Hands down, the most impressive food and wine pairing in Washington right now comes courtesy of New York.
If that sounds like an affront to the city’s sommeliers, I encourage you to explore the gleaming new District Winery in the Navy Yard and its adjoining 56-seat restaurant, Ana. Created by the owners of Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg, Brian Leventhal and John Stires, the glass-wrapped sister operation lets visitors observe the winemaking process, from the crushing, blending and aging of the grapes to their eventual bottling.
Buy-local enthusiasts should know that Virginia doesn’t have enough grapes to fuel the portfolio here; the bulk of the fruit comes from California, Washington state and New York. Because of the time it takes to make wine, the D.C. site won’t release its wares, about 80,000 bottles, until next year. (First up will be a dry rosé in spring.) Outfitted with a handsome tasting bar and space for private events on multiple levels, the city’s first winery currently pours wines produced at its Brooklyn base.
In a measure of the principals’ commitment to the District, one of 20 cities they considered for a second urban winery, the two owners, winemaker Conor McCormack and executive chef Michael Gordon, relocated here.
Without trying too hard, the dining room, arranged with sea-blue, mid-century-inspired seats and globes suspended from timber beams, makes itself an alluring place to linger. A sense of place is defined by a quirky gallery of U.S. presidents, “Dads of Democracy,” as well as walls of glass that capture the Anacostia River, which lends its abbreviated name to the dining destination. (Recalling the day in August that the vinyl shroud was removed from the windows, exposing the water view for the first time, Stires says it was “one of the few times I teared up” in the process of building a new restaurant.) A nip in the air doesn’t dissuade some of us from enjoying the exterior, warmed by tall heat lamps and romanticized with mesmerizing fire pits.
Gordon, 41, previously with the late Bouley in New York, and chef de cuisine Benjamin Lambert, 38, last seen at 701 in Penn Quarter, conceived the menu. Give or take a dish, the lineup is every bit as captivating as the design. In true modern American style, they combine local ingredients and global accents to come up with plates as original as those painted mugs of American leaders on the back wall. Biting into a pierogi plumped with shredded rutabaga in the role of sauerkraut is a shuttle to Poland, with the bonus of lamb bacon and mustard seeds in the mix. Expect to see a few Asian notes, too, including crisp cod and chanterelle ravioli in a pool of dashi. And braised, grilled octopus tastes novel in the company of fiery pineapple and bright mint.
Settle in with something “for the table,” and hope the table likes mushrooms, because wild fungi scattered with crushed hazelnuts and panes of Parmesan on a thick cushion of toasted bread feels like fall is presiding over the party. The sense is only heightened when there’s rye, fig syrup and walnut bitters in your cocktail glass. The autumnal “Figment of Imagination,” dressed up with a singed fig, is among the contributions from the convivial bar here, which is not to slight the focus on grapes. The 15 wines by the glass include a bright unoaked chardonnay and a lightly peppery cabernet franc that flatters the menu’s bolder dishes.
Some choices read busier than optimal. Reserve judgment until you’ve sampled pig shoulder confit, cooked in duck fat and partnered in its small bowl with springy pickled shrimp and rice grits plus (I’m not finished yet) husk cherries and an emulsion of XO sauce. If Charleston ever decided to replace shrimp and grits as its local treasure, the Southern charmer would be wise to consider this high-low orchestration. Similarly laden yet sublime is the cappelletti: ruffled hats of pasta stuffed with molten Grayson cheese and pear, and accessorized with near-melting petals of pearl onions and what could pass for kibble but turns out to be pellets of tasty rabbit sausage. Duck breast is smoked and carved into thick slices, which are best when speared with some crisp snap peas on the plate and run through the zesty, spot-on mole.
Ana is my most recent answer to the question of where to take mixed appetites. Provided they opt out of the ’nduja dressing, vegetarians are made more than welcome with a salad of carrots prepared multiple ways — roasted, fried, pickled and whipped into hummus — and arranged in a loose hedge atop a pool of maple-tinged yogurt. Vegetables pressed into the service of “steaks” are about as ubiquitous as Alexa, with thick cuts of cauliflower typically standing in for the meat. Ana’s medium is a head of broccoli, which gets steamed, pressed and charred on the grill before being paired with tempura-crisped mushrooms and dressed with a truffle vinaigrette. Lambert, the day-to-day chef at Ana, reprises an idea he offered at 701 restaurant and serves a field of roasted vegetables, seasoned with warm spices as if for shawarma, under a roof of seeded lavash. Free of meat, Ana’s side dishes intrigue. The chefs use mashed parsnips instead of potatoes to make aligot, the rich, almost-liquid Auvergne classic that acquires its stretchiness from melted cheese.
To a large extent, this is food that makes you think, then smile at the outcome of the chefs’ teamwork. The kitchen isn’t perfect (crab beignets have been alternately doughy and delicious), but it wins you over more times than not.
Desserts are paid the same attention as everything that precedes them. Someone should request the dome-shaped chocolate cake covered with glossy white chocolate frosting. The confection resembles an inside-out Hostess Cupcake, albeit superior in every way, down to the finishing dots of bright yellow passion fruit sauce on the plate.
The dessert of the moment is hummingbird cake, slices of which can be had at restaurants as diverse as Hummingbird in Alexandria and Succotash in D.C. Lambert sets his banana-fragrant cake apart from the pack with a bright pineapple sherbet and coconut crisp. I’m also fond of the plum tart, at least when the fruit, poached in red wine and served with mascarpone mousse, is soft (not always the case).
Along with adding something fresh to the food scene, Ana succeeds with an original point of view in its winery and kitchen and a great view — full stop — from its dining room.
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385 Water St. SE.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $11 to $19, main courses $22 to $34.
Sound check: 68 decibels / Conversation is easy.