Dickson Wine Bar (Full Review)

Superlative bánh mì—and ideas in the right place—on DC’s U Street

When you spend more than $80 in a month on one kind of sandwich, you know you have a problem. But there I was at U Street’s Dickson Wine Bar downing my sixth steak-stuffed bánh mì. And ordering another to go.

The sandwich in question is an upmarket version of the trendy Vietnamese sub. So why, when there are perfectly good $3 versions of the sub at many a Falls Church deli, would you spend $12 on this one?

Much of Dickson’s version of the sandwich is traditional—crisp-crusted but airy baguette, spicy-sweet matchsticks of pickled daikon and carrot, jalapeño slivers. What sets it apart isn’t: warm slabs of rib-eye steak from Kansas and a generous slathering of buttery, house-made chicken-liver mousse. It deserves a spot in the Washington sandwich hall of fame, right up there with the pork souvlaki from Zorba’s in Dupont Circle and the sweet-soppresatta sub at Cornucopia in Bethesda.

Bánh mì isn’t the only reason to stop by the narrow, three-story spot run by Tien Claudio, wife of DJ/restaurateur Eric Hilton (Marvin, Gibson, Patty Boom Boom), and Steve Kaufmann, a genial, silver-haired former nonprofit worker who is often around to greet customers at night. There’s an organic-focused wine list put together by CityZen restaurant director Jarad Slipp. Cocktails might sound as if they were whipped up at Whole Foods (ingredients include açai liqueur and organic Vermont vodka), but a lemony riff on a French 75 and a tart daiquiri are among the best playing right now. There’s an eco bent, but it isn’t heavy-handed, taking the form of hormone-free meats and decorative rows of recycled wine bottles.

Besides that sandwich, the kitchen’s greatest strength is its shopping. Much of the charcuterie is procured from Virginia meat master Jamie Stachowski or Iowa’s La Quercia. The list of cheeses is small but smartly curated.

Although Dickson strives to be more than a place for grazing on meat and cheese, its more ambitious cooking can be inconsistent. Beef carpaccio was lost amid a dousing of truffle oil. A frisée salad with lardons and a poached egg was nice and vinegary one night, bland another. Arugula salad with pears was barely dressed at all. And a bánh mì made with Amish chicken arrived with a disappointingly dry breast.

Flatbreads make good shares, especially ones topped with figs and Gorgonzola or caramelized onions and crème fraîche. Another, loaded with goat cheese and braised leeks, was a mess.

Still, give the kitchen some time. Its ideas are in the right place, and even now the food is better than what you’ll find at much of the competition. In the meantime, I’ll be saving up for the next round of bánh mì cravings.

-August 2010 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.