Proof: The proof is in the wine and ‘fwah grah’

Proof
775 G St. NW
(202) 737-7663
www.proofdc.com

Hours:
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5:30-10 p.m.
Thurs., 5:30-11 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-midnight
Lunch (starting Aug. 22):
Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Prices: Expensive. Dinner with beverage, appetizer, entree, dessert, tax and tip comes to $60-$70. Extensive, and expensive, wine list with some 850 different wines.

Ratings: Based on 10-point scale with up to five domes awarded according to reviewer’s judgment.

Food: 8    Ambiance: 7    
Service: 6    Price/Value: 6       
It isn’t often that I begin a restaurant review by describing the restrooms — actually, I’ve never done it before — but Proof is proof that there’s an exception to every rule.

The futuristic black-marble men’s room at Proof is unabashedly erotic.

Not to be too graphic about it, but while you’re doing your thing, you face a giant photograph of a voluptuous woman, dripping wet from the shower. She has her back to you, but she’s still a stunner. My friend, lobbyist Mike Berman, who writes about restaurants in his political newsletter and invariably describes the restrooms, would love this place.

Naturally, I wondered if the ladies’ room was adorned with a hunky male from Playgirl magazine, but I was disappointed to learn that the only sexy thing about it is a pink heart-shaped toilet seat. I know because I peeked in as Kaye Lake of Moet Hennessy USA Brands, whose company supplies the restaurant’s $50-a-glass Krug Grand Cuvee champagne — that’s right, $50 a glass — was showing it to some friends.

Proof is the latest addition to Penn Quarter’s crowded dining scene, and bills itself as a wine-centric restaurant featuring modern American cuisine. A wine steward wheels around an eight-bottle champagne trolley with glasses hanging upside down underneath it, and you can choose from the list of more than 30 wines by the glass, which are dispensed in two-, six- and eight-and-a-half-ounce pours at the push of a button by a space-age device behind the bar called an Enomatic.

Most are sensibly priced, but some, like the Pax Syrah from California’s Russian River region, go for $30 a glass. I liked the 2005 Francois Mikulski from Burgundy at half the price, and silently toasted Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), even though I doubt she even knows of it.

I found the complex wine serving and pricing system rather confusing. Nevertheless, wine is obviously a big part of the dining experience at Proof, which opened a month ago this week. The décor is inviting; exposed brick walls contrast with the dark woods and glass-enclosed wine racks, and TV screens above the bar rotate pictures from the National Portrait Gallery across the street. Bill Clinton’s official portrait was one of those on display Monday night.

I was told there are more than 4,000 bottles in the wine cellar, some from tax attorney and owner Mark Kuller’s 7,000-bottle personal collection. They include astronomically priced show-off wines like the 1947 Cheval Blanc Bordeaux ($11,000 a bottle) and other first-growth Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties, as well as Napa Valley cult wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estates or Bryant Family that sell for three and four figures. But there are also reasonably priced wines in mere double digits.

Local diners apparently have a lot of disposable income. Sommelier Sebastian Zutant said he sells as many as four bottles a week of the 1997 Araujo Estates Eisele Vineyard cabernet, which goes for $675 a bottle. The Napa Valley vineyard was founded by a distant relative of mine, but unfortunately, I don’t own a piece of it. I do have a number of bottles going back to the 1980s, however, when the wine was produced under the Joseph Phelps label.

With all this emphasis on wine, one might expect Chef Haidar Karoum’s kitchen to play second fiddle, but fortunately, that’s not the case. The 32-year-old former chef at Asia Nora has produced a diverse menu that features an impressive selection of charcuterie choices, as well as 16 first courses ranging from fluke sashimi to Yukon Gold potato gnocchi. A rather limited list of six entrees includes a sensational sable fish, and there is an extensive cheese and dessert selection.

There’s no better way to sample Chef Karoum’s culinary skills than to order the seared Hudson Valley foie gras. The fist-sized portion is served on French toast with vanilla peach jam and almond butter ($18). It was so good that it salved my guilty conscience for enjoying something produced by cruelly force-feeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers, a practice condemned by animal-rights groups. The Chicago City Council recently outlawed the sale of foie gras, as has California, beginning in 2012, so enjoy it while you can. 

A glass of Newton chardonnay from Napa Valley ($11) was a nice choice with the foie gras as it has a sweetness almost like that of a dessert wine. It also went well with my entree, a beautifully prepared Alaskan halibut ($23). I finished with a trio of pineapple, raspberry and mango sorbets ($7) while watching the passing parade of people on 8th Street and a little girl feeding pigeons on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery.

I introduced myself to four women at a nearby table and learned they were from the State Department. They had all served in Hungary and were sampling the Hungarian wines. They raved about the food, especially the sable fish.

As with any start-up, it takes a while to work out the kinks. When I tried to make a reservation for two at 7 p.m. on Monday, I was told nothing was available until 9 p.m., but I could get a table at 5:30. I arrived at 6:15 and there were still several empty tables when I left at 8.

Also, the bar area was impossibly crowded with 20- and 30-somethings when I and a colleague were there on Tuesday. But we squeezed into a corner of the bar and sampled several of the Napa Valley wines and the excellent charcuterie board of Italian and Spanish hams, salamis and pâté, which was well worth the $28 tab.

Service is a bit erratic, as the black-clad staff is still getting its act together. My waiter offered to tell me “what people are absolutely raving about,” and went through a half-dozen choices — before disappearing for about 10 minutes.

But don’t let that discourage you from trying this exciting new restaurant. The proof of the pudding is always in the tasting, and Proof seems well on the way to future success. And don’t forget to visit the restrooms.