine foundation step by step:

  • You should consider taking a class at the Capital Wine School.Too few people know that they have the expertise of Master of Wine Jay Youmans right here in DC (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine are the two highest and most recognized certifications in the world. The "Wine Basics" and the "Essential Wine Tasting Skills" classes are perfect if you are looking for "the big picture" perspective. Jay's classes are fun, informal, and unpretentious.
  • Most quality restaurants understand that the dining experience is incomplete without wine, and work hard to create food & wine pairing “magic moments”. Part of that process is putting together an exciting but reasonably priced wine list and training the staff to be able to pass the excitement on to the consumer. Cork, Grapeseed, and Dino are just a few of my local favorites that boast nice by-the-glass programs (and offer other formats such as flights, 3oz pours, wine madness) that make it easy for anyone to try something new without taking out a second mortgage.
  • For “do-it-yourselfers”, I recommend two of my favorite wine books written by women who are incredibly passionate about wine and equally passionate about sharing their wine knowledge. “Wine Bible” by Karen McNeal is a collection of compelling stories about grapes, winemakers, and terroirs. “Great Tastes Made Simple” by Andrea Immer contains practical advice on how to get started with food & wine tastings at home. Both were extremely inspirational for me, as I was getting started in the wine world, and I had the privilege of meeting both of them in person at Saveur Magazine events. (Actually, one of the biggest inspirations was Andrea Immer’s son Lucas who asked his Mom for smoked duck for his 8th birthday :-)).

My last piece of advice to you: whatever mode of exploration you end up choosing, remember not to take wine too seriously. Cheers!

WineP.S. Be sure to check out Magic Moments 101 for some food & wine tasting ideas!

Categories: DC, Do It Yourself, Food and Drink, Foodie Gifts, Recipes, Shopping, Wine, Wine Bar
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May 21, 2010

Screwtop Wine Bar

SCREW-SIGN I've been waiting for awhile to write about Screwtop, this new addition to my neighborhood some six months back. I have visited Screwtop many times, and after each trip I'd start writing, and then stop. From week to week, something there seemed different, which in fairness should be no surprise in any new establishment. After several tumultuous months, though, the place seems to be finding its footing.

SCREW-INSIDE4 Screwtop is the ambitious creation of Wendy Buckley, a former internet exec who ditched the Net for a run in wine sales and cheesemongering, all in preparation for opening up this bar. Of course, Screwtop is more than a bar; it is a multi-concept space incorporating a retail wine and cheese shop, wine bar, and 40-top restaurant, all crammed into about two thousand square feet.

SCREW-INSIDE3 The space itself is pleasant -- with several large floor to ceiling windows letting in plenty of light, and shiny new dark wood bar -- but rather schizophrenic. While the retail area is airy and wide-aisled, the bar/main dining space is absolutely packed with chairs and tables. Thank goodness standing at the bar is discouraged, as when the place is bumpin' (which is often), the effect is nearly as claustrophobic as the nearby college hangouts.

SCREW-INSIDE1 Screwtop's proximity to said meatpits has made it a bit of a boon to the local tipplers. Indeed, a major part of Screwtop's raison d'etre seems to be to build a bit of a community for Clarendon area drinkers of the older, more reserved persuasion (and those with aspiration to such). One of the more interesting features is their wine club, which offers two bottles with a matched cheese for $40 / month. Members receive discounts on food and drink and are encouraged to attend the month pick-up parties, to meet and mingle. As often as not, a book club or similar group has called dibs on one of the two big tables set off in the retail area, where I assume they meet on a regular basis. Screwtop also has a very active Facebook and Twitter SCREW-INSIDE2 presence; followers and fans are the only ones to know about their Tuesday Happy Hour and "Wino Wednesday" specials, which can be very generous.

So Screwtop gets top scores on engaging their clientel; the food is a bit more mixed of a bag. The central focus of the menu is the cheese and charcuterie, which may be had for $6.50 a pop, $17 a SCREW-CHEESE1 threesome, or $33 a sixer. The 20 or so selections are varied and change frequently; one week I had one of the richest duck liver pates I have ever had; two weeks later grocery store favorite President Brie was a feature. On first visit the portions seemed ginormous, but they have adjusted down to a par-for-the-price size. Though the accompanying fruit and nut crackers are quite tasty, I am disappointed that Screwtop asks a sizable upcharge for any sort of condiments, including cornichons and mustard, which are often served gratis. The staff isn't stingy with the free truffle-salted popcorn, though, so I guess ya gotta take the good with the bad there.

