Hockey and Modern Asian cuisine? ALL CAPS and Wasabi Guacamole? It doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but…
My pre-Washington Capitals dinner and drinks spot is the bar at SEI. Hands down. It’s open, with a lot of counter space, and there’s a small lounge area with low tables set-off in the back. Happy hour runs until 8 pm – every evening. It’s not wall-to-wall people, so you have space to linger and eat and hear your friends talk. I haven’t had a bad happy hour red by-the-glass (recently a merlot), and my sinuses are consistently cleared by the wasabi I apply liberally to my spicy shrimp or tuna sushi rolls. And then there’s the signature Wasabi Guacamole. Four of us scooped up two orders with crispy wonton chips. Then J and I usually take a break from sushi for two Kobe beef sliders on a plate. We don’t waver from these favorite happy hour menu choices and they never disappoint.
Post-hockey? Rarely. But when it’s happened, it’s been to Flight. Flight’s the warm blonde downstairs wine bar on “the other side” of Capital One Arena. By the end of a 7:00 pm game, closing time is coming, and so are the happy hour prices on wines opened, but bottles not emptied. When we arrived after one hockey night, stool space was available at the curved center bar, and we were immediately engaged by a bartender who was – well, engaging – and knew her wines. A perfect way to cap off a Capitals win.
Here‘s how I felt about Savannah, Georgia, in the Summer – miserably sweaty. The same Savannah in Winter – happily comfortable. J and I spent a cool December day with family walking a city backdropped by sharp blue sky and bright sun. Savannah’s ubiquitous squares were richly green, the massive branches of ancient trees gracefully arching above us. Delicate lamp posts were punctuated by rich red garlands in the days before Christmas. Blocks past the far end of the green carpet that is Forsyth Park, we made our way to Foxy Loxy Café. Searching for great latté (of course) got me there.
The Boombox Brunch – in the outdoor courtyard – and the cheesy grits in the Foxy Haystack – kept me. Get the Horchata latté, too, which was the right amount of sweet and cinnamon. To top it off, I discovered a new favorite sinus clearing hot sauce! While the DJ pulled out vinyl records, the garden tables and picnic benches were gradually filling up, to the classic sound of The Cars‘ Who’s Gonna Drive You Home.
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.)
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.
Arlington’s own urban beach bar is just a couple of blocks from the Clarendon Metrorail station. Yes, I said Urban Beach Bar. The outdoor bar (and patio triangle) at Northside Social occupies a former trolley depot, smack in the middle of a tough intersection of now traffic-heavy boulevards. I had been frequenting Northside for their morning lattés and great baked goods (blueberry muffins come to mind) and dense, flavorful bread (especially on a spinach, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich).
But when I’m sitting mid-day at the outdoor bar with my BLT and sparkling water, a light breeze – always – whether sunny or cloudy, watching the bartenders pour glass after glass (after glass) of pastel pink rosé from bottles in galvanized tubs and wheat-yellow beers from the outdoor tap, Steven Tyler rasping overhead, “Don’t want to close my eyes, I don’t want to fall asleep, ‘cause I’d miss you babe and I don’t want to miss a thing,” I feel like I’m happily hanging out at a beachside bar, the ocean just a few steps away.
A walk to Coco’s on the Beach requires advance consultation with the Hilton Head Island Tide Chart. Low tide was my friend. To make the journey from where I was staying towards the heel of the Island, you have to cross an inlet. When J and I crossed, an hour and a half after low tide and just around mid-day on a Tuesday, the water was barely ankle deep at most points and the inlet just a narrow line of water fed by the ocean cutting up through the sand. An hour later, that ankle-deep line was a hip-deep stream. And with a current strong enough that kids were having fun letting it carry them along a short-ways.
The walk to Coco’s was a people-watching quick-paced 50-minutes up the beach in bare feet, flip flops in hand, to the elevated open-air bar giving you a view through the palm trees to the ocean beyond. Coco’s is the quintessential beach-side bar – all laid back with a sense of hot, salty, sandy, and sunblock There’s a nod to old hippies (they’re welcome) and a sign that although (the owner?) may be of a certain age, he’s seen all the best bands. So true. Vibrant in their primary colors of blue, red, and yellow, square wooden stools front the wraparound bar and equally vivid wide square tables.
Coco’s serves a range of burgers and beers and sandwiches and cocktails in plastic cups. The Fried Bologna “Ohio Style” Sandwich that J ordered – pickles and onion rings layered on top of the lightly fried thick bologna slice – was delicious. So was my beefy Swiss and ‘Shroom Burger. Coleslaw and a bag of chips served on the side. Order at the window; pick up when your name is called over the mic. Try to read all of the signs running the length and width of the walls all around and above the counter. Take your photo in front of the multi-colored signpost. Or just sit and eat and have a beer and feel the breeze. You really are at the beach.
