Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Sarah Gerrity
A tasting at the Columbia Room is everything you want it to be. If you’re looking for traditional ingredients you know and love, you’ll be happy. If you’re looking for inventive cocktails, you’ll be happy. If you just want to sit in a beautiful room and not think about anything while a variety of culinary delights are placed before you, you’ll be happy. Whether you’re a cocktail nerd or totally uninterested in what happens behind the bar, you will have a good time at the Columbia Room.
Few places manage to strike that perfect balance, but if anyone could make it work, I’m not surprised it’s Derek Brown’s highly skilled team. It’s hard to review a place when everything about it is honest to god perfect. It feels unnatural. Even my favorite restaurants and bars, the places I return to over and over again, the the places that almost feel like home, mess up. And maybe that’s a part of it. Like Barmini or some of D.C.’s other top tier bars, just walking into the Columbia Room feels special, like it’s the kind of place you could never get used to being in. The kind of place where you could never quite become a regular because there will always be something that surprises you.
Their newest tasting menu, titled ‘Paris in Spring’, is full of these little surprises. Whether you go with the three course ($79 per person) or the five ($108 per person), the cocktails and bites draw from various places in French culture, from the manicured gardens to traditional French cooking. Even if you’ve never stepped a foot in Paris, the cocktails and plates are evocative enough to tap into whatever idea you have of the city.
After kicking the evening off with a small glass of Campari, Dolin Blanc vermouth and strawberry liqueur (exactly the kind of thing you want to jump start the taste buds), we dive right into the first course. Served on a tray made to look like the manicured gardens France is famous for, the plating is playful and lighthearted. Named Into Great Silence, the cocktail’s base is green chartreuse, a famous French liqueur that has been made by monks since the 18th century. They’ve combined it with an acidic jus vert, Fino Sherry, orgeat, lemon and grapefruit. Dry and herbal, the drink feels rejuvenating and bursting with fresh green life. If every green juice and smoothie tasted and felt like this I’d be on board. The drink is served with spring peas that has been soaked in ham stock. The result is a single bite that feels like an entire lunch of ham and peas, with a bright citrusy bite at the end. The way Chef Johnny Spero and head bartender JP Fetherston have managed to convey a wide breadth of flavors in such a compact way is nothing short of magical.
For the second drink, you have a serious choice to make. Fetherston and Spero have recreated a classic French meal for this portion, choosing to do their own take on coq a vin and a heady glass of French wine. Which means you have the choice between a ‘rosé’ and a ‘rouge’. Go the rosé route and you’re greeted with a bright and fruit forward cocktail made with vodka, pineau des charentes (a French aperitif), fraise des bois liqueur (tasting of wild strawberry), rhuberry cider, bitter orange, and citrus bitter. If you’re looking to lighten the flavors of the coq a vin and stay with the more obvious spring time themes, this is your best bet. If you want to dive head first into the rich tastes of French food and drink, go with the rouge. A mix of armagnac, dry vermouth, cherry kriek cider, crème de mûre (a blackberry liqueur), cherry liqueur, and aromatic, the drink nails the tannins you would get with a good red wine. And while Fetherston has done his best to recreate traditional wines using untraditional ingredients, Spero has gone in the opposite direction by using the classic flavors of coq a vin to make something wholly unique. Made with chicken skin, mushroom and red wine chips, the flavors and even textures are remarkable. He’s managed to make what essentially are mushroom pork rinds and I want an entire bag so I can eat them forever.
Finally, Fetherston and Spero take on France’s cafe culture, distilling it into a frothy coffee inspired drink and the best créme brûlée I’ve ever had. The Café Society Cocktail involves ine de bourgogne brandy, port, amer, coffee liqueur, beet, and crema. At this point I guess I’d lost the ability to form adult sentences because the only thing I wrote in my notebook was, “So coffee. So booze. So perfect.” We’ll just have to take my word on that.
The créme brûlée that accompanies it is so unlike any other I’ve ever had, so fresh and filled with texture instead of being overly sugared and thick. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat any other version of créme brûlée ever again. The addition of croquant breaks through the crème anglaise and gives it so much more depth than the average dessert. I cannot stop thinking about it.
But I’m almost certain that’s the point.