SCREW-BUFF1 Screwtop also offers more filling fair in the form of sandwiches and salads. I haven't sampled a lot on this end, but on last visit I finally ordered the much touted Buffaloaf sandwich. Based on Wendy's mother-in-law's secret recipe, this big-ass combo of ground buffalo, cheddar cheese, bacon crumbles, sun-dried tomatoes, and chipotle aioli was as decadently awesome as it sounds, but fluffy despite the fat. At $13 this was easily enough to feed two, and the chips and $3 side salad that accompanied, though clearly store-bought, were more than fine.

SCREW-BAR2 And finally, on to the drinks. Though hard liquor is verboten,  Screwtop offers an impressive 35+ wines by the glass, along with two draughts, and numerous beers by the can and bottle. Prices range widely from about $7 to $15 or so a glass, beers about $5 to $10. In a word, the wine list may be described as eclectic. Selections hail from well-worn areas like California and Argentina, to the more obscure like New York, Moldova, and even Michigan. Though undeniably interesting, the wine list is also, unfortunately, rather difficult to read. Wines are split into categories SCREW-BAR1 based on clever but unhelpful puns, with nothing listed but appellation and price. The helpful and always friendly staff is more than willing to let one sample anything they like, but this feels like a bother when the bar is crowded. It would be nice to see a bit more info there, and maybe more pours in the lower price range, as those $7 glasses are rare. That said, the ever changing three-glass flights are a bit more well-structured, and they often proffer a taste of some real rare and pricey wines for a song. If you like what you've tried, you can get a bottle for home at 5% off, which is a nice touch.

I fear I may have come off a bit more negative here than I had intended. I don't really mean to crap on Screwtop. It's got some really great innovations going on, and always enjoy myself there. The concept, ideal, and much of the execution are great. Hell, they couldn't have happened upon a worse time to open, what with Snowpocalypse I and II occurring in their crucial first months (Eliza and I took refuge there in the December storm, during which they valiantly stayed open, and we had a blast). I criticize because I love, and I genuinely hope Wendy and her crew to do well. With a little bit of wine and cheese work, and maybe a bit of furniture moving, I could see Screwtop becoming a long term Clarendon fixture.

Screwtop
1025 North Fillmore Street
Arlington, VA 22201-6701
(703) 888-0845
Map

Categories: Arlington, Restaurant Reviews, Wine Bar
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Aug 20, 2009

Room 11 - First Impressions

DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood is one of the city's most diverse and interesting. Unlike some areas that have gentrified beyond all recognition, Columbia Heights has remained diverse and vibrant, with the population representing the full range of age, race and income. The local businesses reflect that diversity -- big-box Target abuts the family dry-cleaners; fancy beer bars coexist with Peruvian chicken joints, etc. Columbia Heights boasts the most varied list of amenities in DC, and with the opening of Room 11 last week, you can add to that list a neighborhood wine bar. I swung by on Monday evening for a cocktail and a quick bite.

Room11_1 Brainchild of bar manager Dan Searing (formerly of the Looking Glass Lounge and the Punch Club, pictured at right) and Paul Ruppert, Room 11 is a sort of miniature hybrid of Cork and the Gibson, combining the best assets of a high end wine bar and a cocktail lounge, reset in the context of a neighborhood bar. While the restaurant has a sizable patio, the inside is decidedly cozy -- the dozen seat bar shares the space with a handful of tables, and that's about it. That said, despite a surprisingly large Monday night crowd, the space did not feel cramped, and the clientele was not inclined to elbow. With the paint just barely dried, I was surprised to find the place so homey; the brushed-aluminum bar, dark brown cabinets, plain red shop stools and hardwood tiled floor give the place a comfortable, lived-in feel.

