It took them 10 years, but Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts finally have what they envisioned when the couple opened Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street NW: a restaurant and a market under one roof.
The perfect spot was right up the street, within their nine-year-old Cork Market, whose second floor previously housed a tasting room and office. With the lease for their wine bar coming up last year, the restaurateurs saw an opportunity to relocate the dining room above the market and consolidate the businesses.
The transition appears to benefit all concerned: The owners no longer have rent to pay, since they own the building, and customers can do their shopping and eating at one location. "We're trying to refresh after 10 years," says Gross.
The downstairs market, the source of wine, cheese and things to pair with both, has been retooled with a bar and tables and a creative American menu by Ian Morrison. (Creamy tomato-fennel soup and a sweet-smoky pork banh mi encourage pit stops there.) The new upstairs restaurant — the focus of this review — finds white oak floors, handsome settees, muted lighting and brick walls that show off the handiwork of Pitts's artist father. The 60-seat dining room, featuring a second bar, is cozy, clean-lined and welcoming, a sedate alternative to the crowded hot spots du jour.
There's a catch, wouldn't you know. When a diner asks a server "What's new?," she flashes a wide smile and says, "Everything on the menu is exactly the same."
Everything? Really? Sure enough, the list I'm handed reads pretty much like the one I ordered from a year or so ago, which at the time struck me as pretty much the food I had eaten a few years earlier. Hasn't avocado toast overstayed its welcome? Isn't the chef, Jason Schreuder, a little tired of serving the same things for so long? At this point, I figure he must be able to make chicken liver mousse and fried calamari in his sleep and upside down.
Credit where credit is due: Gross and Pitts helped pave the way for other dining establishments to follow on 14th Street when they opened the wine bar, whose minimal neighborhood competition at the time included Bar Pilar, Café Saint-Ex and Rice. I championed Cork when it opened and gave it a three-star rave in 2009. I liked it a lot less the last time I was in, when the room smelled like cleaning solution and a sea of empty seats reminded me that diners had plenty of other menus from which to choose on what had become Washington's premier restaurant row. Until the recent merger, Cork didn't do much to help itself from being branded old hat.
Does yesterday's news taste better in fresh wrapping? There's no denying the revived setting makes for a more memorable experience at Cork, whose wine bar competition now includes such seductive arrivals as Maxwell Park in Shaw and Primrose in Brookland. Regulars already know how to navigate the tenured collection of small plates meant to be shared. Virgins to Cork might benefit from my recent findings.
Cold plates, for example, take a back seat to hot ones. With a few exceptions, the lower the temperature of a dish, the less satisfaction it brings. That includes the cement-dense chicken liver pâté packed with a forest of rosemary in a little glass jar, and the supposedly popular avocado toast, which on one visit consisted of hard slices of avocado that couldn't be redeemed by their topping of crushed pistachios and sea salt. (I have nothing against avocado toast, but there are better versions of the trend just about everywhere.) A salad of grilled octopus would gain from more seafood and less shaved fennel, although the pink grapefruit makes a nice sparkplug. The best of the cool lot is the roseate rabbit rillettes, scoops of which benefit from a dab of mustard and a chaser of pickled carrot. Lush plus tang equals bang.
You have a friend at the fryer. From hot oil emerge golden french fries showered with minced parsley, garlic and lemon, and greaseless calamari ignited with black pepper and lemon. The hot ringlets can be cooled down with a swipe of the fresh-tasting caper rémoulade alongside. Let the double dipping begin!
A clutch of small plates seem out of season. As much as I enjoy the full-throttled grilled pork tenderloin, it's a surprise to encounter brushstrokes of corn puree. Cubes of melon on top not only look silly, they add little to the flavor. Tepid duck confit is not well-served by blueberries in its nest of farro, wild rice and tiny Peruvian peppers. (The fruit is pickled, but still.)
The dish that calls to me most at Cork is among the simplest. Risotto with a thicket of wild mushrooms, pecorino and a sprinkling of herbs is just the ticket on a cold winter night. On the lighter side are two seared scallops served in a hot bath of delicate bacon broth, a novel hookup of seafood and meat. You'll want to steer clear of the salmon, though, offered with white asparagus and seared so hard it could support a truck. The fish defies my knife. I'm thinking a chain saw might do the job.
Wine helps. The list, composed of 40 by the glass and 300 by the bottle, with a focus on the Old World, is hard to read by the dim light. But the servers are adept at making suggestions, and I can vouch for a gruner veltliner's bright acidity with the rabbit rillettes and a gigondas, hinting of licorice and orange peel, with the risotto. Like what you're sipping? Cork Market sells it at the retail price plus $20 (the restaurant's corkage fee).
Lucky customers are escorted to one of the couches across from the wine bar, or a table near a window facing the street, where they can see occasional intimate slices of urban life on the sidewalk below and the apartments across the way. "That poor woman has been doing laundry since we got here!" a companion said as I signed the check one visit.
Desserts, by pastry chef Tawonda Boyd, make you want to order more. Her nice surprises include hot pear crisp, presented in a skillet with glossy cardamom caramel, and tangy goat cheese cheesecake served in perfect creamy dollops rather than the usual wedge.
The owners are whetting appetites with their plans. Come March, they expect to open a garden patio. They even plan to make their own wine, a rosé — Gross has a year-round soft spot for the blush wine — using cabernet franc grapes from Virginia. (Look for a spring 2019 release.) Honestly, though? If they really want to make a splash upstairs, they need to pour more thought into the menu.
1805 14th St. NW.
Open: Dinner in the wine bar Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Small plates to share $5 to $20.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.