GRAPE NEWS: Seven months into his job as executive chef at the Caucus Room (401 Ninth St. NW; 202-393-1300), Richard Beckel wants people to think of the place not as a VIP steakhouse but as "a true American restaurant." One of the ways he's trying to change the beefy perception of the Penn Quarter establishment is with a program that waives the Caucus Room's usual $15 corkage fee, allows diners to bring in their own wine and finds the chef building a one-of-a-kind menu around the goods.
Pairing guests' wines with specially designed restaurant fare "creates intimacy between the customer and the chef," says Beckel, who creates three-, four- and five-course dinners for $55, $75 and $85 a person, respectively, on Friday and Saturday nights. Guests are asked to make reservations early in the week, at which time they let the restaurant know which wines they'll be bringing in; Beckel reports back to them by Thursday with menu ideas, making changes as necessary.
While patrons tend to show up with treasures great and small -- a bottle from Condrieu, in France's northern Rhone region, or a reserve Marsanne from Australia -- the chef says he doesn't mind it when he sees, say, a non-vintage Pouilly-Fuisse come his way. Bottom line: "I'm a huge, huge, huge fan of wine," says the 34-year-old chef, whose resume includes Total Beverage, where he worked as a fine-wine consultant, and Michel Richard Citronelle, where he served as executive sous chef for three years.
It turns out there's a side benefit for the Caucus Room: Beckel uses the promotion to audition dishes for his standing menu. For a recent participant, who wanted to sip Sauternes and eiswein from his personal stash, the chef prepared a tapioca pudding with coconut and caramelized pineapple. The rest of us can sample that hit -- if not the pedigreed dessert wines -- in the near future, promises Beckel.