We’d had five straight days of unrelenting drenching rain. I’d just spent a late, sad Thursday night at the Capital One Arena witnessing the Washington Capitals hockey team lose Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (but which they went on to win in Game 7 to play for the Stanley Cup!). It was Friday evening and I was looking for happy. Could that be found at a restaurant in a non-descript suburban office building in Arlington, Virginia? Why, yes it can. SER was that place. And mostly because of the owner’s graciousness and attention and our server’s congeniality, a comfort I appreciated even more on that sorry wind-whipped soggy night.
A Spanish restaurant (not a tapas bar as SER’s amiable owner Javier Candon impressed upon us), SER transformed a ground floor of open concrete space into Spain’s warmth with splashes of blues and yellows – in the covered bar stools and banquettes and centerpieces of small cans of olive oil – and lively tables of local diners, like ours, enjoying the catch of the day, a rich ventresca del atun (tuna belly) that dissolves in your mouth. Not as if we needed more than the ventresca, but we couldn’t pass up velvety Revuelto (mushrooms, egg, and shaved duck foie), and the appropriately garlicky shrimp that is Gambas al ajillo (with soft, crusty bread to ensure the cayenne tinged olive oil didn’t go to waste).
Then there was the Priorat (more about that under Get this wine.) SER felt like a neighborhood restaurant with an owner dedicated to creating as much as possible in Arlington a true taste and feel of Spain. “Ser” translates as “be” in Spanish, and “to be” in Catalan and Portuguese. “Being” in the moment, enjoying a meal with J and a friend and surrounded by people doing the same, no matter the long week or the off-putting weather – that’s what I happily got at SER.
You’ll thank the monks who first tilled the soil in Catalonia, creating Priorat (only one of two wine regions classified as a Denominaciao d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Spain for consistent quality). I’ll raise a toast to Javier Candon of SER in Arlington, Virginia, for introducing me to the 2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat. Three Christmases ago J and I had capped a full day of family visits with a quiet dinner at the bar at SER. Even if I can’t remember the name of the wine, I remember how much I enjoyed that glass of Priorat with J on that Christmas night in the colorful surroundings of SER. Just as Javier described it, the D’Iatra Priorat on a subsequent rainy night was bold in flavor but nicely rounded at the finish at seven years old. Go get this wine and enjoy it this year.
Enjoying the restaurant scene in DC can sometimes be challenging. It’s the combination of very small, no reservation restaurants with restaurants that take reservations, but two weeks or a month in advance, at a precise hour, requiring you to stand, with fingers raised, at your keyboard or phone at the appointed time to claim a spot. Sometimes I’m not ready to make a reservation one month in advance, and certainly not every time I want a good meal out. And if you want to treat guests in town to interesting food at a smaller neighborhood spot, it’s hard to consider it a “treat” if you must start standing in line at 4:00 pm. And even then not be guaranteed a seat at the table that night.
One Saturday night, it was only me and J, and we thought that showing up at The Dabney at 6:00 pm without a reservation would still give us a shot at a seat at the long bar. We were wrong. We could have put our names on the wait-list for seats about an hour and 45 minutes later, but decided to venture out into the neighborhood instead. After a glass of wine at Maxwell Park, we walked a few blocks down and over to the other side of the DC Convention Center, with fingers crossed, that we’d land a seat at the bar at Kinship. The restaurant’s facade is painted black with “Kinship” softly etched in a window to the left of the door. The name wasn’t visible at the time (it was dark) making the recessed entrance seem purposefully secret.
Kinship is the “less fancy” restaurant above Metier, the “more fancy” restaurant of Chef Eric Ziebold and Celia Laurent. (J and I ate at Metier for J’s birthday last year and it remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had. But back to Kinship.)
The bar area is a long open space separated by a wall from the dining room. A few tables and small booths line one side The smooth white bar opposite had four vacant seats when J and I showed up. We took two and the couple walking in right behind us, the other two. We happily sat down and exhaled. At Kinship we didn’t feel rushed, we weren’t jostled by the comings and goings of people behind us, and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard. We indulged that night in meaty corned beef short ribs with delicate cabbage confit agnolotti – a stand-out “corned beef and cabbage” in a light broth. Along with velvety cauliflower soup and some reds by the glass, a cold evening in DC with no reservations turned into a warmly relaxed dinner at Kinship’s welcoming bar.
I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads). And try the wine from this uncommon grape. J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppiana, and had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest. Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.
J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu. Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs. A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.
Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce). Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps. By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarin pasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon. A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.
Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga
Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga. The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish. Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US. I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga. I found them here and here.