One of the toughest jobs in town might be host-stand duty at Cork. All night long, customers tap the hostess on the shoulder to ask how much longer they’ll have to wait for a table. Hour-plus waits for one of the 79 seats at this Logan Circle wine bar are typical even if you call ahead to put your name on the waiting list.
The reason everyone from mussy-haired twentysomethings to middle-aged theatergoers is willing to spend a good bit of the night flattened against a vestibule wall is the food, which transcends rustic simplicity and handily beats both the neighborhood and wine-bar competition.
The small menu’s seasonally minded dishes, crafted by Ron Tanaka, a former sous chef at CityZen, are billed as sharable small plates but are sized like generous appetizers: A flatiron steak, beautifully grilled and set over roasted Brussels sprouts, is more like a main course—and a steal at $14. Tanaka’s cooking hides subtle surprises: A dusting of lemon zest elevates a mound of fries. Airy fried shrimp and calamari are paired with a rémoulade made not with traditional chopped pickles but with puréed capers. A creamy slathering of chicken-liver pâté carries a whiff of rosemary, and the vinaigrette on a salad of shaved fennel and house-cured trout is vivid with a splash of tangerine juice.
Not everything succeeds. A purée of eggplant drowns out its accessories of chili and mint; a chicken breast is oversalted. And the kitchen’s policy of sending out plates when they’re ready, as if they’re tapas, tends to cause traffic jams.
But Cork shimmers with promise. It’s an unpretentious neighborhood hangout that’s exceeding expectations.