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.
Le Vigne Bio, in 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.
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.
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.