Finding Unexpected Warmth in a Cellar

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Yeah, there we were, hanging outside the basement steps leading down to The Dabney Cellar, a few minutes before opening time.  Looking up at the sky, checking the time on our phones.  (As if we were waiting for a secret code…or something.)  We’d just walked over from Maydan, after a fruitless line standing experience (we’ll try again), ready to take our chances at The Dabney.  The small subterranean The Dabney Cellar is the English basement outpost below The Dabney and faces 9thstreet with its own entrance.  J had put in our names upstairs at The Dabney for a table and we took the recommendation to spend an hour and a half in the Cellar around the corner from The Dabney’s Blagden Alley entrance.  (For customers, there’s no way into The Dabney directly from the Cellar.)

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The Dabney was surprisingly unpretentious for being one of Washington DC’s best restaurants; the tables a happy distance apart and the kitchen low and open at the back, the food (smallish plates) consistently vibrant and green.  The Dabney was excellent, but the Cellar was a find.  Comfortably dark, warmly lit and nicely cozy.  Fitted with an L-shaped bar and high tops, tables on an upper deck.  J and I sat at the bar, checking out the wine list for interesting tastes, talking to the welcoming bartenders about the wines, snacking on melon salad and crostini, a cover of Steve Winwood’s Valerie in the background.  Comfortable, friendly, and low key.

A Little Bit of Italy in Virginia

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We went south to head north; to stop by a few wineries on a rainy Sunday, on our way back to the Washington, DC, area.  J and I had been hiking in Shenandoah National Park and “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway.  After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhouse in Crozet, we turned left at the winery sign – hanging off a piece of construction equipment at the side of the road – and pulled in to Gabriele Rausse (just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia).  Gabriele Rausse is the namesake winery of Gabriele Rausse who moved from Italy to Virginia in the late 1970s to help start Barboursville Vineyards.

The modern glass and wood framed tasting room was tucked into the trees at the end of a short gravel lane – windows facing out on at least two sides of the small open space.  At mid-day, a couple was sitting in the back booth and several were standing at the tasting bar.  The Beatles were playing; a wilted hardcover book about Italy’s big Barolo wines on the shelf.  The winery’s lumberingly sweet yellow lab mix greeted everyone and then plopped down to rest against the window.

Gabriele Rausse’s son was pouring the wine, family was around, and fresh pasta was being rolled through a pasta maker.  We tasted whites to reds accompanied by small bites of speck with arugula, soft and crunchy sourdough baguettes with pungent olive oil for dipping, fresh linguine with pesto, and a bite of warm baklava at the end.

Get This Wine…Sparkling na Punta

 

Le Vigne Bioin the town of La Morra in the Piedmont region of Italy showcases wines from winemakers using biodynamic and organic processes.  The wine bar’s temporary, raised outdoor patio (reminiscent of a small music stage) was across the street and abutting the face of the La Morra town hall, which is just about to the top of the hill where the via San Martino meets the Parrocchia di San Martino.  The wines by the glass, including several sparkling options, were written in chalk on a blackboard leaning against the town hall wall.  Several small tables and chairs were arranged and two sets occupied by a visiting German family on this cool late afternoon in early September.  It was a perfect time for J and I to sit down for an aperitivo on our first day in La Morra.

Eyeing the sparkling, I went with the na Punta (2012) an Extra Brut produced by Franco Conterno, based in Monforte d’Alba just across the hills.  What a find!  The pale gold color of the na Punta delivered a dry smoky taste that was so unexpected from a sparkling.  Made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grape (the grape of this, the Piedmont region of Italy), na Punta had a heft I hadn’t tasted before in a sparkling.  I sipped mine while nibbling on a selection of salumi, the aperitivo food complement to our glasses of wine.

I was wracking my brain trying to think of ways to carry back some na Punta despite only traveling with small, international-size carry-on bags.  Was the na Punta worth investing in a large hard-sided suitcase?  Would we be crazy to pay more outrageous shipping fees to the US and buy a case to be shipped from Le Vigne Bio’s friendly owner, Severino Oberto?  In the end, sensibility won out, but we took a photo of the bottle just in case we might find it back home.  We didn’t.  Franco Conterno distributes some of their wines, but not the sparkling na Punta, in the US.  J surprised me, though, and for Christmas, he ordered a half case from the winery and we enjoyed na Punta on a twinkling Christmas Eve on Hilton Head Island.  Most appropriately, with elegant Poached Oysters, light and tangy with Pickled Cucumber and Caviar.

No Reason to Whine With These Wine Bars in DC

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Capping off 2017, I tried two newer wine bars in DC – both in the Shaw neighborhood.  One cheeky, one engaging, both welcoming in small, street front corner spaces, perfect for stopping in and trying a few new wines.

December was Merry Meritage month at Maxwell Park.  The small corner wine bar was shoulder-to-shoulder people early on a Saturday evening for a drink before (or with) dinner.  J and I weren’t sure we’d make it to a seat, but the amiable hostess assured us that a couple at the bar was just paying their check and the large party milling around them was about to leave.  Both happened, just as she said, and there we were with two seats and two wine menus, exploring the meritage offerings.  Bill Murray exclaiming “Murray Meritage” was emblazoned on some of the bartenders’ t-shirts, echoing the web site’s tongue-in-cheek, where “Wine” incites, “Trust me, You Can Dance.”  The bar is clean lines and serious wines, but the wittiness assures a wine experience that is lighthearted and fun.  Maxwell offers select bar snacks, with a few “mains” if you want to stay for a full meal.  J and I enjoyed the thick slice of truffle-honeyed butternut squash with pine nuts and feta while we tried a couple of glasses of the meritage selections.

