Nice little post here about politics and knowing your vintages by Slate’s Mike Steinberger.
Non-wine/spirits/food posts that may be important to local readers.
I have written about my babymoon in Italy here, here, and here. But I have not written about our time in Florence, where one of my favorite dinner stops was Acqua al 2. A couple of years ago, Acqua al 2 opened its third restaurant (the other is in San Diego) right across the street from Eastern Market in Southeast Washington, DC. After several delays and false starts due to babysitting issues, my wife and I finally made it to AA2 a couple of weeks ago. I went with tempered expectations, skeptical as to whether the D.C. location could do justice to our experience in Florence. I am happy that I can now say that AA2′s slow, steady expansion is working and that District residents looking for a high-quality meal should be sure to make reservations soon.
I confess that my first impression was not particularly favorable, as this is not the best place in D.C. to grab a pre-dinner cocktail. The bar area is quite small and fills up quickly at peak dinner hours. I also was not thrilled with the cocktail menu. That said, we weren’t there for the cocktails, and the wine we had with dinner was solid. The Boscarelli 2007 Montepulciano DOCG had a warm smell of red fruit, blueberries, and red cherries with notes of raspberry, blueberry, and spice on the palate. This bright medium to full bodied wine could be paired with a wide variety of dishes, but I would recommend letting it decant for a while. What seemed like a one dimensional wine eventually opened up adding hints of dark chocolate/coffee, and eventually caramel. 3/4, Appx. $29 per bottle.
What the bar lacked, the restaurant provided in its authentic Florentine feel. It felt like Acqua al 2 in Florence, from the neighboring wall painted to appear as a Florentine alley, to the illustrated place mats, to the painted plates adorning the walls. One immediately feels warm and welcome.
But the food is the thing. Acqua al 2 specializes in its pasta courses and steaks. I figured that the steak would be pretty good — I mean, we can do steak in the States. My concern was the pasta, but I was wrong to worry. As in Florence, my wife and I ordered the pasta sampler, offering tastes of 5 of the menu‘s pastas at the chef’s discretion. The pastas were al dente; perfectly prepared. We were both very pleased.
The steak was also very well cooked. As in Italy, the dishes were not overcomplicated. Everything was relatively simple, letting the flavors speak for themselves. The one concession that I saw to the American palate was in the dessert, where a more New York-style cheesecake was served as opposed to a more traditional Italian offering. I must confess, I was happy with that switch.
It was clear that the staff took a good deal of pride in carrying on the Acqua al 2 tradition. I was very impressed at the quality of the food and the presentation. I can’t say it was exactly like being in Florence, but it was a great reminder of a wonderful few days in one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world.
Over the last few weeks, I have been doing my best to expand my knowledge of spirits and the art of making high quality cocktails. I’ve already written about my stops at The Gibson and Proof, and I have been reading (in my copious free time) Boozehound, by cocktail expert Jason Wilson. When I found out that my wife was going to be hosting a girls’ night, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to stop by another famous spot for cocktails in the District, The Passenger. At the last minute, I decided to go all in and upgrade my experience with a reservation for The Passenger’s Columbia Room. There, for $64 a head, you can get two small plates and a tasting menu of three cocktails prepared by self-professed booze nerd, Derek Brown.
I arrived at The Passenger a bit early, so I decided to check out the scene. Every seat at the bar and table were taken, but the place was not overly crowded. As I took it in, I heard a couple of regulars taking on either side of me. The first said to his companion, “Tell him what you like and he’ll give you something good.” Always a good sign. I then overheard the second one tell a friend that he used to go to The Passenger all of time, but that he went less now because “the place has gotten more crowded over time, more popular, and the prices have crept up.” When I left the bar two hours later I knew what he meant, as the place had filled up such that it took me five minutes to make my way through the main bar room and out the door.
But those two hours made it well worth the effort I would have to put in to leave. When my time came, I moved toward the back of the bar and turned to the unmarked black door to my left. (There seems to be a theme here, but at least this door was inside a well-marked establishment.) The door opened and I was escorted into a 10-15 seat room with a long, elegant bar displaying a wide variety of liquor and bitters bottles. Two bartenders were setting up the bar and were soon joined by Derek Brown, who welcomed his next round of tasters.