The bar itself hosts an esoteric array of lesser-known spirits including local rye, French Calvados and Martinique rum. Dan is also using Room 11 as a sort of Frankenstein's Lab for booze; a collection of Room11_3 ominous looking jars above the bar hold Dan's supply of green walnut infusions (which should be ready by Christmas), and he's already got a homemade clementine bitters doing duty on the rail. Room 11's 24 item wine list covers all the bases, from Spanish Verdejo to California Cab, with most selections priced in the very reasonable $6-$8 range. That night I forewent the vino, though, and just had myself a cocktail. That night, Room 11 was featuring the 'Ti Punch, a simple concoction of Rhum Agricole (rum made from sugar cane instead of molasses), cane syrup and a hint of lime. Though a bit strong at first, as the ice melts the cocktail takes on a lovely green and floral nose, and even a bit of nuttiness, without any of the cloying sweetness typical of contemporary rum drinks. Go by and try one for $8, or feel free to ask Dan to whip you up something special -- he is a consummate and adventurous mixologist, and his creative take on cocktails is sure to become one of the bar's core assets.

Room11_2 Chef Ben Gilligan has put Room 11's undoubtedly small kitchen to surprisingly efficient use. For $13 you can select three options from the sizable meat and cheese menu, which includes the usual array of goodies both foreign and domestic. At the Punch Club, Chef Gilligan was famous for his paninis, which may be had here at $10, with house salad. No Quiznos style sandwiches these, Room 11's sammies include such offerings as Cheese & Chutney and Roasted Garlic and Cauliflower, which is totally on my list for the next visit. For those in need of heartier fare, the lamb cutlets (pictured right, $10) smelled fantastic, and the trout and fennel salad ($8) was both sizable and exciting, featuring a great melange of oily, salty and sweet flavors. As for afters, I will sum up Room 11's dessert menu in three words: Honey Goat Cheesecake. Would that I had had the time!

No doubt, Room 11 is a great boon to the Columbia Heights drinkin' community, but I definitely consider my trip as a non-local well worth it. Friendly staff, good drinks, cheap wine, and plenty to nibble on -- what's not to love? Stay tuned for a full review after I really get to sink my teeth in.

Room 11
3234 11th St. NW
Washington, DC 20010
(202) 332-3234
www.room11dc.com
Hours:
Mon - Thurs: 5pm - 1am
Fri - Sat: 5pm - 2am
Brunch: Coming Soon

Categories: Columbia Heights, Restaurant Reviews, Wine Bar
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Oct 01, 2008

Wine Not: Beer and Cheese Pairing at Sova Tomorrow

Wine_cheese When it comes to cheese pairings, most of us automatically reach for wine.  It's hard to deny the complementary effects that wine and cheese have on each other, and the idea is reinforced throughout the media.

But wine is not the only adult beverage that can be paired with cheese, and the folks at Sova Espresso & Wine are hosting an event tomorrow evening that will demonstrate just how well beer and cheese can go together.  They will be pairing five distinctly different cheeses with five complementary beers as part of the Atlas District's First Thursday celebration on H Street, NE on Oct 2nd.

The event will run from 7 to 9 PM, and it costs $25 per person.  The tasting is being conducted by Jessica Wurwarg, a teacher at that cheese-lover's Mecca, Artisanal.  I had a chance to speak with Jessica, and she informed me that beer and cheese pairing events are a growing trend that can be attributed to the natural relationship that exists between the two fermented products.  "While wine and cheese can be either super-delicious together or the other extreme, beer and cheese are more easy-going."

Unlike wine and cheese pairings, which are often chosen for their contrasting yet complementary flavors, beers are most often paired with cheeses that offer similar characteristics.  The effervescence of the beer can cut through the fat in the cheese to allow a greater appreciation of its flavors - hence the need for a beer that won't clash with the cheese.  An example is the pairing of a sharp cheddar cheese with a crisp IPA - a situation where both are dry and tight on the tongue.

Beer_cheese Wurwarg warned that the main thing to keep in mind when pairing beer and cheese is to seek balance - don't let a heavy beer like a porter overpower a lighter, milder cheese.  The hardest pairings, she said, were for cheeses with complex flavors - washed-rinds and blues are particularly difficult to pair, but guests can expect one such pairing at Thursday's event.  Other likely pairings include a lighter goat cheese with a fruitier Belgian beer and a sheep's milk cheese paired with an amber ale.

