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Taste and See at Tallula

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page WE05

IF YOU LIKE WINE -- savoring a bottle with friends or exploring a long list of varietals and vintages -- then you need to make time to visit Tallula (2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-5051), the six-week-old restaurant, lounge and wine shop that has taken the place of the divey, 50-year-old Whitey's.

At Tallula's airy, zinc-topped bar and in the cozy, candlelit backroom, bartenders pour 70 wines by the glass or offer a textbook-size menu of 350 different bottles.

The selection is, in a word, daunting. With so many choices, it would be nice to have more information than the producer and vintage -- maybe a country of origin, for starters.

That's where the staff comes in.

Over multiple visits, Tallula's bartenders have proved uniformly excellent, dispensing advice about wines (even steering me away from expensive selections they deemed "mediocre"), offering small tastes and providing speedy service.

Co-owner Michael Babin, who also owns Alexandria's Evening Star Cafe and Vermilion, says the staff began taking wine classes months before the grand opening. "If you're going to have the product, you have to have the knowledge," he says.

Tallula's employees seem glad -- almost proud -- to be able to show off their familiarity of the wine list. You may want to skip Tallula at peak weekend hours and visit on a Sunday evening or stop by after work on a Wednesday, when you can relax, chat with the bartenders and find a new favorite wine.

One tip you won't find on the menu: Every wine by the glass is also available by the half glass for half the price. This is a better option if you don't want to flip a coin over the two pinot noirs or chenin blancs on the list, or are just curious about what a $27 glass of Stags' Leap Cabernet tastes like.

Of course, not everything is so expensive. While there are some pricey options for connoisseurs, most wines -- served in trendy stemless Riedel O tumblers -- cost about $7, and fully half of the 350 bottles cost $30 or less. "You hope people appreciate [the selection]," Babin says. "The casual wine drinker sees that $20 glass and wonders, 'What's so great about that?' That [$22 a glass] Chateauneuf du Pape is not something people are going to do every night. But we can put a really solid $5 glass of cabernet next to it."

That's why many customers seem to be having their own private cocktail parties, sampling a couple of different wines while snacking from the bite-size "Amuse Yourself" menu, which features delicious mini-burgers, taco-like duck mezzaluna and corn dogs made with spicy chorizo sausage.

Once opened, keeping bottles of wine fresh is a challenge, so Tallula employs four state-of-the-art Winekeeper units to slow the aging process. "The idea's simple: to avoid oxidating the wine," Babin says. In this system, oxygen is sucked out of the bottles and replaced with nitrogen, an inert gas that doesn't damage the structure of the wine.

"They say you can get about three weeks out of [a bottle, instead of a few days], but I don't think we've had anything [open] beyond a week anyway."

As with the Evening Star Cafe and its neighboring Planet Wine store, everything you sample at Tallula can be purchased at the adjoining shop. As I lingered at the bar one night last week, a bartender sent me a small glass of Malbec. "It's my favorite," he explained, "and I saw you trying a bunch of wines." It was good -- not mind-blowing, but pleasant enough. If I liked the Malbec, he pointed out, I could take a bottle home for under $20. Ah, synergy.

But Tallula is about more than wine, judging by the crowds. Stop by at happy hour and there are groups of women hanging out on low-slung couches, separated by gauzy scrims. Fanciful cocktails made with green tea or garnished with frozen grapes are popular on Saturday nights, as couples perch in intimate booths or relax on chaise longues that arch like Craftmatic adjustable beds. And on an otherwise leisurely Sunday night, guys with beers watch football on large flat-screen televisions mounted above the bar. "A number of Whitey's regulars from the neighborhood come in for brunch," says communications manager Melissa Gold. "Old habits die hard, I guess. They need a place to stop by on Sunday morning and read the paper."

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