With Sips and Nibbles, Cork Is Pulling Crowds

Owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross have a winner on their hands in Cork, a wine bar that also serves impressive small plates.
Owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross have a winner on their hands in Cork, a wine bar that also serves impressive small plates. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Cooking is like writing," says Ron Tanaka. Both benefit when you "have something to say."

Judging from the throngs angling for one of about 80 seats at the new Cork Wine Bar (1720 14th St. NW; 202-265-2675) in Logan Circle, the 40-something chef has plenty to say.

As in, french fries are better when they're double-fried and tossed with gremolata.

As in, chicken livers become addictive when they're marinated in garlic and rosemary; sauteed with onions; splashed with sherry; enriched with butter, lots of butter; and pureed with more rosemary before being slathered on bruschetta.

As in, try the trout. Cured with salt, sugar, fresh herbs, clove and lemon zest, the fish is treated to roasted hazelnuts and a bright tangerine vinaigrette.

Altogether, Tanaka counts about two dozen hot and cold appetizer-size plates on his menu, whose honest flavors and clean presentations suggest an impressive background. Among the starry establishments where Tanaka has served as a sous-chef over the years are CityZen, Palena and Michel Richard Citronelle. His latest gig has him toiling in a tiny kitchen with a six-burner stove, a grill and a fryer -- but also an easy four or so blocks from home.

The crowds that show up six nights a week (Cork is closed Mondays) aren't just eating well; they're sipping well, too. The restaurant's wine program, which focuses on France and Italy, is meant to "expose people to new things," says Diane Gross, who co-owns the place with her husband, Khalid Pitts. A blackboard lists four categories of wine served by the flight: three two-ounce tastes of sparkling wines, chenin blancs, cabernet francs and grenaches. Gross says the biggest surprise is "how much wine we're selling!" They'd expected to move plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, she says, but not as much of the offbeat or up-and-coming stuff -- including wines from Priorat in Spain -- as they have. "My personal mission is to get people to drink more sparklers," Gross says, and to strip champagne and other bubblies of their "special occasion" status.

The lines outside the brick-and-wood main dining room make us wish Cork took reservations for other than early birds (5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays). For now at least, Gross is resisting; she wants neighbors to feel they can "drop by on a Tuesday" and not worry about having every table spoken for. As an alternative, she advises would-be patrons to call 30 minutes ahead of arrival so their names can be put on a waiting list.

Cork's phone had better rest near a thick pad of paper.

Wines by the glass, $6-$14; plates to share, $4-$24.

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