First Thursdays are an opportunity for the bars, restaurants and entertainment venues of the Atlas District to showcase their own interpretations of specific themes.  This month - surprise, surprise - the theme is Oktoberfest, which inspired Sova owner Frank Hankins to put together this beer and cheese event.  Other venues' offerings include German specials and 'traditional Oktoberfest clothing' at Granville Moore's, a Beer & Brat special at the Argonaut, $3 Harpoon Oktoberfest beer at the Red and the Black, and $1 wursts (while they last) at the H Street Martini Lounge.  These evenings occur monthly, and each month brings a new theme.  Although this end of H Street is not served by the Metro, there is ample parking in the surrounding neighborhood.  But if you're coming for a beer tasting, you might consider picking up a cab at Union Station or riding the X2 bus line to avoid the need to drive home. 

SovaSova has been open on H Street since the end of last year, and Hankins has been slowly but steadily developing it into exactly the kind of place he first envisioned.  A relaxed neighborhood coffeeshop serving quality Intelligentsia coffee and espresso on the ground floor shares space upstairs with a laid-back wine bar featuring ten or twelve wines by the glass that go beyond the usual cabernet, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc.  His latest addition is a range of gourmet panini and salads.  Sova is located at 1359 H Street, NE.

Categories: Beer, Capitol Hill, Cheese, Coffee House, Events, Wine Bar
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Aug 07, 2008

Summer Wine Events at Willow

Willow Willow Restaurant, founded in 2005 by Chefs Tracy O'Grady and Kate Jensen, has hands down the best wine list in Arlington and gives most DC restaurants a run for their money. Sommelier Alison Christ has put together one of the most interesting and well priced by-the-glass programs I have seen, including several obscure domestics and imports ranging from $7 to about $17 a serving. Even on a normal day, Willow is one of the best places in town to try something new and interesting without breaking the bank.

A couple Thursdays ago, after a disappointing experience at another Ballston area wine bar, Grand Cru (lots of potential, sloppy execution and service), Eliza and I swung by Willow in search of a glass of wine that hadn't gone bad. To my surprise, I saw open on the bar several bottles of wine from Jermann, a northern Italian producer of high-end reds and whites. We sat, and were asked if we'd like to partake in the wine tasting. I thought, "Surely they aren't featuring those wines; they are far too expensive!"

Apparently we'd stumbled upon the first of Willow's summer series of wine tastings. For the rest of the summer, every Thursday (Restaurant Week excepted) between 5:30 and 7:30, the bar at Willow is offering a series of themed wines with paired hors d'oeuvres for $25-$30 per person.

These were no typical sample pours —for $30 each we received a full glass each of five of the best wines of northeast Italy, including Jermann’s “Dreams” Chardonnay, one of the most elegant examples of oaked Italian Chardonnay I have ever had, which regularly retails for about $80. The hors d'oeuvres were tasty and well-matched — our cool, oily gazpacho was a great pair with the full-bodied Pinot Bianco, and the stuffed mushrooms, with their earthy/salty qualities, meshed well with the Blau & Blau, a blend of Pinot Noir and the native Austrian varietal Blaufrankish.

Last Thursday featured a selection of high-end Austrian wines, and I regret not having been able to make it. Tonight, four wines featuring Old World vs. New World winemaking techniques are on the docket for $25.  If you have any interest in fine wine, great food and meeting some nice people, you should check it out. The staff is really friendly, and you are not going to find a better opportunity to try some great wines for such a price. Make sure to say hello for me!

While you are there, ask if they have any seats left for the big Mollydooker Wine Dinner taking place at the end of this month. Mollydooker, in case you haven’t heard of it, is pretty much the hottest winery to hit the scene in the past five years. Winemakers Sarah and Sparky Marquis make a range of VERY intense Australian reds, some with ABVs in the 16% range! Though the next batch isn’t due to hit the USA until October (upon which time it will disappear very quickly), somehow Willow scored samples of 10 of the wines in the forthcoming release, and Sparky Marquis himself will be there to talk about them. As I said, these wines are enormous, and I am very curious to see what the hell the chefs are going to pair with them. Though their fee of $95 a seat sounds high, this number is all inclusive, and actually a modest sum for this sort of event, particularly considering the hype behind the wine and the prestige of the winemaker. And, be honest, haven't you always wanted to meet a guy named Sparky? I'm saving up my pennies, so maybe I'll see you there.

