It was love at first sight last month when I came face to facade with Primrose, the young Brookland wine bar from District restaurateur Sebastian Zutant and his wife, designer Lauren Winter.
From the street, the windows of the corner dining room captured the kind of merrymaking crowd competitors would kill to host. But it’s less the happy faces and clinking glasses that draw me in than the whimsical interior. Winter, a principal with Edit Lab at Streetsense, has created a dreamy environment with the help of bar painted turquoise, marble table tops trimmed in silver and, most amusing, chandeliers puffed up with ostrich plumes. Instagram, get ready.
Zutant, never one to swim with the crowd, is easy to tag in the mix. He’s sporting blue hair these days, and he’s eager to introduce you to one of the natural wines on his French-focused list, some 75 labels from some of France’s less-familiar regions. Examples from his own winery, the Lightwell Survey, also make an appearance. The wares include a blend of Riesling and syrah called “Los Idiots,” named, says Zutant, because the mix “was such a gamble, we were idiots to do so.”
The wine maven has poured juice at some of Washington’s best known dining venues: Komi, Rasika, Proof, the Red Hen and All-Purpose Pizzeria. His attraction to Brookland was as natural as the wine he serves. “We live here,” he says of his family, and the tree-lined streets and multiple churches help create “a little town inside the city.”
The introductory menu at Primrose, named in part for one of Winter’s grandmothers, is a single brief page, highlighting a handful of bistro staples and a few dishes with vegetarians in mind. Whipped rabbit dropped off with apricots poached in cardamom syrup makes a pleasing start, but rillettes de lapin are easily sourced in Washington. Less common is French onion soup with such a beefy sensibility that you’re skeptical when you’re told the broth beneath the molten cap of Gruyere and Emmental is made sans meat. The deep flavors of the liquid are culled from porcini mushrooms and kombu, or dried Japanese seaweed, says chef de cuisine Eric Schlemmer, 32, formerly of Bibiana downtown and Sovereign in Georgetown. (The consulting chef is Nathan Beauchamp, the culinary director of the Fainting Goat and Tiger Fork.)
Restaurants of all stripes are nudging cauliflower into the limelight. Primrose’s contribution flags white florets in a salad along with golden raisins, hazelnuts and the subtle French curry known as vadouvan.
The plats, or main courses, will be familiar to Francophiles. Seafood stew laced with fennel and leeks packs in some sly heat with red chile flakes; the broth captures the true flavor of the sea, although I wish the shrimp were less firm and the chickpeas had been cooked through. Beef bourguignon shows off good saucing; too bad the meat is a little tough. I’m most eager to return for coq au vin — chicken braised in red wine and scattered with smoky lardons. Let me amend that: The fat pommes frites are pretty amazing, too. Get a batch for the table and see how triple-frying makes for exquisite snacking.
Little touches make big impressions. House-filtered still and sparkling water is offered gratis, for instance. The snug zinc bar is one of many transporting fine points. As Zutant says, “When you walk in, what you see is Paris.”
See and taste. Chocolate pot de crème, so rich you should consider sharing it, is an ideal way to bid adieu in what’s already become a beacon in the neighborhood.
3000 12th St. NE 202-248-4558. primrosedc.com. Entrees, $19 to $26.