The first cocktail offered was a Charles Dickens Punch, a warm drink consisting of rum, cognac (or brandy), sugar, lemon juice, and boiling water. I am normally not a fan of hot drinks, but it was perfect on a cold night. I immediately resolved that I would have to make some for my wife.
The next cocktail is where my visit became interesting and educational. After chatting with Derek a bit about the punch, he brought me an Antwerp Cocktail, made from Boomsa Oude Genever (pre-dry London gin), Domaine de Canton, Benedictine, and homemade lemon bitters, with a floating lemon slice and wild orchid flower. Derek explained that this was not your typical gin-based cocktail as the Genever was an old fashioned gin. He was right. The juniper was much less dominant than I expected and I thoroughly enjoyed this very powerful cocktail. Oh, and it was served with 3 delicious Virginia steamed clams.
While finishing the Antwerp, I mentioned to Derek, as I have mentioned to you in prior posts, that I do not like gin and was therefore relieved to have enjoyed the Antwerp. Derek looked at me like I had just issued a challenge. A few minutes later, he placed two bottles in front of me: Plymouth English Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth. When I asked if he was making me a martini after I just told him I did not like gin, he commented that there are two ways to approach things, you can either dip your toe or jump in the water. He always preferred the latter. He said that he made the best martini in town and, if I did not like it, he would concede I did not like gin. At some point during this conversation, a bowl of truffled popcorn appeared in front of me, which certainly made me a much more amenable patron.
I asked what the ratio was and, without hesitation, Derek replied, “50/50, the way God intended it.” Now, I am not going to tell you that I will be order martinis from now on everywhere I go, but Derek’s martini convinced me that I can enjoy the right gin in the right cocktail made the right way. My door to gin experimentation was reopened.
That was the end of the menu, but I had some time left before the next round of reservations. I put myself in Derek’s hands and he brought me a Fancy Bourbon Cocktail, made from Old Weller Antique Bourbon, Royal Combier, simple syrup, Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters, and a twist of lemon peel. It was a powerful drink to end the night with, but very enjoyable with the taste of orange complimenting the sweetness of the bourbon poured over freshly cut ice.
At $65 a sitting, The Columbia Room is certainly not an every night destination. However, the personal attention, the high quality of the cocktails, and the chance to ask questions of such a studied and impressive cocktail geek make it well worth the price of admission. Oh, and if you are a wanna be a true geek, bring a notepad . . . or an Ipad.
The Columbia Room at The Passenger
1021 7th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual D.C. International Wine & Food Festival. I have attended this event 3 or 4 times in the last several years, and the number and quality of the vineyards attending has varied. I was planning on skipping this year, as they once again held the Festival at the Ronald Reagan Building, which makes for a very crowded room. However, at the last minute I found a discounted ticket at Deals for Deeds, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
While I am sure it is a useful event for those in the trade, I would probably not recommend attending next year’s Festival unless you really have a passion for wine. This is particularly true as several major regions that have attended previous festivals were missing this year. For example, I do not recall seeing a single winery from Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lodi, or, for that matter, anywhere in California.
Moreover, I was immediately reminded that a wine festival is often the worst imaginable place to taste and evaluate wine. That said, there were a few standouts at this year’s festival, which I have listed below by region but in no particular order of relative quality. My apologies, detailed notes were impossible.
Finger Lakes, New York
Dr. Konstantin Frank 2009 Semi Dry Riesling
Fox Run Vineyards 2008 Chardonnay Reserve
Fox Run Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc
Wagner Vineyards Niagara
Red Newt Cellars 2009 Semi-Dry Riesling
Casa Larga 2007 Fiori Cabernet Franc Ice Wine
Waimea Estates 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Nelson — a quick note on this wine. It might have been my favorite wine of the Festival and, to my recollection, was the first wine that I have tasted from the Nelson region of New Zealand. I found it incredible that there was actually a representative from the winery in New Zealand at the show. Someone in the trade that I ran into later told me that Waimea was there looking for a distributor in the States. If accurate, and you happen to be a distributor reading this post, you should definitely touch base with the folks at Waimea.
