cork logoSometimes, after a long day at work, you just need to unwind with a glass of something red (or white or bubbly).  With all of the great wine bars and wine-focused restaurants that have opened over the past few years, it’s gotten much easier for Washingtonians to get together and do just that.  Whether you live on Capitol Hill or 14th Street, in Penn Quarter or Glover Park, you’ve got a local establishment with a wine list that reads like an encyclopedia close at hand.

One of the most tempting of these options is Cork on 14th Street.  A neighborhood wine bar first and foremost, Cork is “intimate” in all the best meanings of the word.  But it’s not just a place to nurse a glass of pinot noir at the bar (and don’t even think about going all “Sideways” as you sip).  Cork is also a great place to grab a bite (or several): they offer up about two dozen impressive small plates that are designed to be nibbled and shared.

Roasted LeeksWe could have checked it out on our own and shared the plates between us, but our visit to Cork had an ulterior motive.  Like a lot of people, we’ve been fascinated by Ashley Messick’s attempt to eat her way through Washingtonian Magazine’s 100 Best Restaurants list.  She’s been documenting her efforts at From Komi to Marvin, and we had the chance to meet her at the Food Bloggers’ Happy Hour earlier this month.   While there, we made plans to check out a restaurant together, and after looking over what remained on her to-try list we settled on Cork.

Plates to share and wines that pair after the jump.

A View to a KitchenElizabeth was the first to arrive, and she passed the time in true local wine bar fashion: she opened up a book and sat at the bar, enjoying a glass of sparkling wine while she waited for Ashley and me.  I suspect she would have been pretty happy passing an evening that way, as I’m sure plenty of neighbors regularly are.  Once we were all arrived, we were lucky enough to be seated in pretty short order at a table with a prime view of the open kitchen in the back of the restaurant.

We each ordered a glass of wine to get things started while we read over the various small plates on offer.  Elizabeth opted for a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, robust and lush with dark fruit flavors.  I went with a Côte du Ventoux that offered up a lighter taste while still holding up to the big flavors of the dishes we ordered.  The list of options by the glass was plenty long, with a great selection from France, Italy, Spain and Germany that ranged from $6 to $14 a glass.

BranzinoFor our meal, we decided on a pair of cold dishes and a pair of hot.  I know I’ve referred to them as small plates, no doubt conjuring images of a tapas menu in the vein of Jaleo.  Though similar, the flavors represented on this well-edited menu reflect more of  a pan-Mediterranean feel: Italian burrata follows chicken liver bruschetta before moving on to a chicken breast with prunes, olives and preserved lemons and french fries tossed with parsley, garlic and lemon.  It’s as though they’ve gone through the wine list and picked out some of the best and biggest flavors of each country’s cuisine.

Avocado Grilled BreadPlates are brought to the table as they’re ready, allowing for a fluid dining experience.  Want something else?  Just ask for it when your server stops by to check on you. 

We began with a sauteed branzino that was served over a bed of lentils.  The fish was cooked to a satisfying crunch while still remaining moist and fork-tender.  The lentils were well-executed and offered a hearty counterpoint to the lightness of the branzino.  And the acid in the lemon oil tied it all together nicely.

Duck ConfitThe avocado atop grilled bread wasn’t quite as successful as it was unevenly seasoned.  The first piece I tried was light on the pistachios and sea salt described by the menu, leaving me with a bite that was pretty much just perfectly ripe avocado on toast.  Thankfully, the second piece had everything in place and it was easy to see why the dish is so popular as the sweetness of the pistachio blended with the salt and the creaminess of the avocado to create a combination of flavors and textures that came across like a vegetarian version of the chicken liver bruschetta further down the menu.

BurrataWe were most impressed by the remaining pair of dishes we tried: roasted leeks served with burrata (that wonderful Italian mozarella that contains wisps of fresh curd inside) and duck confit atop a vinegary slaw.  In both cases, the components of the dish were individually strong but even more powerful in combination. 

The roasted leeks were meltingly tender with a sweetness that had been brought out by their slow cooking, and they paired beautifully with the creamy, salty cheese.  The plate also offered a few bites of treasured fava beans, which our server informed us were just about the last of the chef’s supply from earlier in the season.  They were still bright green and delicious, so we counted ourselves lucky to get them.

The duck confit was savory and rich, the kind of heavy presentation that can easily get bogged down in its own deep flavor.  But the slaw below it brightened the dish considerably, adding a tangy counterpoint to the shreds of warm, salty chicken.  Elizabeth and Ashley confessed to one another that they weren’t exactly fans of beets, leaving me to enjoy the handful of them that rounded out the plate.  When the server came to remove this dish, I doubt he was surprised to see that we had stripped the bone clean and left nothing else behind…it was a definite hit.

Calamari and Rock ShrimpWe could have stopped there and been completely satisfied, but I read a review on one of the walls that raved about the calamari and rock shrimp, praising the dish as being a welcome departure from the usual uninspired fried calamari rings.  I suggested we give it a try, and the others agreed.  But apparently we missed our departure: what we experienced were well-fried bites of seafood, but nothing that separated this version from countless others we’ve had elsewhere.  The lemon and pepper described in the menu were lost to the crisp breading and an overwhelming saltiness.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington named Cork its 2009 New Restaurant of the Year, and our visit made it easy for us to understand why.  The atmosphere, the food, the wine…all of them came together to provide us with a great experience.  It was an excellent place to meet up for a casual night out, and I can’t help but feel jealous of those who live in the area and can enjoy it as the neighborhood establishment it’s meant to be.

Cork Wine Bar
1720 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC
Cork Wine Bar on Urbanspoon