Categories: Wine Bar
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Jun 05, 2008

From Circa to Cork

With the weather this past Sunday only threatening rain instead of actually pouring as predicted, Eliza and I trekked into the city to run a few errands, and maybe grab some food and drink. After a long due stop at Second Story Books (who are having a 20% off Summer Sale, FYI), where we failed to come back with fewer books than we had brought, we swung by Circa to check out the brunch selection.

Established in April 2007, Circa is a relative newcomer to the already crowded category of "Dupont Circle Upscale Cafes." Apparently they have carved themselves a niche, as the shiny, aluminum accented dining room was at capacity; unexpectedly, we were able to snag the last two top on the makeshift sidewalk patio.

If nothing else, Circa is a great spot for people watching — over the course of our meal, we saw dogs and babies of every size, several death-defying feats of cycling, and were regaled with a fascinating, hour long argument from a neighboring table over a very special chair, and why Diner #1 felt it was wrong of Diner #2 to get hammered and ruin it. (To our dismay, the two gentlemen departed before reaching consensus).

The food was decidedly less thrilling. Eliza's Caesar's Salad, which on the menu promised "roasted red peppers, boiled eggs, [and] Spanish anchovies," actually contained about a square inch of pepper, one-half-of-one egg, and not a single tiny fish; I don't know where they get off pluralizing! My hamburger Sliders were equally disappointing, as the onions were not remotely carmelized, and each burger was presented on a bun that was limp and quite clearly store bought. Our meals as served weren't bad for the price ($7 and $9.75, respectively), but neither was actually what we ordered —  a bit more attention to detail and truth in advertising might well be in order.

Cork1_2 After a detour to U Street for some Margaritas at Alero (who knew half a pitcher was so big!), we happily made our way down 14th Street to our next port of call, Cork Wine Bar. Situated in the evolving Logan Circle neighborhood, Cork and its neighbors are an eclectic bunch whose numbers include a furniture store, a bodega, a dog sitter's, a plant shop, an independent comic book shop, and other small businesses not common to the city.

Cork reflects its diverse environment with one of the most interesting wine lists I have ever seen. It is an unfortunate fact that most restaurants in this area, even those which purport a wine focus, are lazy when it comes to their by-the-glass programs, limiting their selections to the banal offerings of the larger distributors (which are all to willing to "help out" in putting them together). Even those that put the effort forth all too often will take the safe route, sticking to well-known, workaday producers and varietals. Not so at Cork, whose 40+ long list is dominated by relatively obscure French and Italian wines like Verdicchio, Irouleguy, and Marcillac; if these words are meaningless to you, fear not, as each wine is accompanied by a pithy, well-worded description. Our server was very attentive and helpful, and over the course of the afternoon we were visited by several staff members, each friendly and informative. Prices range from $6 to $14 a glass, and I promise there is not a boring wine among them. For those interested in training their palates, Cork offers several well priced flights which are changed on a monthly basis.

Cork2 As wine is always best enjoyed with food, Cork serves a selection of small plates intended for sharing and sampling with the bar's many wines. The menu is comprehensive given its size, offering cuisine appropriate for nearly any glass. On Sunday, we enjoyed a dish of sauteed wild mushrooms in madeira and marjoram, an asparagus special, and several items off the charcuterie and cheese list; everything was well prepared and well priced (the mushrooms were particularly tasty, and I hope someday we can replicate them at home).

Where Circa seemed careless in its execution, the people behind Cork quite obviously have a vision, and everything seems very well in focus. Though I have only been once and, therefore, am loath to make any conclusive judgments, I can say that I will most certainly be visiting Cork again. If you have any interest in exploring the wider world of wine, at first blush Cork seems a great place to begin.

Circa
1601 Connecticut Ave, NW
(202) 667-1601
Map
Hours

Cork Wine Bar
1720 14th Street, NW
(202) 265-CORK
Map
Hours and Reservations

Pictures of Cork courtesy of Sarah Mattingly

Categories: Brunch, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Wine Bar
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Mar 26, 2008

Cheese & Wine Bar Now Open at Cheesetique

Img_4515_2 When Cheesetique opened in its new location last month, one of the most exciting developments was not yet in place.  As I mentioned in my write-up, proprietor Jill Erber's big plans for the new space included a cheese & wine bar at the rear of the shop.  This week, those plans came to fruition with a Tuesday night opening.

