Sherry is enough of an unknown commodity in this country that Derek Brown, co-owner of a trim new bar specializing in the wine made primarily from the palomino grape, hosts weekly classes at Mockingbird Hill to introduce it to the curious, some of whom tell him their only exposure to the drink had been from Wikipedia. The major lessons Brown likes to impart in the Tuesday night tutorials are that sherry is from Spain; “it’s the greatest food wine in the world”; and “more pirates than grandmothers” drank true sherry.
Opening an ode to the wine is “definitely risky,” says Brown, who runs the Shaw addition with his wife, former Tabard Inn bar maven Chantal Tseng. “But I’m not interested in doing things I’m lukewarm about.” Further buoyed by what the cocktail movement is doing for their cause —- you can hardly pivot on a bar stool without spotting a sherry–laced drink these days —- husband and wife have put sherry on a pedestal by stocking 60-plus kinds. They embrace the light, straw-colored fino; the crisp, sea-breezy manzanilla; the nuttier, amber-hued amontillado; the dark and fragrant oloroso; and many styles more.
Brown tends to pour fino amontillado, rich but not overly sweet, as a starter sherry for novices. Flights of sherries ($12 to $28 for a trio of tastes) are my preferred way to compare, say, how location influences the shade and the flavor of the end drink.
Ham gets equal billing at the bar (and a class of its own on Wednesday nights), pork being a traditional nibble with sherry. Sí, there’s serrano from Spain. But the sampler plate is all–American, composed of Virginia–made, hickory–scented Surryano; Red Apron’s lomo, cured in Spanish paprika and sherry; lush prosciutto from Iowa; and jerky–like cured duck from Cured DC, a crimson nod to those who don’t eat pork. Other welcome companions to the sips include silvery anchovies and crushed tomato on toasted bread, creamy potato salad with smoked trout and sparkling orange roe, and tender baby octopus with chorizo and juicy bits of orange. Snacks of olives, almonds and unpleasantly crunchy lupini beans round out the savories.
The menu is purposefully brief. “My specialty is drinking,” Brown says. But more than that, the small plates at Mockingbird Hill are meant to take the edge off the sherry and, as is the practice in Spain, serve as a segue to dinner elsewhere. Twenty bucks here can buy you not just a glass of sherry and a munch but also a detour to Madrid, where the owners first fell for the custom.
Brown’s idea to roll out Mockingbird Hill, whose name comes from lyrics in the Clash song “Spanish Bombs,” sprang from a desire to create something the city lacked. Last this fan checked, Washington still stocks only one ham–and–sherry source with a punk rock aesthetic —- and it’s a high bar.
– Tom Sietsema