The insanely creative mind of world-renowned mixologist Jeff Bell (of NYC-based speakeasy PDT) and the culinary prowess of executive chef Johnny Spero combined forces this week for a two-night takeover of epic proportions at the James Beard Award-nominated Columbia Room in Washington, DC.
Bell, whose stardom in the mixology world is rightfully earned, paired his inventive cocktails with Spero’s one-of-a-kind conceptions for a tasting menu that was a match made in heaven. It all started with the perfect setting – Columbia Room’s tucked away signature tasting room, dimly lit with a dramatic long bar, and just the right combination of old-school vibe and intimacy.
“I’m a guest in the house here, so I wanted to be respectful of my colleagues for the week,” Bell told On Tap. “Johnny was very open to coming up with new food, and I came up with new cocktails. We basically put down a list of our wants and demands; flavors you want to work with; spirits [and] wines, and then the kind of food Johnny wants to do; and what could pair with what. And then we slowly worked through it all.”
Guests at the sold-out tasting experienced an array of flavor and texture combinations, starting with an amuse of spruce juniper cracker, deceiving to the eye with its paper-thin appearance resting on a napkin but bursting with flavor. It was paired quite perfectly with an “Appletif” cocktail, with a base of millstone-hopped cider that tasted like summer (rather than fall) thanks to the additions of grapefruit, spruce tip and suze (a bitter French aperitif).
We were off to an excellent start.
The next course was a true yin and yang, with a tasting of pickled green strawberries paired with what will now become my go-to summer cocktail, a rhubarb spritz, with just the right touch of sweetness to balance out the sourness of the berries. The cocktail was comprised of all of my favorite things and then some – rose, Tanqueray, rhubarb shrub (hello, seasonal ingredient), huacatay and sparkling water.
The second course was certainly my favorite – razor clams in a heavenly broth paired with an equally stellar “Amalfi Time” cocktail, destined to be another warm weather go-to cocktail. The clams were lightly cooked, with bloomed basil seeds and nasturtium, topped at serving time with a juice mixture of reserved liquor from the clams, grilled cucumber, dill, spinach and parsley, along with a small amount of garlic and dill oil. The best razor clams dish of my life, by far.
Next up was an ode to Chef Spero’s Baltimore roots, with his version of Baltimore pit neef – wagyu beef seasoned with smoked paprika and then kissed on charcoal (as any Baltimore pit beef should be) sitting atop a light bread filled with heavenly horseradish. The dish was paired quite appropriately with a “Pit Bull” – a variation on the classic Bloody Mary.
While I’m the one at brunch who orders the mimosa over the Bloody Mary, the “Pit Bull” won my heart for its unique character. Bell took stock from the wagyu beef and combined that with tomato water, onions and garlic, and strained it all out. Add scotch and the ideal-shaped ice cube, and you had a complex, savory drink that really complemented the Baltimore pit beef.
The tasting menu ended with a real palate awakening – a thin piece of dark chocolate dusted with highly condensed raspberry powder that tickled my taste buds. The last sip was once again a flawless pairing with the dish, a deep and earthy cocktail with a Guyana rum base.
For the ultimate food and cocktail pairing experience, be sure to make a reservation to try Columbia Room’s tasting menu. You will leave with a whole new level of appreciation for the detail and precision that goes into planning such incredible flavor combinations.
Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; 202-316-9396; www.columbiaroomdc.com