Fans of the cheeses and charcuterie sold at Cheesetique can now enjoy them paired with wines by the glass in a casual dining environment.  Reminiscent of a small bistro or cafe, the space is dominated by a white marble bar that runs the length of the left-hand wall.  Behind the bar, large smoked-glass mirrors and red shelves give the space a warm and friendly character.  The remainder of the cozy dining area features table seating (marble makes another appearance on the unadorned tabletops) for roughly thirty guests at any given time.

Gazpacho_2 And those guests are in for a treat.  Chef Cat's menu goes beyond meats and cheeses in delicious, if predictable ways.  Several salads and sandwiches are available at very reasonable prices, with none of the entree offerings coming in over $10.  Artisanal quiches and panini featuring a variety of fillings will rotate on and off of the menu on a regular basis - the prosciutto panini we ate on our visit was definitely a highlight of the meal.  And the gazpacho that accompanies the upscale grilled cheese packs a delicious chili pepper heat in with the crisp, cool chunks of cucumber that swim in the tomato base.  The soup is available on its own for $3, a bargain compared to standard restaurant fare.

Img_4512_2Even so, the stars of the show are naturally the meats, cheeses and wines that you would expect to feature prominently in this setting.  Though you might anticipate the entire catalog of cheeses to be avialable in the bar, there is actually a small but diverse selection of ten different cheeses. They are featured on the Cheese Cart that stands at the ready beside the bar and can be wheeled to your table to show off the goods.  Our choices included a triple-cream brie, a honey goat cheese, a raw-milk aged cheddar, and a pair of blue cheeses among others - enough to give us pause, but not as many options as we might have hoped. 

Img_4518_2 These cheeses can be enjoyed on their own or in groups, and they come served with fresh, crusty bread.  If you're looking to make a more substantial plate, a variety of charcuterie choices are also available.  They range from the familiar (prosciutto, soppresata) to the more unique (lomo - a cured, pressed pork loin that was rich and flavorful).  A combination of three cheeses and three meats that comes with cornichons, olives, grainy mustard and bread runs $25, and it is a great way to experience a diverse group of flavors in one sitting.  The advice of your server can be invaluable as you try to balance your order - but don't hesitate to focus on your favorites if you know what you like!

Cheesetique's bar offers almost two dozen wines by the glass or the bottle, with prices starting at $7 per glass.  They run the gamut from sparkling wines to dessert wines, with a wide range of reds and whites to choose from.  Some basic pairing notes are included on the menu, but again your best bet is to ask your server for a recommendation to make sure your pinot noir and your Parrano don't clash.  A selection of beers that match up well with cheeses is also available, and the connection between the restaurant and the retail space is reinforced by a 10% discount offered on the purchase of wines that are featured in the cheese bar.

Img_4505 As with any completely new venture, there are still some small kinks to be worked out - the most noticeable is the Cheese Cart's inability to navigate the spaces between some of the tables when filled.  Additionally, my wife's order was inadvertently delivered to another table, resulting in her sandwich arriving just as we were finishing my panino. But the service was very friendly and quick to respond, and the team at Cheesetique seems like they are already off to a great start with only one night's service under their belts.

Cheesetique's Cheese & Wine Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 PM to 9 PM, and they do not accept reservations.  They are located at 2411 Mount Vernon Avenue, in the heart of Del Ray.  Street parking is available, and there is a small lot on the block for patrons.
www.cheesetique.com

Categories: Cheese, Del Ray, Restaurant Openings, Wine Bar
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Feb 07, 2008

EatBar

Eat1_2 At the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Pershing Drive in north Arlington, a bright green and red sign emphatically entreats passersby with the simple appeal "EAT." This same sign has been greeting customers for over 25 years to the old Arlington fixture Whitey's, which shut down about five years ago. In its place, Tallula restaurant has been providing Arlingtonians with nouveau American cuisine since 2005.

Housed in the bar area of the now well established Tallula, EatBar is the DC area's first "gastropub." All the rage in London and the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe, gastropubs are built on a simple philosophy: to provide innovative but familiar house made food along with fine brews and vino. Having experienced mixed success as Tallula's lounge the restaurant re-branded the bar early last year, and though they've experienced their share of growing pains and setbacks, the new concept seems to be taking off.

