Uncorked: Good Food, Good Wine

It takes more than a well-stocked cellar to win the affections of wine drinkers. Restaurants with top wine programs give great value and service, too. Here are the area’s best.

By: Don Rockwell

A column celebrating the restaurants that do right by the serious wine drinker ought to be full of unabashed praise and enthusiastic recommendations. Unfortunately, wine lovers dining in area restaurants still encounter prices that are double, sometimes triple, what they’d pay for the same wine in a store. This pricing structure has been entrenched in our restaurant culture for decades, but it remains unacceptable and needs to be revamped if restaurants ever hope to have their wine programs taken more seriously.

Fortunately, there are restaurants in the area that offer great wines at prices that are fair and at times surprisingly inexpensive. At restaurants with more-expensive lists, even wine experts should consult the sommelier; these professionals not only have assembled the list but also have tried many of the wines with the chef’s dishes. It is their job to find a good bottle of wine at an affordable price, and those listed here do it very well. You should feel confident putting yourself in their hands.

Mark Slater wears his tastevin like a medal, and his cellar at Citronelle is world-class. Photograph by Renee Comet.

Superlative

Vidalia (Doug Mohr, sommelier).  Mohr has set a new standard for area sommeliers: He’s placed a superb, world-class wine program within reach of the average consumer. When it comes to combining outstanding service with moderate prices, Vidalia is without peer and remains my personal favorite wine program in town. (773 wines, 338 $60 or less; corkage fee $15 a bottle for wines brought in by patrons, two-bottle maximum per table.)

Maestro (Vincent Feraud). Maestro is one of the rare ultra-luxe restaurants where you can drink like a king—and thanks to Feraud, be treated accordingly—without taking out a second mortgage. All the big names and price tags are here, but the list is also peppered with bargains from Italy and France. (769 wines, 153 $60 or less.)

Citronelle (Mark Slater). The wine list is a bit smaller and more expensive than last year, but Slater—whose assistant at Jean-Louis was Vincent Feraud—is terrific at pairing wines with food. And Citronelle is one of the few restaurants in town employing two full-time sommeliers, so someone always is on duty to help. (660 wines, 142 $60 or less.)

2941 (Kathy Morgan). If you’re willing to stray from the beaten path of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Morgan can find you something affordable—she’s one of only two people in the area who have passed Level 3 of the Master Sommelier exam, and she’s worked hard to keep 2941 in the top tier. (670 wines, 150 $60 or less.)

The Inn at Little Washington (Sabato Sagaria). Some of the inn’s wines were bought years ago, before the market exploded in price, so there are bargains that have slipped through the cracks, among them a 1991 Joseph Matrot Blagny “La Piéce Sous le Bois,” the single best bottle of wine I had at a restaurant in 2006, priced at only $35. (2,058 wines, 331 $60 or less.)


Excellent and Affordable

Dino. The reserve wine list at Dino is one of the city’s culinary treasures, featuring page after page of affordable Italian gems colorfully described by owner Dean Gold. On Sunday and Monday evenings, Dino offers one-third off all wines priced $50 or more, making an already good deal a can’t-miss bargain. (332 wines, 146 $50 or less; $20 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Bistro Bis (Scott Worsham). Following the lead of its elder sibling, Vidalia, Bistro Bis has made ordering wine by the bottle an affordable joy rather than something to dread. Worsham’s list highlights the wines of France but also has good representation from the rest of Europe and the United States. (379 wines, 116 $50 or less; $15 corkage per bottle, two-bottle maximum.)

Corduroy. Corduroy is a great place to drink wine, with one of the city’s best medium-size lists. Chef Tom Power is an oenophile and offers a treasure trove of interesting, hard-to-find wines with several years of bottle age, some priced below what you can find in current vintages. (124 wines, 53 $50 or less; $15 corkage per bottle, three-bottle maximum.)

Taberna del Alabardero (David Bueno). Bueno’s program features the area’s best selection of wines by the glass, a strong concentration in Spanish wines, and some of the most elegant, polished service anywhere in the area. (240 wines, 56 $50 or less, 20 excellent wines by the glass; $15 corkage, call for maximum.)

2 Amys. The best small list in town. You could close your eyes and point and come up with something fun to drink. Each wine gets a one-sentence description, making the list diner-friendly. (36 wines, all $46 or less; $17 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Evening Star Cafe is an underappreciated gem, with more than 500 of its 900-plus wines priced at $30 or less. Photograph by Kathryn Norwood.

Underappreciated Gems

Evening Star Cafe (Jose Gonzalez and Kerry Carlsen). With the area’s third largest wine list, and by far the least expensive, Evening Star Cafe should receive some sort of Presidential citation for making so many wines affordable to drink on a daily basis. An astounding achievement that should be the envy of all other restaurants. (942 wines, 509 under $30—not a misprint!)

Tallula (Josh Radigan). Everyone should know about Tallula, which offers more inexpensive wines than anyone else in town other than its sibling, Evening Star Cafe. Buying bottles is the way to go here, as prices are a mere $10 above what they are at Planet Wine next door. (267 wines, 143 under $30.)

Legal Sea Foods. Perhaps the greatest wine list in the country for a national chain, including terrific half bottles such as 1999 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frederic Emile for $26. Bravo! (Verizon Center location: 160 wines, 101 $40 or less, 28 by the glass.)

