Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #49, Washingtonian 2009 #40, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants 2009, 2010 RAMMY Nominee - Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year, 2009 RAMMY Winner - Best New Restaurant, Washington Post's 2009 Top 50 Restaurants
Neighborhood: 14th Street
Official Friend of DCWD Biz was back in town and wanted to get us all together for a dinner to catch up. So me and Official Friends of DCWD HR Intern and Yupster got together with Biz and met up at a place we all wanted to eat at: Cork.
Cork is at one time both a beautiful spot and a confusing place. Upon walking in, I was ready to crown it as someplace where the vibe and decor was perfect for a date. Four cute tables (two two-tops and two four-tops) sit outside on the patio. You enter into a beautiful interior: exposed brick on the left wall mirrors the burgundy of the right wall, accented by dark gray trim and columns, exposed silver vents, and an off-white ceiling. The front room centers on a marble counter-top bar of ten seats surrounded by a few two- and four-tops and two window booths. The furniture is simple dark wood, and the rustic Pottery Barn feel is augmented by the other small touches: the chalkboard listing specials and the mantle with framed pictures to one side, a set of cupboards to the other. If Cork were just this room and the patio, that would be one thing.
But then we were seated. And instead of the charming albeit noisy front, we were led into the back, where the decor gets decidedly darker, quieter, and much more made-of-concrete. It's still sort of cute, but also gives you the feeling of being somewhere subterranean. On the one hand, it's much easier to have a conversation; on the other, it's sort of creepy.
One last note: for all the nice service (and it WAS really great), the one thing that rubbed me the wrong way the most was the restaurant's policy on taking pictures. A note on the bottom of the menu tells you to ask before you take photos of your food or the restaurant... and when you ask you're promptly told it's not allowed. At the worst, it's an overreaction to food bloggers, at best it's a super passive-aggressive move. Too bad for them because some of the food was beautifully plated and now I won't be able to show that.
That being said, the non-passive-aggressive-message portion of the menu was both interesting and salivating. Cork serves small plates in hot and cold versions to pair with their obviously extensive wine list. It being a Sunday evening, we didn't have too much wine; Yupster actually passed, the rest of us each ordered our own white. Because of that, there's nothing much to say about it, other than to comment that the wine list is extensive, well-chosen, and elaborately described. And that we liked our individual wines.
In no particular order, here were the plates we ordered:
First a cheese selection: a creamy Cana de Oveja from Spain, a California cow's milk Swiss, and a Blue D'Auvergne from France. Served with honey, spiced nuts, and raisin bread, this was HR Intern's call, and a good one.
Next was one of my choices: a quasi-salad of house-cured trout, shaved fennel, toasted hazelnuts, and tangerines. I couldn't quite find the hazelnuts or their flavor, but this was otherwise a great dish. A perfect match of flavors for me and a great spectrum of textures between the crispy and surprisingly mild fennel to the unctuous flakiness of the trout to the fleshy sweet of the citrus. Wonderful, and something I'm going to try and make for myself.
Yupster's choice of a galantine of chicken, mushroom, and spinach served with porcini sauce and a frisee salad was also well-received by the group, though something that didn't impress me as much. Presented well, it was a great savory bite, especially given the slightly bitter creamy porcini sauce.
What followed was what seemed like an endless parade of dishes with thick bread, though in reality was only three dishes. The first was a rosemary chicken liver bruschetta with a shallot marmalade and microgreens. The dish compared favorably to the faux gras at Central (a dish that HR Intern had coincidentally shared with his family two nights before). I'm not a huge fan of chicken livers, finding its coarser and more bitter taste not as pleasant as its creamier, more buttery cousins. Still, with the addition of the shallot marmalade, it was a very good dish.
The second was the pleasant surprise of the night: grilled bread topped with avocado, pistachios, pistachio oil, and sea salt. While I would have preferred just a little more pistachios and sea salt on each piece to really bring out those flavors, the creaminess of the avocado was something fantastic.
Last of the bread dishes was my choice and a favorite: a pan-crisped brioche sandwich of prosciutto and fontina topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Yes, I'll admit that anything with an egg on it will win instant points in my book. But the prosciutto's saltiness was a nice balance to the substance of the egg and the slight sweetness of brioche (mmm brioche). About my only complaint was that the fontina didn't feature as prominently as I would have wanted.
Next was my favorite dish of the night: braised pork cheeks with creamy polenta, sauteed spinach, black olives, and oranges. As the salad I loved above had, the different flavors and textures represented on the plate gave my palate so much to experience. But beyond that, the pork cheeks were braised perfectly, falling apart in their lovely stringy way. And the polenta was some of the best polenta I've ever had, wonderfully creamy and savory. Yes, this dish was fishing with dynamite (polenta + olives + citrus + strange parts of the pig), but wonderfully cooked to boot.
Behind that but only slightly was the pomegranate-glazed pan-roast quail with wild rice, pine nuts, parsley, and a celery leaf salad. The quail was wonderfully tender and the glaze gave it a sweetness that I wasn't expecting. But the real surprise was how much I enjoyed the wild rice, probably because of its use of parsley (I am in love with cilantro). Perhaps not the best roasted quail I've had in my life, but the accompaniments more than made up for it.
The last dish was lemon and black pepper dusted calamari and rock shrimp with a caper remoulade. This was perhaps the only "meh" dish for me. Biz said it best: "I find myself liking grilled calamari more and more." Perhaps it was because the other dishes were dramatically better that this one seemed more pedestrian. Still, the breading wasn't anything to call home about and neither was the preparation.
Writing this entry, I found myself nitpicking because when I thought about it, there were no dishes that I didn't truly enjoy and in fact, there were a number of dishes that were absolutely superlative. So in spite of all its weirdness about photos and inconsistency in decor, this was a great, just missing out on exceptional, meal.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Hipster Hangout
Vibe: Energetic to Noisy
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: A block up the street is the sister shop to Cork, the Cork Market and Tasting Room, which does everything from selling specialty picnic baskets and the wines from the restaurant, to teaching classes on wine. As someone whose blog partner knows way much more about wine, that's something I can totally get behind.