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Reservations Recommended

Quirky Cork: Cork Restaurant & Wine Bar

You can say plenty of things about relative newcomer Cork, and for one, it’s garnered a RAMMY nomination this year as the top neighborhood gathering place. It should also earn stars for being a super-hot and super-charged bar scene. Threading our way through the crowded downstairs to the exit, my friend noted that all the hip, young media types hang out here. It’s a “see-and-be-seen” carnival of noisy chatter, and probably the best place to sip wine with a crowd of friends and strangers alike.

Indeed, Cork has garnered more ink probably than almost any other restaurant in town. Checking out their press citations on www.corkdc.com, you’ll see that at last count it received 22 mentions, from the New York Times to DC’s Don Rockwell, and loads in between.

So what’s the draw? Why the buzz? Clearly, ambiance and wine rule. Its diminutive size demands that people huddle close, and even the upstairs seating in what looks like it once was a townhouse attic keeps you tuned into neighbors’ conversations. In short, you’ll know everyone’s business by the time you head home.

Its wine list, while not encyclopedic, does include a healthy selection of domestic and international vintages and even a proud selection of dessert wines, labeled in one part of the menu as “desserts to drink,” and even including a pricey Armagnac, the Darroze, Domaine de Dupont, 1977 at $23 a pop. Note: teetotalers can always drink espresso or hot chocolate with their sweets.

Despite all the hype and über glamour, however, Cork’s kitchen does not keep pace with the bar’s other frenzy. Besides offering paper menus stained with a thousand greasy smudges, Cork doesn’t go in for full entrées, but instead offers its version of a tapas-like experience with assorted dishes to share. Tough luck if you are craving your very own rack of lamb with seasonal veggies.

Of course, patrons can piece together a full meal with such dishes as the roasted Brussels sprouts (sadly, overcooked) with brown butter, pancetta, and thyme; sautéed kale with Pecorino cheese and garlic cloves, large and gleamingly intact; grilled Angus flat-iron steak, cooked to order but its accompaniments didn’t compare well with the kale; and French fries, noteworthy for their hot-from-the-oil crispiness and side of homemade ketchup, one of the best flavors of the evening.

Perhaps the most unique offering is the pan-crisped brioche sandwich layered with prosciutto and fontina cheese and topped, whimsically, with a Path Valley fried egg-the last confirms that “farm fresh” tastes best; the egg should remind you of how Granny’s used to taste. An A-plus to DC’s tastiest grilled cheese sandwich, a classic comfort food taken to the next level.

As for desserts, you might zero in on the goat cheese cheesecake, but don’t expect the traditional wedge serving: here, the cheesecake means three large scoops decoratively presented and topped with several perfect raspberries and cookie crumbles. It’s the kind of dessert that cries out for having a big slice, and calories don’t count!

Cork may or may not win at the RAMMY’s awards ceremony this year, but it clearly has won a place in the hearts and minds of DC’s twentysomethings, and maybe a few thirstysomethings. If you are looking for the “in” crowd, make this your primo stop of the night.

Cork Restaurant & Wine Bar / 1720 14th St., NW; (202) 265-2675. Hours: Sun.,. Tue., & Wed., 5pm-12mid.; Thu.-Sat., to 1am; closed Mon. Entrée price range: $5 for veggies and fries to $24 for a charcuterie selection. Note: Reservations taken for pre-theater dining prior to 6:30 pm only; other times call 30 minutes prior to arrival to be placed on the wait list.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.