By Elana Schor - 03/13/08 06:38 PM EDT
A culinary upheaval that began in the chic metropolises of Europe has finally hit Washington. No, it’s not a new ethnic fusion or an overpriced imported dish — get ready for a bar where you don’t need to drink.
As its name implies, Cork is principally devoted to wine, specializing in exotic and delicious grape varietals from the vineyards of France, Italy and Spain. But the new kid on the block in Logan Circle will even thrill teetotalers, thanks to a menu of bistro standards delivered with stellar new flavors.
To prove the worthiness of Cork’s menu, designed by ex-Citronelle sous chef Ron Tanaka, I set one rule: Overlook the wine list and focus on the food. In fact, Cork fans should bring a healthy appetite if they have any hope of scoring a coveted table in the small dining room, where many wine-only patrons are relegated to a standing position at the bar.
On that bar — a geometric stunner that extends one brushed-wood edge to allow extra seating — rest two tremendous jars containing olives and peppers, marinated in-house. Both are perfect starters, but the tender red and yellow peppers, sprinkled with dried herbs, are a particular standout.
The cold dishes, most of them sized for two to share, are uniformly delightful, if dominated by salty accents. Anchovy dressing crowns an unofficial Caesar salad, and shallot marmalade dances a tango of textures with rosemary-and-chicken pate.
But the dishes served warm are Tanaka’s true gems, served in minimalist arrangements that train your senses to examine each forkful just as oenophiles obsess over each sip of wine.
The crispy duck confit arrives with its pungent, fatty skin still partially attached, ensuring that some bites crunch on your tongue and others melt in your mouth. A swirl of bitter greens and a dollop of golden polenta complete the picture. Two other large plates — braised lamb with pomegranate and spinach, and grilled flatiron steak with brussels sprouts — use a similar formula.
The common thread in Cork’s culinary tapestry is bread, the authentic and slightly sour sort that Parisians like to rip off in chunks from baguettes. Four vivid scarlet discs of Roma tomatoes, cured in oil for a smoky tang, are aligned on four half-moon slices of grilled bread with cooling buttons of goat cheese on top. A bowl of fresh mussels as big as silver dollars is not complete until you dip the accompanying bread into the white wine sauce, tinted coral by saffron.
But the gold medal for carbohydrate use goes to the “exotic mushroom duxelle,” which sounds like a Vegas revue but is actually a delicate sleight of hand.
The duxelle consists of two ramekins, one bearing pan-fried shallots and the other herb-doused mushrooms chopped finer than the head of a pin. Both are meant for spreading onto expertly charred sourdough, an irresistible combination that feels light but fills you up.
Cork’s portion sizes may resemble tapas, but the vibe beneath its pressed-tin ceiling is worlds away from soaring downtown temples such as Jaleo or Zay-
tinya. The space is intimate and friendly, if inescapably loud most of the time, and false notes are few in both the layout and menu. Even a yawn-worthy staple like fried calamari gets extra punch from rock shrimp added to the fryer and a dense caper aioli for dipping.
The wait staff is also top-notch, never rushing you through a meal and always ready with a good recommendation. One server admitted he took on a second job at the wine bar out of pure passion for Cork’s mission.
However, Cork’s tremendous and well-earned popularity has led to two service conditions that may cause dismay: the aforementioned seating preference for groups ordering food, and a limit on giving tables to incomplete parties. In a perfect world, Cork would have many siblings in the neighborhood, but its singular appeal requires patience for anyone who stops by between Thursday and Saturday.
And if you’re arriving after dinner, try pairing a petite plate with your pinot noir. The double-fried frites are a revelation, served with piquant curry ketchup and topped with gremolata, an addictive mix of parsley, shredded lemon peel and garlic. (The blend is usually added to Italian osso buco, but you may be inspired to create new uses at home.)
Desserts are another diverting option for late-night diners. The apple-walnut crostada is solid comfort food but falls short without a cold accompaniment such as ice cream or crème fraiche. More memorable is the grapefruit financier, a feather-light French pastry brought down to earth by berry compote and twirls of ground almonds in the batter. The barely sweet cheesecake, made from chevre, is so breathtaking that you won’t miss the crust.
Dessert drinks, including hot chocolate for two and a velvety espresso, make a fitting denouement to a night at Cork. The coffee arrives with a cognac truffle in the shape of a wine cork, a witty reminder that Washington now has a bar with the eye of a vintner but the soul of a chef.
(Since rules were made to be broken, I’ll mention three wines that shouldn’t be missed at Cork: the complex French white Gros Manseng, the warmly fruity “Sola Fred” Spanish red, and any Cabernet Franc that’s available.)