Tarras Vineyards 2008 Pinot Noir, Central Otago
South Africa (there were a lot of value wines from South Africa on display at this year’s Festival)
Simonsig 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch
Vansha Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc/Viognier
Indaba 2010 Merlot
Solms-Astor Cape Jazz Shiraz, Cape Winelands
Doohlof 2009 Dark Lady of the Labyrinth Pinotage, Wellington
Seven Sisters 2009 Bukettraube, Swartland
Nederburg 2010 Lyric (Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc)
A while back, I wrote a review of my dinner experience at Proof in Downtown Washington, D.C. As I explained then, Proof is an outstanding wine destination. What I did not learn until recently is that the bartenders at Proof also make very impressive cocktails. My initial assumption that Proof is only about the wine was definitely mistaken. I recently enjoyed a couple of excellent cocktails there and strongly recommend that you try them too.
The Devil’s Grin — Proof’s blend of whiskey, campari, amaretto, lime juice, and cane syrup starts sweet until the bitter takes over on the back end. This is a wonderfully complex drink in which you will find several layers of flavor.
The Charlie Lindbergh — I have a confession to make. Here it goes. I don’t like gin.* There, I said it. At least not certain gins. I don’t like the taste of juniper. It is a shortcoming that will likely prevent me from ever becoming a true cocktail geek. Despite knowing this shortcoming, I occasionally try a gin-based cocktail hoping to improve myself. Proof brought me as close as I have ever come to an enjoyable gin experience with this combination of gin, apricot liquor, cochi aperitivo, americano, and orange bitters. If you like gin, don’t hesitate. Even if you don’t like gin, it may be worth the experiment.
775 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
*Update: I drafted this post before relaunching the blog. After writing about Proof, I had an interesting gin experience at The Columbia Room in The Passenger that may have changed my mind. I hope to post about this tasting in more detail soon.
My wife and kids headed out of town to visit family a little while ago, leaving me with 6 days of quality bachelor time. My first order of business was a good cocktail — I mean a good cocktail. After asking around and considering some options, I decided that The Gibson was the place to go. The drinks did not disappoint and my friends and I had a very enjoyable evening, even if The Gibson is guilty of some of the pretensions of many quality bars these days.
Lets get my minor hang-ups out of the way. News flash: Prohibition has been repealed. You are not a speakeasy. Accordingly, your website can contain more than a few old pictures with your contact information. Also, you can put a noticeable sign over your door stating the name of your establishment. I am not saying we have to put golden arches up there, but you can subtly mark your territory. Again, The Gibson is not alone here. For example, I also love me some PX, and I appreciate that they put a bit more information on their website, but I can do without the blue light marking the spot — a small sign will be sufficient. These are personal dislikes and are simply a matter of taste, but I feel better now that I have gotten them off of my chest.
That said, once inside, The Gibson is a good looking bar with a good atmosphere. It’s a bit dark and the music was a bit loud to my taste, but no one else in my party seemed to share these concerns. The service staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the drink menu is comprehensive. Most importantly, The Gibson passed my biggest test — I gave them a general idea of what I like in a cocktail and told them to bring me something I would love . . . and they did.
That first drink was a Boomerang, consisting of rye, Dolin Dry, homemade Swedish Punsch, a bit of simple syrup, and dashes of Angostura Bitters and lemon juice. Exactly what I wanted — not to dry, not too sweet, with a bit of a tart kick. The staff nailed it on the first try.
After our first round, the six of us decided to order a pitcher of The Gibson’s Seasonal Punch for the table. We were six people with very different tastes, but the punch was roundly praised. Made by mixing apple brandy, rum, pineapple, syrup, whiskey, and Champagne, the punch was sweet but not cloying and light on the palate. It was the perfect end to the evening.
If you need a great cocktail, The Gibson should be high on your list of places to go in downtown D.C. The drinks and the knowledgeable staff make it worth paying a couple of extra bucks. Make reservations well in advance or prepare for late night (or early morning). Just make sure you don’t walk past the unmarked black door when you arrive.
2009 14th Street, N.W.
Appx. $12 per drink
Now that I have a home bar, I have been playing with various cocktails. Although I should probably be spending this time preparing my second post about our recent trip to Italy, here is my first in a series of posts sharing some of my favorite cocktail recipes. This one is our House Drink; I call it The Slapshot. A tip of the hat to On Frozen Blog for turning me onto the basics for this one — if it good enough for Ovechkin it is good enough for me. The portions for the ingredients are my own and experimentation is always recommended.
