By Elana Schor - 05/20/10 11:32 PM EDT
When the small, stylish wine bar Room 11 opened in Columbia Heights last year, it seemed to be the indisputable start to a trend best labeled the Little Brother Effect: Logan Circle’s beloved Cork was spawning relatives in its own image that served identically clever small plates with knockout varietals such as Aligote and Carignane.
But a funny thing has happened — the younger siblings are outpacing the parent. While Cork is often overrun by crowds, a victim of its own popularity, the capital’s second wave of wine bars is bringing a more welcoming vibe without abandoning the culinary ingenuity and modern décor that first helped the concept catch on. The latest example of a superior Little Brother wine bar is Dickson, a skinny tri-level arrival on the eastern end of the U Street Corridor.
The service at Dickson is just as relaxing as its interior. In a city filled with hip spots where staff members are too harried to answer a single question, Dickson is a heartening reminder that some kitchens prefer their customers to linger over those last few sips of rioja.
Chef James Claudio, another Hilton clan member who also crafts dishes for Marvin, has not forgotten the typical cheese-and-charcuterie fare found at local wine bars. Yet he scores high marks with a nod to his Vietnamese lineage, irresistible banh mi sandwiches that are becoming a D.C. foodie trend after spending years on the menus of Falls Church’s best Asian restaurants.
The banh mi, a street-food delicacy born of Vietnam’s French colonial ties, typically pairs fluffy white bread with pickled carrots, cucumber and radish, topped by a spiced mayonnaise and a mingling of multiple types of meat.
Dickson’s banh mi, despite its admirably crusty loaves, may not please the purists — I found no meat pâté inside to round out the vegetables’ sour snap — but it makes a perfect match for the bar’s strong cocktails and assertive pours. The velvety Berkshire pork belly, sourced from Iowa, and the Kansan ribeye steak strike the right balance between juicy and charred, with a touch of extra fat that stands up to the punchiest libations.
And Dickson’s bartenders know how to shake a cocktail, showing their shared lineage with the mixologists of the Gibson, another Hilton family production. The cocktails can eclipse even the well-chosen wine selections, one of which always makes a cameo in the glass.
Two standout highball drinks were the Gold Line, vodka and sparkling white wine with apple juice and honey, and the Cherry Pop, a grown-up’s ideal fruit punch, made with Brazilian sugarcane rum, elderflower liqueur and sour cherry juice.
All of the wines are sourced from biodynamic vineyards, where organic farming methods are credited with creating a lighter, less tannin-heavy taste. The prices are not as pocket-friendly as those at Vinoteca, a few blocks away down U Street, but risk brings reward in the form of new grapes such as the bonarda, smoother than a malbec but just as nicely spicy.
The banh mi may be Dickson’s most adventurous concoction, but skipping the salads would be a grave mistake. Claudio avoids the buttery sauces that tend to douse Cork’s vegetable selections, instead leading with the authentic flavors of his fresh ingredients. The bitter notes in a salad of fluffy arugula are teased out by sweet accompaniments of Anjou pear and champagne vinaigrette, while a simple frisee salad is given density and warmth by a creamy egg topping and thick brioche croutons.
The flatbreads are less reasonably priced than other dishes, though a few earn their stripes thanks to bold toppings. Go for the wild mushroom and mozzarella pie, given a musty tang by heaping drizzles of truffle oil, but steer clear of the dry serrano ham. Its pairing of fontina cheese is so skimpy that no amount of wine will wash the plate down.
If a full dinner at Dickson’s is not your goal, the cheeses and meats make for a stellar after-work palate pleaser. The best bets on the former list are the Bayley Hazen, a Vermont blue cheese with earthy notes to rival the best Bordeaux, and the spreadable Landaff cow’s milk, which goes down like brie’s sportier cousin.
The ultimate test of Dickson’s ability to eclipse its splashier cohort in Logan Circle, however, is its desserts. Cork helped bring the pastry wizardry of former Saint-Ex sweets chef Lizzy Evelyn into the local zeitgeist, setting the bar fairly high for Dickson — but the newcomer measures up.
Its trio of funky crème brulees is a sleeper hit, leaving diners guessing the identities of each flavor, and the pot de crème achieves the perfect texture of a homemade British pudding. Best of all, patrons can digest their final course for as long as it takes, watching the raucous U Street nightlife with no reason to fear getting forced out for another waiting table. Such is the appeal of a still-undiscovered Little Brother.