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I made it to La Jambe on New Year’s Eve after reading their web site declaration to come by and ring in the New Year on Paris time!  I was lured in by the opportunity for an early toast at a neighborhood wine bar I’ve wanted to try with no over-priced NYE set menu.  La Jambe welcomed us, and later two friends, into a stylized modern bistro.  The massive mural covering half the rear cement wall set a cool edgy tone softened by marble top bistro tables.  A chalk board hanging on a cement pillar in the middle of the u-shaped bar announced specials.  Strings of Christmas lights and a lighted tree in the street-facing corner windows gave off soft and twinkling light throughout.  J and I chose from the menu a cremant rose from the Alsace (Cremant Rose Jean Claude Riefle) – dry, light, with a hint of pink – beautiful in color and taste.  We shared as part of this aperitif a charcuterie and cheese plate, “Le Surprise” (with a very flavorful goat cheese), a basket of crusty bread, pickled vegetables and black olives.

La Jambe and Maxwell Park are two of a number of new wine bars (and bakeries and coffee shops) popping up in newly constructed or renovated buildings around Washington, DC, but offering happily unique atmospheres not dependent on older buildings layered in years of character.

Eat Here…for Snow Days or Just Really Cold Days

IMG_0532Looking out the window I can see that the snow is tapering off, draping softly over the layers of branches that make up the evergreens.  The scene has me thinking about favorite snow day – and just really cold day – haunts over the past years in Arlington.  When we can’t stand being inside any longer, J and I bundle up in parkas and boots (strapping on yak traks when icy streets and sidewalks challenge our balance!), trudge up to some of our favorite local restaurants and park it at the bar we get to first that’ll take us.

I’m a fan of Screwtop Wine Bar.  It’s small, which I like.  (But many times, for me and J, that means waiting around, albeit with a glass of wine, for a seat at the bar or a table.)  It’s a wine bar that doesn’t take itself seriously – starting with the name.  Then with the menu.  Pick a glass from “Everything happens for a Reisling,” or “My Pinot is bigger than yours,” or start off with a selection from “My mind is a blanc” and fill up from there.  Apart from smiling just reading the wine list, the fun of Screwtop is picking out one (or more, no one’s judging here) of the close to 50 rotating wines by the glass or sip (and more by the bottle) and monthly changing wine flights.

The kitchen produces more than cheese and charcuterie plates to go along with your glass of wine.  The meat and cheese-centric menu extends to main course sandwiches.  The appropriately caveated “gut busting” Buffaloaf and the Hot Cuban stand out (with The Whole Enchilada! not falling far behind).  I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that J and I have tunneled through a piled-up plate of Fiesta Nachos with pulled pork, claiming it as our main course.  We went there, yes, even after ordering one of our favorites from the “Sharing & Pairing” selections, the cheese-less but pork-full zingy Pot Belly Pig Lettuce Wraps.  There’s a list of salads on the menu, and to make ourselves feel better, we’ll order the leafy green side salad to go along with our tangy Buffalo Sliders topped with chipotle aioli.

The Green Pig Bistro has a larger space than Screwtop, its neighbor of a few doors down.  J and I almost always find seats at the bar or communal bar table within minutes (with minimal stalking).  This makes “The Pig” extremely attractive on a Friday night when we don’t have the energy to cook and we’re starving before leaving the house.  The Pig, for me, is that quintessential neighborhood hang-out.  It’s comforting, its lively, it serves good food and wine.  Everyone knows your name – or at least your face if you eat there as often as we do.  Around Christmas they decorate by pulling out a leg lamp from that classic Christmas movie, A Christmas Story.  If you get there before 7 pm, there are happy hour glasses of red and white wines (and beers on tap).  They can humor me with a good ‘80s-ish playlist on occasion and show the Nationals (baseball) and Capitals (hockey) on relatively unobtrusive screens.

“The usual” for me in food is the hanger steak.  It was the burger until The Pig nixed the arugula salad from the burger/ fries/salad plate.  The hanger steak comes with both, so I can feel better about eating all of the fries.  The hanger also comes with a chimichurri sauce, which has varied in chunkiness and flavor over many years of Friday night hangar steak.  The fish changes regularly and rarely disappoints in preparation.  They’ve had a pork chop that does not remind me of my mother’s (sorry Mom!) because it’s thick and juicy and not thin and dry.  From chop, to shank, to schnitzel, the pork on the menu has always been good.  Pig tostada, albacore tuna, and the beet salad round out my go-tos for appetizers.  The brussels sprouts side satisfies us brussels lovers.  “The usual” in wine changes, occasionally, when the wines by the glass change.  The 7 Moons Blend is bold and flavorful at a good price point.  But the stand out for me is the Virginia Claret from just down the interstate in Williamsburg, Virginia, also bold, but hinting at a spiciness that is my taste of choice.  May it be on the wine list a little while longer.