Thursday, June 7, 2012

DC Food Tour 2012: A Speakeasy Easy to Love

Celery-Fennel Shrub at Columbia Room
“D.C.  It’s not that bad.”  That was my brother Paul’s proposed slogan for attracting skeptics to the District.  I’ll be the first to admit for a long time I was one such reluctant visitor, barely holding back my raised eyebrows when Paul would insist that yes, there is great food, vibrant nightlife, and culture in his adopted city.

If there was ever evidence of DC’s arrival, the ColumbiaRoom is it.  A cubby of a bar in the back of über popular watering hole The Passenger, Columbia Room is riding the national wave of interest in craft cocktails with a finesse rivaling San Francisco or the Lower East Side, minus the pretension.

Like most foodie world “secrets”, this one takes some planning- our reservations for four of the twelve coveted bar stools at Columbia were made weeks in advance. And though the eleven pm Saturday night slot we scored is not late for drinking by urban standards, the two and a half hour cocktail performance at Columbia proved a bit challenging arriving as we did on very full stomachs post-dinner. 

Kate, the lead bartender, eased us in with a modern wine cooler of sorts, allowing some room for post dinner digestion before getting on to the serious cocktails. 

Crostini with Quail Egg and Crispy Kale
Round two was a “shrub”, a classic cocktail made with vinegar in place of citrus, the more common acid, to balance a slightly sweet infusion of celery and fennel with notes of black pepper and caraway.  The vinegar was assertive and came as a bit of a shock on the palate, but after a second and third sip the flavors mellowed into what the whole group agreed was a thoroughly enjoyable, if unusual beverage.

Just as interesting as the shrub itself were the long ice cubes, a perfect rectangular block that was the exact height of the highball glass.  Where does one get an ice cube that size, I asked?  Did they have special trays?  Maybe an outsourced company that cut them with high precision equipment?  No, Kate explained, the ice cubes were made by her bearded counterparts behind the bar cut from large blocks of ice using nothing fancier than your garden-variety chain saw.

Even though the focus of Columbia Room is the drinks, they do not let patrons go hungry.  Along with the second course shrub came a simple bite of food- a crostini topped with a fried quail egg and crispy kale was a luscious fatty contrast to the sharp sweet-sour bite of the shrub.

Classic Martini
After leaving it up to Kate for course one and two, we were each allowed input into our final drink.  When it was my turn I announced, “I’m a gin drinker.  I like it sour, bitter, fruity, pretty much anyway just not too sweet.”  Kate nodded sagely and without thinking more than a few seconds mixed up a martini.  But this was not the martini we think of today, she explained, as she stirred equal parts Hendricks gin and sweet vermouth with homemade orange bitters in a cocktail shaker.  Occasionally she paused to check the temperature until the thermometer reached a perfect 32°F.  She strained the mixture into a chilled glass and slid it across the counter without any adornment.  It was light and floral, the waft of orange hitting the nose first and then fading seamlessly on the palate when mixed in with the herbal liquors, all sans the burn of your average martini. 

At least, I thought that was our last round of cocktails until one of the bearded bartenders starting working The World’s Largest Cocktail Maker into a back-and-forth frenzy hoisting up over his shoulder.  My arms quivered just watching him.

Snack menu
Kate explained he was making a Ramos Fizz for a patron at the end of the bar.  The problem, she said, was that every time someone ordered this drink the rest of the bar was so intrigued they would end up making another round for all to taste.  Now they prepare by making enough for all twelve at the bar stools plus the bartenders.  Ten minutes of vigorous shaking later, the egg white was as stiff as the top of a lemon meringue pie.  And the drink was just about as tasty.

DC might never have a nightlife as neon bright as New York, it might never be as raucous as New Orleans, but I also don’t think it will ever think as highly of itself as some of these so-called hipper cities.  As for me it is just was well, I like my martini’s straight up without the dash of pretension or spritz of condescension that come with so many artisanal cocktails these days.  At Columbia Room it is just inspired cocktails served up with an unobtrusive garnish of humility. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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