Introducing: The Taste of Washington

Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, for most of its history, has not been a food and entertainment town. Congress and the President provided most of the entertainment, if you could call it that. After the cosmopolitan, wine-loving Jefferson retired to his vineyard in Monticello, presidents and members of Congress were not renowned for their refined tastes. President Jackson set a particularly low bar. The cultural capital of the United States in its early days was Boston, then New York.

Until the mid-20th Century, it was said, by the only people who said such things, namely writers and newsmen from New York, that there were no good restaurants in Washington. There was just one concert hall, no opera house, no ballet, a handful of theaters. The best way, and perhaps the only way, to get good food and wine was to get on the A-list of one of Washington’s reigning socialites (not socialists), of which there were many, but these people were not easy to get to know. Cissy Patterson, the editor of the old Times-Herald, was a legendarily powerful arbiter of taste and a social standing in the District. To be on her A-list was heaven; to be removed from it, Siberia.

In fairness, one must add that the food and wine in the Napa Valley, or in San Francisco, in the early 20th Century was not much to brag about either.

Now, in Washington, DC, as in every other American city, large and small, there is a food and beverage renaissance in full swing.

As for the taste of Washington itself, meaning something grown and produced around here, one has to go beyond the boundaries of the Federal District itself, which is less than 10 miles square. We don’t grow anything here, or brew anything, or even make anything here, except rules, regulations, ideas, concepts, standards, strategies, tactics, narratives, arguments and most of these, truth be told, are really imports. Washington itself is just a great entrepot of arguments, conflicts, appetites, desires, resentments, rages, crazes, demands and ideologically-driven fantasies that sweep into town like locusts after every election.

That’s right: don’t blame us, we just work here.

That being said, good food is grown around here in the summer and well into the fall, which lasts a long time, in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Winter produce is trucked in from Florida; let us just say that it could be better. Good cheeses can be had, although nothing up to northern California standards (in fact, Cowgirl just opened a store here), as can good bread. Very respectable beer and ale are made in Virginia and Maryland.

The afore-mentioned Jefferson grew wine on his estate in Virginia and happily envisioned a great wine region there. The problem with Virginia wine, and Maryland wine, and east coast wine in general, is that the summers are too hot. And too muggy. The humid air heats up by day and, as we all know who live here, does not cool off at night. Grapes like the same weather that people do: warm by day to be active, cool at night to get a restful sleep. Even at harvest time you do not get the wild swings between warm days and cool nights that you get in California’s great wine regions. Then it rains; all summer long it might rain. Autumn, too. Then it gets entirely too cold.

All right, I’ll stop whining.

There are now 157 wineries in Virginia. I will write about them in the coming months, as well as the local produce and cheeses. For now, to give our readers a quick taste of Washington, let me report on this weekend’s adventure in dining. When I think of Washington restaurants, I think of several categories. There are certainly more. The classic Washington restaurant has wood-paneled walls and staff fitted out in formal black-and-white outfits who serve up enormous plates of American or Continental food. Washington’s managerial class must enjoy these places, as do folks from out of town. Then, since there is a vast just-out-of-college contingent here, who do the work for the managerial class, there is an even greater number of sports bars, outdoor bars, basement bars, loud, brassy bars full of 20-somethings, flat screen televisions and deafening sound systems. There is also ethnic food, Ethiopian being unusually plentiful. These places tend to be smaller and bargain-priced. And, of course, more.

Last Saturday some friends and I wanted something different from all of the above, a place uncrowded and therefore not too noisy to have a conversation among six. We found the Bistro d’Oc, a bistro dedicated to wine and food from the Languedoc, the Mediterranean seacoast of France, once famous for heretics and now famous for good wine, food and movie stars, on 10th Street across from the Ford Theater. We occupied a couple of couches at the large, suitably wood-paneled, upstairs bar, and ordered numerous little plates, a cassoulet to share, and individual glasses of wine. I very much enjoyed a warm goat cheese served with green beans, beets, lettuce and a good vinaigrette. I had two glasses of wine, both served, as often happens here, in a glass barely larger than one might use for an aperitif. The first was a minerally, almost medicinal pinot; the second a ripe, full-flavored syrah, both from Languedoc. My dining companions wolfed down the charcuterie, the steak tartare and the fresh bread served with a slab of butter. The cassoulet filled us up and brought smiles to our faces

Our waiter was attentive without being obtrusive and brought everything in good order. Bistro d’Oc would be a great winter night café. I look forward to returning.

I had eight people over for dinner the other night, an unusually warm night for mid-March, but no one was complaining. A number of good bottles appeared, including a couple from Virginia. It being a warm night, we were happy to open up the Gray Ghost 2009 Chardonnay, produced and bottled in Amissville, which, the label helpfully informs us, is on Route 211, eleven miles west of Warrenton. For those unfamiliar with Virginia, that places the winery about 40 miles west of Washington and a little south. Route 211 is also called Lee Highway, pronounced ‘hahway.’ The label is a handsome shade of gray with a red and white border. A portrait of General Mosby, the legendary Gray Ghost of the Confederacy, graces the upper left corner of the label.
— Did I mention that the Civil War is always lurking in the background around here? Well, it is. You have to get used to it. — I am not a great fan of chardonnay, but this wine had good color, plenty of fruit, full flavor, and a good mouth feel. 12.5% alcohol.

The other Virginia wine was an unvintaged bottle called, simply, ‘Rosso,’ Virginia Table Wine, produced and bottled by Gabriele Rausse Winery in Charlottesville, home to Jefferson, the University of Virginia and a lot of wineries. No one had any idea what sort of grapes were in it. We enjoyed some that night and the rest a few nights later at an impromptu dinner, when it still tasted good. We thought it tasted sort of like pinot, but what do we know?

Bistro d’Oc
518 10th St NW Washington,
DC 20004-1401
(202) 393-5444

Gabriele Rausse Winery
P. O. Box 3956
Charlottesville, VA 22903
(434) 296-5328

Gay Ghost Vineyards
14706 Lee Highway
Amissville, VA 20106
(540) 937-4869

Richard Hyde

Richard Hyde believes that St. Helena, California is the world’s greatest small town and loves to enjoy good wine and food there while playing bocce ball of a summer evening. Nonetheless, he leaves to spend winters in Washington, DC. He admits that this may be a sign of advanced lunacy, which he treats by inviting friends over to his top-floor apartment overlooking the National Cathedral, where great conversations take place accompanied by bottles of Malbec and mounds of fresh pasta. Despite the brilliant conversation and analysis of the world’s problems, no action is ever taken. Sometime in the spring, like a large migrating bird, he returns to the Napa Valley, where he practices Esalen bodywork at the Calistoga Massage Center and other fine health spas. He also writes a blog, “In Search of a Sense of Place.”

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