Mockingbird Hill, the latest bar from Derek Brown of the Columbia Room and the Passenger, opens at 5 p.m. on Friday, June 7. Here's what you need to know about D.C.'s only sherry and ham bar, located at 1843 Seventh St. NW in Shaw.
It's a family affair. After opening the Passenger with his brother Tom, Derek Brown is opening Mockingbird Hill with his wife, Chantal Tseng, who calls the dry fino sherry her "spirit drink." Tseng spent the past nine years running the bar at the Tabard Inn, and Brown jokes that "the only way I could get her here was to open a sherry bar and promise her unlimited fino." Tseng adds: "Leave the Tabard? That's tough. I don't know – wait, a sherry bar? I'm out. See ya!"
It was inspired by trips to Spain. "We're not recreating a Madrid bar – we're inspired by them," Brown says. "We'd go to these great little places where everyone was drinking sherry." It's an intimate little place, with lots of counter space along the walls. The only real table is a farmhouse-style communal table in the cozy back room.
There's a whole lot of sherry on the menu. Tseng selected 54 different sherries, organized by style. There are five different fino sherries, for example, and four of them are $6 or less. "You should be able to get a good glass of any kind of sherry for $6, $7 or $8," she says. Additionally, Tseng created various flights ($10-$12) with small pours based around various themes. Try representatives of the three dominant sherry regions, or three sherries that exhibit flor, the yeast that gives the aged wine its flavor. High rollers can try a $28 flight of scotches and rums that were aged in sherry barrels.
The proprietors know that sherry has an image problem. "We're facing two barriers," Brown says. "There's the perception that it's sweet, when 90 percent of sherry is dry. Number two, the idea that it's something that your grandmother drank. I say 'Not unless your grandmother was cool as [heck].' In the '80s, they drank cream sherry or sweet sherry. This is totally different." Tseng says that "Sherry is complex. It's like a cocktail on its own: There are herbs, there are elements of barrel aging. It's a natural progression for people who like good cocktails."
The owners didn't like sherry at first, either. "I can totally relate to people who say, 'Oh, I won't like this,'" Tseng says. "When I was working at Firefly, I poured a bone-dry sherry, and I hated it. I was like, 'Why would anyone ever drink this stuff?' Tseng said she gradually grew to love sherry, after pairing it with food at Komi and the Tabard. "The more I learned about wine, the more I realized that [sherry] is the perfect wine. Now it's all I crave."
Sherry goes well with snacks, not huge meals. As in Spain, Tseng says, every glass of sherry comes with a free dish of nibbles: manzanilla olives, Virginia peanuts, walnuts or bitter chocolate, depending on which sherry you order. There's a menu of snacks for $3-$5, including lupini beans and pickled quail eggs, and a handful of small plates, such as preserved white anchovies or manchego cheese with honey and cocoa-covered corn nuts, for $6-$10. Come here for nibbles, not a full dinner.
The menu has four types of cured ham, only one of which is Spanish. "We want to push American ham," Brown says. "Spanish ham is great. It was our inspiration and we have it as a point of reference." That's why you'll find two-year-old ham from West Virginia's Woodland Pork, Spanish-style Surryano ham from Edwards & Sons of Virginia, lomo from D.C.'s own Red Apron, and a duck prosciutto from Cured DC. (The latter is a menu inclusion for people who can't eat pork.) The bar will soon offer the legendary jamon iberico de bellota, the Spanish ham made from free-range pigs that eat only acorns. It's going to be expensive, but other hams will go for $5 to $11 per serving.
Spirits and local beer are on draft. Two taps are reserved for beers from DC Brau and 3 Stars. Another pours a Green Hat gin and tonic, which Brown and bartender J.P. Fetherston created for the Red Apron bar at Union Market. The last tap is dedicated to Vya vermouth. "I've always loved it, but I think it changes the flavor of a cocktail," Brown says. So at Mockingbird Hill, it will be served with a large ice cube and topped with soda water.
There are four sherry-based cocktails, and the rest of the liquor selection will be small, with one red wine, one white wine, one rose and a few sparkling wines. Don't expect the bar to have the range of the Passenger or the Columbia Room. "We tried to steer away from being a cocktail bar," Brown says. "We're a sherry bar."
Derek Brown wants to teach you about sherry. On Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m., Brown will lead free sherry classes. "I know a lot of people don't know about sherry, so I'll bring them back [to the small dining room], they can taste a few and find out what they like," he says. On Wednesdays, there will be a similar class covering aged ham.
All the bartenders are qualified sommeliers. If you have a question about sherry, they should be able to answer it for you. Tseng and Brown will be behind the bar frequently, ready to offer recommendations.
The soundtrack is punk rock. Mockingbird Hill, for those who aren't fans of "The Only Band That Matters," is taken from a line in the Clash song "Spanish Bombs." Derek Brown says the name is a tribute teenage epiphanies: "The first time I heard about Spain and understood the country was through Joe Strummer. It wasn't because I looked at a map or because I read Cervantes." Expect to hear everything from the Slits to the Ramones.
Bonus fact: This is the first of three adjacent projects Brown is overseeing. Two doors south is Eat the Rich, an oyster bar that will open its doors
in 2014 later this summer. The storefront in between will be home to a still-secret restaurant concept, which Brown expects to open after Eat the Rich in 2015.