Friday, July 22, 2011

Government work, Part I

A couple weekends ago, I went down to DC for one of my frequent trips to visit my parents.  Ever since they have partially moved to DC this year, it is much easier to visit them as airfare between Boston and DC is relatively inexpensive and convenient.  Although this time, the flight down proved to be somewhat of a pain since thunderstorms in the DC area led to one flight cancellation and numerous delays.  Sadly, I was planning on having dinner with my parents, but the delays meant that that was not to be.  Instead, I had to grab a quick dinner at the Legal Test Kitchen next to the gate.  In hindsight, it did not need to be quick, as more delays soon followed.  In any case, with my dinner of a scallop and shrimp topped gumbo, I ordered a martini and specified 4:1, stirred, lemon twist.  What I got was a glass of cold gin with very little, if any vermouth, and it was shaken.  As my confidence in the bartender was similarly shaken as a consequence, I finished dinner with a dram of scotch neat and went back to waiting gate-side until we finally commenced boarding.

A couple hours later, the plane lands at DCA, but we sit on the tarmac for a good 20 or so minutes because apparently there were no open gates for us to debark.  By this point, the flight has not only ruined dinner, but became very close to ruining a reservation to go drinking as well.  Thus, as soon as we finally pulled into a gate, I ran off straight to the Metro to catch a train up to Columbia Room.  I arrived a few minutes late much to my dismay, but thankfully, I had not missed too much.

First off, you may be wondering why I was in such a hurry to make it to the bar on time.  Granted, I generally do not like to keep people waiting for me regardless of where I am meeting them.  However, in this case, being punctual was not simply a courtesy towards friends.  To better understand, allow me to explain what Columbia Room is.  Unlike most bars where one can walk up and take a seat at one's leisure, Columbia Room requires a reservation at a specific time for a specific number of guests.  Not only is the reservation to guarantee a seat at the bar, but also represents a commitment to a prix fixe tasting menu that consists of a trio of beverages and an amuse bouche alongside.

Upon arriving, I could see why such a policy exists.  I had been to Passenger, the watering hole within which Columbia Room resides, before, but I had not been to Columbia Room itself before.  After fumbling for a moment before knocking on the correct unmarked door, I was ushered into the antechamber of the speakeasy.  I was amiably greeted by the host, who checked my name off of the reservation ledger set upon the side table in the small, dimly lit room that felt in some ways like a parlor given the decor.  Off to the left was a private powder room separate from the facilities for Passenger, where I quickly freshened up from my journey.  Within the door to the right was the sanctum sanctorum, the bar itself.  Along one length of the oblong room was the bar with ten seats, and along the opposite wall was a raised banquette.  In some ways, it felt like a theater where the bartenders performed behind the stick and everyone else in the room faced this stage.

Joining my friends already seated at the bar, I was first presented with a cool, damp towel, an extremely welcome refresher given the heat of the day.  Small gestures such as this really elevated the experience above and beyond the ordinary.  Another example of seemingly trivial details was that the drinking water even had a hint of cucumber, thoroughly refreshing.  By the time I sat down, the bartender was already hard at work crafting a round of drinks.

The first drink we were served was the DCA to LAX, a light, punch-like tipple with Cocchi Americano, lemon juice, cane syrup, crème de mûre, prosecco and a blackberry garnish.  The name was even rather apropos as Arthur was to be moving out to the west coast in a week's time.  Certainly seasonal, I found it a touch sweet, and I felt that a bit of gin perhaps may have given it more balance for my palate.

Second, we were presented with a cocktail that contained Bulleit rye, acid phosphate, wild cherry soda, Bitter Truth aromatic bitters and an orange twist (the name for which I failed to write down).  Accompanying this drink was a small plate of roasted and candied peanuts with dried cherries.  Cherries were the direct link, but the pairing went beyond that as the crunchy, caramelized, slightly spicy and buttery snack complemented the cocktail well.  The use of acid phosphate in this drink also stimulated a conversation with one of the bartenders, Katie, over Darcy O'Neil's book, Fix the Pumps, and a  recent New York Times article on the subject.

The last drink of the night is not set, unlike the previous two, and gives both the customer and the bartender a chance to explore further.  Casie started things off by ordering a Martini upon Katie's recommendation.  Made with equal parts Tanqueray No. 10 and Dolin Dry with a dash of orange bitters and a lemon twist, this martini was infinitely better than the one I had in the airport just a few hours prior.  In addition to the unusual proportions of gin to vermouth, the other notable feature of this preparation was the use of a thermometer such that the drink is stirred to a temperature of no greater than 31ºF.

Next, Arthur requested something with applejack since he is a fan of the Jack Rose, and Katie obliged with a Pink Lady.  Quite similar to the Jack Rose with applejack, lemon and grenadine, the addition of Plymouth gin and the white of an egg rather changes the complexion of the cocktail.  It is drier without losing the fragrance of the applejack.  Carlos then challenged Katie to make him something with rum, which resulted in the Getaway: Cruzan Blackstrap, lemon juice, Cynar and cane sugar syrup.  The richness of the Blackstrap was nicely balanced by the other ingredients, and the combination with the Cynar brought out somewhat of a smokiness.

When I asked for bartender's choice with open-ended parameters, Katie quickly asked whether I was up for something funky, to which I replied in the affirmative.  Whether its a rhum agricole from Martinique or George Clinton's Parliament, I do love funk.  The drink that resulted was a Mezcal Old-Fashioned made with Los Nahuales Blanco, chai-infused maple syrup and Bitter Truth Aromatic, Grapefruit, and Celery bitters.  While I have had other mezcal old-fashioned cocktails before, the different bitters and unique sweetener resulted in a novel experience.

Mezcal Old-Fashioned

Columbia Room was a pretty fantastic experience.  Small, quiet and intimate, this bar is one for serious tippling.  However, the gravitas therein did not obscure the camaraderie.  Katie, PJ and the other bartender whose name I did not catch were all very hospitable, and we all had a great time drinking and chatting.  Perhaps because we were seated in the very center of the bar, or perhaps because we were among the last people there at the end of the night, but I felt like we were spoiled with the amount of attention that we received.  My one complaint is that it is not cheap, but as with fine dining, one pays just as much for the atmosphere and service as one pays for the quality of food or drink.

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