Built on the 'Amuse Yourself' program employed by the restaurant, EatBar's menu shines best with its sizable assortment of 3-bite treats, ranging in price from $2.25 to $6.00. In keeping with the gastropub philosophy, everything is made on premise, all the way down to the condiments. Included in the array of artery-clogging treats are a crispy risotto fritter in a green curry sauce, warm house roasted olives (which I like but my girlfriend finds odd), onion rings with homemade mustard (which we both agree are greasy and sub par), and an extraordinary trio of bacon wrapped figs in mascarpone cheese (which we both would eat a dozen of it wouldn't prompt instant cardiac arrest). The frites are well prepared, crispy shoestrings and make a great snack when paired with a couple of "baby burgers," which are great as long as you enjoy the taste of truffles.

In addition to the apps EatBar offers a simple but well chosen menu of full size entrees ranging from about $8 to $15 dollars (note: for several items this price does not include a side). Vegan dining is right out, but those who eschew meat won't starve: the EatBar salad is a fresh and simple selection of baby greens and shaved fennel, and the grilled cheese panini is gooey and delicious. Come springtime they will hopefully bring back the tomato and cornbread salad, which is an amazing light-but-filling salad, perfectly balancing the saltiness of feta and olives with the sweetness of the cornbread and tomato.

Anyhow, back to the meat. The house made hot dog is easily EatBar's greatest contribution to the DC area'sEat4_2  culinary culture. More bratwurst than ballpark, this all beef sausage is huge, with perfect consistency and just the right amount of grease and salt, served in a toasted bun that is actually the right size! Though I've read of people having mixed experiences with the dog, in several outings I have never had one that wasn't plump and fully cooked.

Items come out as they are finished, so if you are one for traditional three course dining, you might be better served elsewhere. However, this breezy sort of service leaves one plenty of time to sample the substantial wine list. EatBar offers a staggering 70 wines by the glass, differentiated by color, weight and style. Prices range from about $7 to $17 a glass and the wine is served in full size Bordeaux glasses at much closer to proper temperature than you find at most wine bars. While there is a sprinkling of restaurant standards on the list, by and large it is an eclectic mix of wines from all over the world, ranging from crisp Loire whites to heavy Spanish monsters. Though there is no real sommelier that I've ever met, the bar staff is friendly and will usually let you sample before you take the plunge. The bottle list, too, is quite lengthy and surprisingly wallet friendly-- I found a 2000 vintage Cotes du Rhone on there a few weeks back that was drinking very well for about $20! The beer situation is unfortunately a bit touch and go, and both beer and wine selections could stand to be rotated more often-- that said, the very breadth of selection will not leave you wanting for something new, as long as you are on the adventurous side.

Problems of drink and food rotation aside, I find myself going to EatBar again and again, not only for the addictive snack foods, but for the fun and welcoming vibe as well. While paper menus may be few and far between, all you have to do is refer to the framed blackboards behind the bar, a cute and innovative homage to your friendly neighborhood deli. Sunday night is movie night, so if you find yourself free on a weekend night and don't want to shell out $10 on a ticket to Hollywood's latest piece of schlock, swing by and see a classic--a glass of Cab is a far better investment in my opinion, and the truffle popcorn and candy are on the house! It’s these little touches and more that make what could be an intimidating venue into a rather comfortable affair-- more reminiscent of Whiteys really than is evident at first blush.

EatBar
2761 Washington Blvd
Arlington, VA
Map
703.778.9951
http://tallularestaurant.com/barandlounge.htm
Dress Code: Casual
Non-Smoking in the Front Bar, Smoking Allowed in the Back

Categories: Bar/Club, Restaurant Reviews, Tapas, Wine Bar
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Nov 02, 2006

Lia's - First Impressions

I stopped in at Lia's for lunch the other day, sat down at the bar and had a few appetizers and a meat-and-cheese plate. Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and I think that it's a good addition to the very average restaurant scene in Friendship Heights.

While none of the food we ordered was anything to go crazy over, everything we had was pretty good. Appetizers aren't cheap and most are from $8 to $10, but they're also large enough to share. Two people can easily get away with ordering an appetizer for each and a cheese plate to share. The lobster risotto appetizer that Amy ordered was a little "soupy" although the menu said it was a creamy risotto so maybe that's what they're going for, but the rice was tender and not overcooked. Amy commented that the lobster was a little chewy...I had the mushroom gnocchi which was a little oversalted, but otherwise good.

