The Beachbum is a firm believer in recycling. Especially his own material. But on his second visit to Washington D.C. in under a year, there were so many new bars to visit that he found it completely unnecessary to steal from his previous post on Capitol cocktails.
Tom Brown’s congenial new watering hole, The Passenger, masquerades as a beer bar, but Mr. Brown and his staff actually take cocktails quite seriously. We would happily have swigged their custom quaffs all night, but an unmarked door at the back of the house beckoned.
Behind this door is a speakeasy called the Columbia Room, whose gatekeeper is Hilary Swank. (Actually her name is Katie, but she’s the spitting image of the actress.) She leads you into a tiny chamber that used to be the dressing room of a burlesque house, but now houses Tom’s brother Derek’s theater of the bar. Two tiers of seats face front, as if the Columbia Room were a miniature college lecture hall — appropriately enough, since Derek (pictured above) is literally a bar-room philosopher who’s consulted Notre Dame professors about how to apply Aristotle’s theories to cocktail creation.
Aristotelian precepts like “the essential accident” and “the unchanging core” roll off Derek’s tongue as he puts you through the paces of the Columbia’s two-drink tasting session, which pairs gourmet snacks with state-of-the-art drinks — each prescribed for you personally, based on Derek’s diagnosis of your wants and needs. After sizing up the Bum, Derek determined that we required a 50/50 Plymouth Martini chased by truffled popcorn. He followed this up with his delectable Knickerbocker Al Señor (house-made fig-orange granita, sherry, mint, and powdered sugar), paired with a salad of fig, radicchio, and orange tossed with sherry vinaigrette.
Speaking of pairings, Derek is married to the Tabard Inn’s mixologist, Chantal Tseng, who also had us pegged the moment we bellied up to her bar (perhaps because our belly was covered with a Hawaiian shirt) and made us her smashing Tiki Smash: Jamaican and coconut rums, house-made ginger beer, lime and pineapple juices, garnished with a shiso leaf from Larry’s Garden. We assumed that Larry’s Garden was a local specialty store, but Larry turned out to be the guy on the next stool, holding a bag of shiso from his yard. In keeping with D.C.’s penchant for pairing, Chantal served the Tiki Smash with a home-made Tiki Trail Mix (pictured below).
At PS7’s Restaurant, house “mixtress” Gina Chersevani is a culinary Dolly Levi, a match-maker who can take any dish and find it the perfect liquid mate. “We really want to make a new food movement,” says Gina’s collaborator, PS7’s chef Peter Smith. “We’ve really pushed to make it work.” Judging by the cocktail dinner we attended, they can stop pushing. Each of the seven pairings we sampled was spectacular, none more so than Peter’s Carthusian Duck (cooked in Chartreuse and stuffed with carrot) accompanied by Gina’s “The Blessing” (Chartreuse, carrot juice, Muscadine wine and ginger, topped with a highly huffable Chartreuse dry-ice vapor; pictured below). Fellow diners Cheryl Charming, a cocktail book author who is no stranger to pairing drinks with food, and Bruce Tomlinson, a former chef turned bartender, both agreed it was the best combination they’d ever tasted — no disrespect to Gina and Peter’s grand finale of after-dinner mint and deconstructed Grasshopper, the latter a sly mix of mint granita, chocolate vodka, and cream that moved local Tikiphile Vern Stoltz to observe, “The only way this evening could be better is if I went home and my bathtub was filled with this.”
Upon hearing that the D.C. pairing trend had traveled down Route 50 to Annapolis, we did the same. Our destination was the 200-year-old brick building that houses Level, whose bar and kitchen work in the same vein as PS7’s, combining cocktails and small-plates. All ingredients — right down to the herbs growing in Level’s window sills — are from the surrounding Chesapeake Bay area. Even the mixologist is locally sourced: “I was born here,” says John Hogan, who sees “no reason why Annapolis shouldn’t be a major culinary city, like San Francisco, Portland, or New York.” To that end, he and chef Alfred Manilis have worked up masterly combinations like Rockfish Ceviche and Smoked Margarita (lime, agave syrup, tequila smoked with hickory and lavender, and a smoked salt rim; pictured below).
All this gourmandizing was well and good, but the Bum’s D.C. visit had another purpose: we’d originally come because Tikiphiles Douglas Sexton and Jeff Westlake had separately alerted us to a new menu item at The Majestic’s bar, the Ray’s Mistake. This is the legendary signature drink of Los Angeles’s Tiki-Ti, which has kept the recipe top secret since Ray Buhen created it there in 1968. We met Mr. Westlake at The Majestic to see if the place had actually cracked the recipe, something the Bum has been trying to do — without success — since he first tasted one in the early 1980s. While The Majestic’s bartender Sydney mixed us several truly majestic Tiki drinks, including a flawless Missionary’s Downfall, we must report that Ray’s secret is still safe. The Majestic’s version — an acidic construct of rum, gin, coconut milk, guava, passion fruit, pineapple, and house sour mix — is a mistake, but not Ray’s.