PSST, WANNA piece of basil torta, lady? The best in town--direct from Peck's in Milan, Italy. $13.99 a pound.
What can I lose? Sure, I say, as I sidle up to the counter at Harry's Liquor, Wine and Cheese Shop. I bite into these layers. One mozzarella, one mascharpone sandwiching this green pesto thread. One bite and I reckon I'm onto something rich.
Hey, kid. (It's the same guy.) Now you wanna try this cheddar? No kidding. Vermont cheddar from some little place called Cabot Farms, it's smooth, medium-sharp and moist, $4.29 a pound. I check the facts. It seems this guy at Harry's is smart. He holds it back for 18 months 'til he gets it so you gotta taste it--and then taste it again, and again.
Harry's. It's not my neighborhood hangout. I'm in Southwest Washington nosing around a coupla wines. And next thing I know, Gary Beard is showing me his bryndza, a pure sheep's milk curd cheese from Czechoslovakia ($5.99 a pound), and his Old Monk olive oil from France ($5.99 a pint), and his gouda from Lansdale Farm in Crozet, Va., ($5.79 a pound), and all his fresh-daily breads, crackers and his gumbo file' powder by Zatarain ($1.69 per sachet). My mind is having trouble keeping up with my stomach, but it is still working.
See, I reckon I know a thing or two about shopping in this town. Like where to buy St. Ivel Devon Cream for only $2.99 (MacArthur Liquors) or like going to Pearson's, the store on my own block that has these great deals on Perrier just often enough to keep me from dying of thirst. And if the legit wine stores are carrying new and different food, why not case a few of them?
So, I'm finishing the garlic sausage from Les Trois Petits Cochons ($6.99 a pound) at Harry's and I'm thinking, 'Who's got the goods?' Right: Larimer's, Sutton Place, Wagshall's, Magruder's, Capitol Hill Wine and Cheese--they've got plenty of food, good food, but that's their line. They don't pretend to be wine specialists first and food places second. Nope. In my book, food is their steady beat. I'm looking for the sideliners.
I swing out of Harry's and head northwest. First stop: Mayflower Wines and Spirits.
It's an oil scene. Not on canvas. I nose around. I see deep red chianti classico wines and deep green extra virgin olive oils. It's the Tuscan connection. Oils from Olivieri ($6.29 for 16.9 ounces) and Isole e Olena ($9.99 for 750 milliliters and $5.99 for 370 milliliters) and more. I'm finding that oil and wine don't mix without help. I need bread--Italian bread. The people at Mayflower oblige. It's crusty bread, brick-oven baked, from Hoboken, N.J. Another Tuscan connection? It comes in Friday and goes out fast.
And that's not all at Mayflower. There's a new connection. It's wine and food from Provence. More beautiful olive oil ($10.99 for 750 milliliters), tasting different from the Italian's, and this time it keeps company with jars of whole olives from the same producer, Domaine de la Gautiere. These are cured olives, packed tight with herbs and bay leaves ($4.99 for 1 pound 1 ounce). But a dame can take just so much of olives. It's time for a sweet kick, like the Provence honey ($6.99 for 500 grams). Made from lavender and wild flowers, it's thick and creamy and gets me licking the spoon.
Time to move on to Georgetown Wine and Cheese. The word's out. Things are changing around that place. I fight my way through the front room. Meril Dunn's got it so full of new wines that it's tough to make my way in. So I do a little wine tasting on the side, and I'm ready to talk food again. Carlos Estrada shows me the layout. They've fixed up the two upstairs floors. It's gonna be some fancy food- and wine-tasting room, and a temperature-controlled display and storage room for fine wines.
Carlos isn't messing around. All the good cheeses, breads, crackers, coffee--they'll still be there, only more. He tells me to wait for the fresh, genuine fresh, sourdough bread from La Parisienne, San Francisco, coming in September, and the fresh herbs from Virginia coming in June. You name the cheese and Carlos will get it if it's to be gotten. Then there are the new items, like smoked fish from some guy's right here in Glen Echo, Md. They'll be smoking bluefish, salmon, eel, shad, rock, whatever's fresh.
What's a wine dame like you doing in a deli like this? It's the Eagle-eye of Doug Burdette. He's spotted my side trip into the Eagle Cheese shop, where Monique Wagner gives me the lowdown on low sodium. She's making her own pates, one with no salt, called the Diamond Pate ($3.99 a pound) because it's designed for the boss who's on a low-sodium kick. And there's regular pate de campagne, Normande, with pork and apples, and veal supreme, with green peppercorns (all at $5.99 a pound). Monique wants to make Eagle into a one-stop food and wine shop for last-minute shoppers.
The story's in the bag. I pull out of Eagle and cruise home. There're plenty of good wine places in Washington. There're plenty of good food places. I tasted my way 'round just a few that are doing a good job at both. And there's one store to go. It's Calvert Woodley Wines and Liquors. It's been no secret for a long time that their two shops are getting together this summer, in a new building at Van Ness and Connecticut. So what's happening to the cheeses, oils, crackers, breads and all that stuff at the old Calvert's? I snoop around. Ed Sands tells me that the food goes along for the ride. Only there's going to be more of it; they're getting into salads and sandwiches for carryout, fresh pasta, coffees and more of the goodies they've been selling on Wisconsin Avenue. And there's going to be a longer cheese counter.
I get the feeling this is where I came in--hanging around a cheese counter.
Maybe you wanna lean on a cheese counter in a wine shop? So I'll do you a favor. I'll tell you where to find the goods:
* Harry's Liquor, Wine and Cheese. Waterside Mall, 401 M St. SW.
* Mayflower Wines and Spirits. 2115 M St. NW.
* Georgetown Wine and Cheese. 1413 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
* Eagle Wine and Cheese. 3345 M St. NW.
* Calvert Woodley Wines and Liquors. 4339 Connecticut Ave. NW. (opening late June)