We also ordered a meat-and-cheese plate. The cheeses were good, although nothing that you couldn't pick up at Whole Foods or Balducci's (as far as I could tell -- I'm no cheese expert), and the bread  was a warm sliced Italian-style white loaf. The prosciutto, speck and bresaola on the meat plate were fresh and not too dry.

I think the jury is still out on whether or not Lia's is worth a special trip, but if you're in Friendship Heights, it's probably worth checking out.

Categories: Friendship Heights, Italian, Restaurant Reviews, Wine Bar
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Nov 01, 2006

Cafe Saint-Ex

You don't usually expect to find good food at a bar. A bar is where you typically find great munchies like nachos, cheese sticks, mini-burgers, and maybe...maybe if you're lucky, you'll find some Asian-inspired potstickers.

Café Saint-Ex isn't your typical bar though. 

The first time I went to Café Saint-Ex, I mistook it for your everyday bar. It was when I first moved to DC, long before I started this site, and I think at the time I was looking for a place "to party", or something like that. I believe it was after a 9:30 Club show. My friends and I waited at the bar nursing some beers while we waited to get in downstairs, but ended up leaving when that took too long.

Little did I know, five years later, I'd be returning for a completely different reason. This time, it was before a 9:30 Club show (Carbon Leaf to be exact), and we were there for dinner...instead of a party. Amy and I were having a night out on the town without Noah, our first in about three weeks! We were looking forward to a relaxing, casual dinner and that's exactly what we got.

We enjoyed the experience so much that we returned two nights later for dinner, but this time we took Noah with us. When we were there the first time  we noticed that there were some other people there with children, so we wouldn't feel out of place with him. Also, the louder atmosphere made it ideal if he decided to throw a tantrum or scream out loud, which only happens occasionally, but you never know when that shortened afternoon nap will catch up with him.

As far as food is concerned, Café Saint-Ex is definitely doing things right, and after reading Chef Barton Seaver's Bio on the Café-Saint-Ex web site, it's not surprising. You can get an extremely good meal there for a very reasonable price. For appetizers, the wood-grilled calamari (or actually anything wood-grilled) is tender and makes you wish everyone was making calamari like that. If you're expecting those typical rubbery rings of calamari that you get everywhere else, however, you'll be sorely disappointed. This calamari is served whole. The beet salad rivals that of any that I've had at other restaurants, with a goat cheese that doesn't overwhelm the beets, but also isn't so bland that you can barely taste it. And a horseradish vinagrette punches up the entire dish.

As I said before, anything wood-grilled or maybe anything that's cooked close in proximity to where the wood-grilling happens is very good. Most of the fish is cooked this way and I'd recommend you try it. I don't think the smoky and spicy flavor will be to everyone's taste, but you've got to try it once to see. So far I've tried the salmon and flounder and both were a big hit with Amy and myself.

For desserts, the smooth and creamy goat cheesecake comes looking like a giant scoop of ice cream on top of a crumbled graham cracker crust. OH MY GOD was it good. This rivaled Ann Amernick's cheesecake I tasted at Palena not long ago. Seriously people, if there is one reason alone to go to Café Saint-Ex, it's this cheesecake. I hope they don't take it off the menu anytime soon.

I should mention that the price fixe option that Café Saint-Ex offers is a very good deal. Before 7, three courses are only $28 per person, and after 7, they are $32. Our bills have consistently been below $100 with a bottle of wine. The wine list at Café Saint-Ex is very European with the occasional appearance of a New Zealand of California wine. Prices for bottles range from $24 to $75 with a majority of them falling in the lower end of that price range.

The host/hostesses are friendly as are the servers, who don't seem to have enough time to be overly congenial, but are quick to help you with the menu and point out the price fixe option to save you some money.

Café Saint-Ex
847 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20009
(202) 265-7839
Web Site
Map

Corkage: I didn't check. Call the restaurant to see.
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Street:  Street Parking. I found it pretty easy to find a parking spot on the streets in the area.
Closest Metro: U Street.
Reservations: Not Taken. First come, first serve. Dinner rush starts at about 7. If you get there before that, you probably wont have to wait long.
Baby friendly rating: 3 Diapers. The atmosphere is loud, which makes it great for children, and the waitstaff and hosts seem to really love babies.

Categories: Bar/Club, Logan Circle, New American, Restaurant Reviews, Seafood, U Street, Wine Bar
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