First Bite

Nice top floor, but it's not top-drawer

Dickson Wine Bar occupies three floors of a former art gallery.
Dickson Wine Bar occupies three floors of a former art gallery. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's easy to see why the appearance of Dickson Wine Bar in March excited its neighbors.

Three floors of watering hole, softly illuminated with votives and surrounded with brick or reclaimed wine bottles, suggest an appealing place to start an evening or end a day. The top floor of the former art gallery is particularly distinctive, if noisy. In the right weather, its windows look across the street to a lively rooftop party at Nellie's Sports Bar.

Dickson, which adopted the name etched in its building's stone facade, comes with a splash of pedigree. Jared Slipp, one of the city's popular grape mavens, put its wine list together, and there's something to sip for everyone: ros from Greece, gruner veltliner from Austria, pinot noir from Argentina and a 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Chateau De Beaucastel (although it's hard to imagine anyone paying $245 for that pleasure on U Street).

Pals of mine who had dropped by tempted me further with the promise of banh mi on the menu. Woo-hoo, right? Ultimately, not so much.

Things started out in a promising way with an engaging waiter, a cocktail and charcuterie. Jalapenos set fire to tequila and lime juice in Dickson's fiery margarita, and it's hard to resist duck prosciutto made in-house or ivory bands of lardo from Iowa pigs. Cubes of ahi tuna tossed with creamy avocado and a soy vinaigrette need tastier delivery scoops, but the ubiquitous fish salad is otherwise fine.

Flatbreads, on the other hand, are a waste of decoration given their cardboard crusts. One, with too many sliced figs and too little Gorgonzola, smacks of dessert. Another night and another flatbread, this one smothered with braised leeks and a mere suggestion of goat cheese, prompts a discussion at our tall table. My dinner partner and I are famished, yet the most favorable take-away from a second dinner here is . . . melted onions? Chef and co-owner James Claudio, who also runs the kitchen at the nearby Marvin, where Dickson's food is prepared, can do better than this.

Dickson's dishes aren't so much about cooking as about procuring ingredients and assembling them - sloppily, in some cases. A forest of arugula fenced in with clumps of goat cheese, prosciutto and past-its-prime watermelon is a serious turn-off, while two of the three Vietnamese sandwiches miss. The chicken version comes with outsize, hard-to-eat pieces of poultry and too few pickled vegetables; the baguette stuffed with pork belly tastes raw.

Juicy rib-eye, we learn, makes for the best banh mi at Dickson - Washington's unintentional whine bar.

903 U St. NW. 202-332-1779. Charcuterie, $7-$49, flatbreads, $9-$13.

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