The Crossing at Casey Jones. Charles County wine lovers don’t need to venture into the city—they have their own little oasis in La Plata. The list is downright cheap, and while it doesn’t have a lot of depth except in Champagne, it has excellent breadth of wines from around the world. (146 wines, 72 under $30, 34 under $20—that’s less than $4 a glass!)

Wine Bars

Grapeseed. One of the only restaurants around town where it pays to order wine by the glass, Grapeseed would be the perfect wine bar if only the reds weren’t served too warm. A remarkable effort for liquor-restricted Montgomery County. (311 wines, 72 $40 or less, 107 by the glass.)

Sonoma. The wine list here is not even close to what it used to be, and Sonoma has taken a clear back seat to Grapeseed for the overall quality of its program. But unlike Grapeseed, Sonoma serves its reds at the proper temperature and has a state-of-the-art storage system. (128 wines, 21 $40 or less, 38 by the glass.)

Good

Belga Café. Chef Bart Vandaele has relied primarily on two local importers—Olivier Daubresse and Laurent Givry—for this diner-friendly list, which features interesting wines by the glass and $10 carafes of good, drinkable house wines to complement an excellent list of 110 Belgian beers. (125 wines, 62 $40 or less, 35 by the glass; $25 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Bebo Trattoria (Matteo Graziani). Roberto Donna’s new Crystal City restaurant isn’t just serving good food; it also has one of the best Italian-wine lists in town, full of bargains both by the glass and the bottle. (88 wines, 57 $40 or less.)

Komi (Adam Curling). Curling, a recent arrival from the Inn at Little Washington, has assumed stewardship of this small list of young, easy-drinking wines from a broad selection of regions around the world. (85 wines, 31 $50 or less; $25 corkage per bottle, three-bottle maximum.)

Black’s Bar and Kitchen (Troy Beeler). Black’s list is rife with overpriced wines, but it gets bonus points for mounting a serious effort in spite of Montgomery County’s antiquarian liquor policies. (255 wines, 43 $40 or less, 27 by the glass.)

Firefly. Chef John Wabeck has maintained a diverse and well-chosen list of wines by the bottle. Unfortunately, Firefly’s by-the-glass selections are no longer the good, interesting values they used to be. (89 wines, 28 $40 or less; $15 corkage per bottle, two-bottle maximum.)

Johnny’s Half Shell. Co-owner Johnny Fulchino has done a great job organizing this list into light, medium, and full-bodied categories. Johnny’s also takes the progressive step of naming the importers in its thoughtful by-the-glass program. (89 bottles, 33 $40 or less; $25 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Zaytinya. A fascinating array of obscure yet food-friendly wines from Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel makes this list affordable and worth exploring. (123 wines, 46 $40 or less; $20 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Buck’s Fishing & Camping. Co-owner James Alefantis has fashioned a progressive but modest list of relatively young European quaffers, most of which emphasize medium weight and bright fruit. (41 wines, 30 $40 or less; $20 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

Luxurious But Expensive

Marcel’s (Ramon Narvaez). Narvaez has done an excellent job in the past year with this program, adding lots of well-priced selections from around the world to supplement Marcel’s traditionally high-end list. (410 wines, 131 $60 or less; $35 corkage per bottle, no maximum.)

The Willard Room (Caterina Abbruzzetti). Abbruzzetti, who previously worked at 2941 and Citronelle, has improved upon a frightfully expensive wine program by slipping in some bargains. The service in this magnificent dining room is as lavish as anywhere in Washington. (463 wines, 122 $60 or less; $30 corkage per bottle, one-bottle maximum.)

CityZen (Andy Myers). A restaurant of CityZen’s caliber desperately needs more strength in Burgundy and Bordeaux, but new sommelier Myers has done a good job of smoothing out last year’s pricing inconsistencies and has bolstered the list with less-expensive wines from around the world. (584 wines, 109 $60 or less; $50 corkage per bottle, two-bottle maximum.)

Charlie Palmer Steak (Nadine Brown). Elegant, polished service makes a phenomenally expensive list a bit easier to swallow. Ask for Brown’s assistance in finding an obscure bargain; without her help, you’ll be doomed to drinking overpriced Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. (644 wines—all American, 143 $60 or less; no corkage fee for American wines, two-bottle maximum, $25 for others.)

Restaurant Eve (Todd Thrasher). This interesting list is made more affordable by relying on wines from five continents rather than concentrating on European juggernauts. The versatile Thrasher runs a tight, professional dining room, and is also the mixologist behind the cutting-edge cocktails at PX lounge. (297 wines, 89 $60 or less.)

Kinkead’s (Michael Flynn). Even though Flynn is one of the most experienced, knowledgeable sommeliers in the area, time is quickly passing this wine program by. The service is excellent, and the selection is still quite good, but I’d like to see lower prices and a better-organized list by next year. (400 wines, 80 $60 or less; $15 corkage per bottle, two-bottle maximum.)

Ristorante Tosca. Tosca narrowly made the cut this year, mainly because the service is good and the wine list is well-organized, with the less-expensive wines featured prominently in front. (256 wines, 86 $60 or less.)

Le Paradou (Nicolas Mandot and Didier Tatelo). The most outrageously priced wine list in Washington has so many triple digits, you’ll think you’re playing a slot machine. To its credit, Le Paradou recently added two sections at the beginning of its Tolstoyan wine book—“house wines” and “sommelier recommendations,” both of which feature less-expensive bottles. Note to savvy billionaires: The 2002 DRC Romanee-Conti is on the list for “only” $1,900; the market value for that wine recently soared to over $5,000. (1,678 wines, a paltry 55 $60 or less.)