You might call the neighborhood on either side of 14th Street Northwest, south of U Street, “SoYou.” Trendy shops, bars and restaurants are sprouting everywhere, putting a new face on what was a rundown street of boarded-up shops and used-car lots.
The cozy Cork Wine Bar has been attracting a young crowd for about a year, mixing the young with the young at heart on 14th between R and S streets, two blocks north of the Studio Theatre. Cork has an extensive list of wines by the bottle and about 40 by the glass - many of them relatively unknown - and daily flights of still and sparkling wines. Curiously, no American wines are on the list of French, Spanish and Italian wines with a smattering of German bottles. Cork has not yet discovered California.
There’s more to this cheerful London-style wine bar than imbibing. You can pop in on your way to the theater for a glass of something white and dry and share a cheese or charcuterie selection, grilled bread spread with avocado and sprinkled with pistachio nuts, or a creamy chicken-liver bruschetta with a touch of shallot marmalade.
If you want something a bit more substantial, try the grilled flatiron steak. It’s not the most tender of cuts, but the small serving of beef, cooked exactly to order, is juicy and flavorful. It comes with delicious, slightly bitter braised garlicky rapini.
Stroll up to Cork after the performance and treat yourself to a dark hot chocolate - or a glass of port or a sweet dessert wine to go with terrific goat cheesecake. It’s not really a cake, but three oval scoops of a splendid creamy concoction. You won’t want to share.
The food, prepared by chef Ron Tanaka, is stylish and very good. Small plates are what Cork is about, some served cold, some served hot. There are no full-sized portions but many of the dishes are easily shared.
House-cured trout, served with a mound of shaved fennel and a few tangerine slices, thoroughly satisfies. The fish is mild, and combining it with the fennel and the tangerine is a lovely idea. A little more trout and a bit less fennel would improve it. A salad of fresh crisp romaine hearts topped with a creamy anchovy dressing, shavings of pecorino cheese and topped with tiny supercrisp croutons is large enough to be shared.
A special one evening was the best cold plate of the meal: three crisp triangles of thin pumpernickel bread topped with creme fraiche and house-smoked salmon. The salmon was garnished with a few tiny trout eggs and chives. Each element of the dish was a perfect complement and contrast to the others. Splendid.
Hot plates consist of individual dishes of vegetables, meats and a dish of two plump, tender day-boat scallops in a subtle sauce described as “Egyptian spiced carrot sauce.” This hints of cumin, cream and cinnamon. A sprinkling of fried leeks adds more than mere decoration to this fine dish.
Equally good are Brussels sprouts roasted almost to a crisp in brown butter with a bit of pancetta. Although the menu describes french fries as tossed with parsley, garlic and lemon, ours arrived plain - good, but ordinary and served with a thick house-made ketchup that falls somewhere between bottled ketchup and tomato sauce. Not much bite.
Desserts are not made in-house, our waiter informed us, but by “someone in the neighborhood.” The goat cheesecake is a don’t-miss offering. Another, which goes well with a dessert wine, is the grapefruit financier, a dry, grainy poundcake of sorts that doesn’t really taste of grapefruit but is light and very good.
Cork is a friendly place; guests are made to feel welcome, and there seem to be a lot of regulars. It’s small, long and narrow, with the main room in the front, a narrow corridor leading to a second, smaller dining room and the kitchen in the rear. The decor is simple: brick walls, a long L-shaped bar and bare wooden tables with votive candles. It can be very noisy when the restaurant is full, but conversations are easy at the tables in the two front windows.
Cork doesn’t take reservations, but if you call a half-hour before arriving, your name will be put on a list. Even if you aren’t one of the young professionals sipping wine at the bar, Cork will make you feel young and happy.
RESTAURANT: Cork Wine Bar, 1720 14th St. NW, 202/265-2675
HOURS: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, until 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11:30 p.m. Saturday, although bar hours are longer