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Despite having a Left Coaster’s fascination with its cozy representation on Murphy Brown, after moving to D.C., I quickly learned that I’m not really that into Georgetown. It’s not easy to get there, it’s expensive, and it’s crowded with (during the day) disturbingly well-dressed shoppers toting Louis Vuitton and (at night) disturbingly well-dressed drunkies toting Louis Vuitton. So I try to avoid shopping there, I’m not too likely to go drinking there, and, as a consequence, I don’t eat there very often, either. Do the math and you reach my least probable scenario: eating dinner at a posh drinking place for the disturbingly well-dressed. And that’s what Blue Gin is: a two-story, swanky boozatorium—whose nibbles are, well, pretty damn good.
Owner Greg Talcott completely overhauled the space, tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Avenue NW, after buying it from the now-defunct Champions. And the three-year renovation project yielded impressive results: Step into the smaller downstairs room and it’s immediately clear that the place is, in the words of its Web site, “a sanctuary for mature individuals.” A long bar wraps around the side of the dimly lit room, the walls a rich red, the accents in black, muted grays and browns, and brushed metal. Most of the furniture—low cubes and ottomans—is tucked against the walls, and the one table in the middle of the room is easily scooted away from the dance floor as the night wears on. The relaxed, loungey vibe is more than appropriate for knocking back a few and maybe having a small nosh, but it’s not the most comfortable for hunkering down to a full meal. The upstairs space is likewise low and low-lit, with two bars (one framed by movies projected on the building next door) and nooks for private parties.
But despite the clubby atmosphere, the food isn’t an afterthought. Blue Gin’s menu is presented formally and explained with scripted aplomb by the bartenders and servers: Here is the food, here is the wine and beer, here are the cocktails. The food selections consist of 10 or so composed small plates and a few desserts. Unsurprisingly, it’s not cheap, and most of the smallish portions would be decidedly overpriced were they not delivered in such swishy environs in the heart of Georgetown.
But to be fair, most of those portions contain high-quality ingredients, simply and thoughtfully prepared. Chef John Hill works with a limited palette of accouterments, not only proving the adage that it’s better to do fewer things well, but also adding a cohesiveness to the snacky nature of small-plate dining. A warm tomato-caper relish poured over the baked goat cheese on one plate swaths two of the four meaty scallops on another; the other two wear neat caps of a soy-inflected ginger gastrique and are accompanied by dollops of crunchy shaved fennel. And where there is no shaved fennel, there are microgreens: Either lightly dressed or not, the sprouty nests adorn most plates, usually to nice counterpoint.
The greens work especially well with the tender and exceptionally flavorful skirt-steak skewers, the tiny leaves’ bitter earthiness playing against the cumin-scented meat. The plate is rounded out with wedges of lime and homemade potato chips. Another of Hill’s darlings, the chips are wonderful—thin, crisp, and not too salty. And they also come piled atop the best value on the menu: the lamb sandwiches. At $12, tender pita halves stuffed with spiced lamb, caramelized onion, and hummus make for a hearty meal. The accompanying harissa—a slightly less spicy version of the Tunisian chili sauce—and yogurt allow you to fire up or cool down the sandwiches to taste. Other winners include the meaty crab cakes—served with basil purée, lemon-olive oil, and, yep, shaved fennel—and the herby, and positively huge, jumbo shrimp. And a Caprese salad is done, smartly in the off-season, with flavorful oven-roasted tomatoes instead of raw. Attention like this, along with the expertly made cocktails (the Perfect Rob Roy is very nearly perfect), almost makes you forget that you’re blowing your budget to hell.
There are moments, however, when you kick yourself a little for the dollars lost. The lobster spring rolls sound like a luscious indulgence, but the wrappers are overly oily, and the somewhat bland, chewy filling doesn’t rival the traditional pork offering at any good Thai restaurant. The Angus petit filet, at $17 the most expensive item on the menu, is nicely pink in the middle but somehow dry anyway; a puddle of savory, syrupy Bordeaux reduction only partially soothes the parched meat and hurt feelings. And Blue Gin seems still to be working out some kinks on the dessert front. The kitchen was out of the requisite chocolate cake on two separate visits, and the bread pudding, served with canned whipped cream and fresh berries, is oddly tangy.
But those are the exceptions in a menu that is mostly well-intentioned and -executed. And the same can be said for the service. Despite a few wrinkles—a server spilled a drink on a customer one night I was there (blame those damn low tables!), and the food delivery can be slow—the bartenders and wait staff are exceptionally friendly and obliging. And when you’re out blowing money in Georgetown, good food, well-made drinks, and nice people aren’t to be taken for granted—no matter how well-dressed you are.
Blue Gin, 1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 965-5555.—Anne Marson
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.