1.5 oz. Vodka (for a good, inexpensive mixing vodka, I recommend Smirnoff)
1.5 oz. Limoncello (homemade, if you are feeling ambitious)
0.5 oz. Grappa
Dash of Vermouth
Appx. 1/2 lemon worth of fresh lemon juice
Simple syrup (amount depends on individual taste)
A Slapshot and a Shot of J.K.
I started a new job recently, hence the lack of blogging. I plan to do a brief wine entry this weekend and then, hopefully, I will be able to get back into some kind of rhythm in the coming weeks.
Today, however, I am going to break my #1 blogging rule — I am going to blog off-theme. See, this is not only a wine blog, this is a D.C. blog. Something very exciting has happened here in Washington in the past couple of days. It’s not about wine, spirits, or food, so stop here if you are reading from afar. On the other hand, if you live and work in the Washington area, and you are at all a sports fan, I encourage you to read on.
The District’s hockey team, the Washington Capitals, was a perennial playoff contender back in the 90′s, but has been rebuilding over the last decade. Attendance has dwindled, and the Caps have become a subject of ridicule in places like New York, Montreal, and Ottawa. This week, the Capitals took a huge step in putting that to an end.
On January 10, Ted Leonsis (owner) and the Washington Capitals inked forward Alex Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million deal. It is the richest deal in NHL history. Who is Alex Ovechkin? Well, he is a young Russian phenom who was the NHL Rookie of the Year a couple of years back. This huge agreement is for the career-long services of, arguably, the best player in the NHL today. Caps fans have been rejoicing and reveling in the whining and crying of fans in the major hockey markets ever since. (You can find examples here, here, here, and here.)
Photo courtesy of WashingtonCaps.com
Why am I writing about this? Well, in addition to being a wine freak, I am a hockey freak. I played hockey my whole life. I was a Hartford Whalers fan as a kid until they packed up and left for North Carolina. So, since 1997 I have been a man without a hockey team.
Hartford Whalers Forever!
In late 2006 I decided to start watching again. Living in the D.C. area, I began to tune into the Washington Capitals. The team was not doing well and there was a feeling of tired desperation in the stands. Everyone new the team had some good young players, but the face of the team, Alex Ovechkin, would be a restricted free agent the next year. Would he really stay? Could the Caps really rebuild themselves into a Stanley Cup contender? It looked bleak.
This season started with a fresh sense of optimism, but a 3-0 start gave way to a huge losing skid that left the team the worst in the NHL. I learned more and more about the players, and saw the potential, but also watched the crowds dwindle until only the most dedicated followers remained. I began to think that maybe everyone was right, and D.C. could not be a hockey city again.
Then, at absolute bottom, the Caps fired their coach and brought in some new blood. Losses began to turn into wins, fans started coming back, and there was a sense of excitement again. But even as the fans slowly returned, a lingering doubt remained, as Alex Ovechkin had still not resigned with the Caps. Rumors were flying all over the Internet — he’s going to New York, Montreal . . . Nashville, anywhere but here. We weren’t good enough for him.
New Head Coach Bruce Boudreau deserves a lot of credit for the Caps recent success.
Photo courtesy of WashingtonCaps.com
Then Ovechkin, Leonsis, and the investors of the Washington Capitals said “Screw all y’all.” 13 years, $124 million — a great deal and a real investment in the team and the sport in Washington, D.C. I found myself on the Caps’ message boards reading and posting, and listening intently to the news on Home Ice on XM Radio.
After a full day of reading about the deal, the team as a whole, and contemplating who would be signed next, I realized that it had happened. I found a team again. I am a Washington Capitals fan. This is my town — this is OUR town — and it can be a great place to play sports; to play hockey. I am a Caps fan!
The next game is tomorrow (Sunday, Jan. 13) at 1:00 p.m. at Verizon Center. I will be there; you should be there too. Our team that just put its money where its mouth is, so let’s stand with them. We can Tivo the football game, but there is only one chance to go to the Verizon Center and tear the roof off when Alex Ovechkin steps on the ice for the first time as a life-long Capital.
So, as not just a wine blogger, but as a D.C. blogger, I say, “Thank you, Alex Ovechkin.” “Thank you, Ted Leonsis.” “Thank you to all of the players, coaches, and staff of the Washington Capitals.” I am a Caps fan, and I promise, if you come out to a few games, you will be one to.
Hey, if nothing else, you can swing by Proof afterwards.
Go D.C.! Go CAPS!
Don’t forget to VOTE!