Photo: Courtesy of MoKi Media
Photo: Courtesy of MoKi Media

Renowned Mixologist Jeff Bell Takes Over Columbia Room

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

Photo: Mark Raker Photography
Photo: Mark Raker Photography

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival Returns in Full Force

DC’s favorite spring festival is back this Saturday, inviting music and nature lovers alike back to Kingman Island for the eighth year. The eco-friendly Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival along the Anacostia River draws crowds of up to 10,000 locals annually, plus food trucks, vendors, and a dog and family-friendly vibe. We caught up with Lee Cain, the director of Kingman Island at Living Classrooms (and a member of Blue Plains, performing at this year’s festival) to learn more about all of the moving parts behind this one-of-a-kind event, plus what to expect from this year’s lineup.

On Tap: How long have you been involved with the festival, and what led you to your current role?
Lee Cain:
Before this, I ran the education and recreation programs at the Anacostia Watershed Society for 10 years. Living Classrooms was a super strong partner in that work and had just opened Kingman Island with the District, although no one knew it existed. Tommy Wells (Ward 6 Councilman) and one of his staff [members], Dan Conner, had this idea to host a bluegrass festival to drive people to Kingman Island. It started out with a couple of kegs, a band and a couple hundred people, and then it grew. I remember the year it went from around 1,000 people to 7,000 people, and the excitement. The cat was out of the bag and people figured out what Kingman Island was. A couple years ago, as part of the water trail project, I permitted and installed the floating dock on Heritage Island, a project funded by REI. The next year, I was working for Living Classrooms and running Kingman.

OT: What exactly does your role entail?
LC: I’m the caretaker of the island, fundraiser, maintenance worker, partner coordinator and government liaison. Sometimes I’ll use a chainsaw while wearing a suit. I’ll cut a fallen tree blocking a trail, and meet with a councilperson 30 minutes later about how to make camping happen on the island happen. Seriously, I get to wear many hats. It should be said that last year 1,600 volunteers did over 5,000 hours of work to enhance the park, maintain natural resources and prepare sites for education/restoration projects, so it’s not just me. I also coordinate the Living Classrooms education team and partners such as the Anacostia Watershed Society to do education programs on the island. Last year, we worked together to bring over 3,000 kids out to Kingman to learn about wetland ecology and help make a difference by restoring native ecosystems.

OT: How do the proceeds from the festival directly benefit Living Classrooms’ initiatives? Any tangible outcomes you can share with us?
LC: Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region takes out 2,000 District kids on the Anacostia River every year on our historic oyster boat called the Halfshell. We manage Kingman Island, conducting workforce development programs to help 16 to 25-year-olds [prepare] for the workforce, and we take one-third of the fifth graders in the District each year on overnight camping and stream study expeditions. The funds from the festival go toward making all of that happen.

OT: How has the festival changed and grown over the past eight years? What has surprised you about it, year to year?
LC: The idea worked and people discovered Kingman. That’s a pleasant surprise. While it’s a large festival now, there is an element that hasn’t changed at all. It’s so close you can get there by bike, streetcar [or] Metro, but it’s always been an escape [within] the city where it feels like a bunch of musicians just showed up with their stuff and decided to start playing.

OT: Who attends the festival? Do you have a niche audience?
LC: 80 percent of the attendees last year came from inside the Beltway, [and] 60 percent came from District proper. I think one of the elements that’s really cool about this festival is its focus on local talent and local people. There is a span of ages and families find this festival friendly.

OT: How many folks do you anticipate attending this year?
LC: I’m guessing 10,000 again. We have nearly 40 bands, five stages, 13 food trucks and a BBQ caterer.

OT: Any notable additions to this year’s music lineup? Who are you most excited to hear?
LC: The headliners are going to be great: Dom Flemons, Town Mountain [and] Frank Sullivan. But I’m not going to miss Lady Bird. Run Come See is blowing up right now. By and By of course. I should note that I am in one of the bands this year; Blue Plains will go on the Fraser stage at 3 p.m.

OT: What about festival mainstays?
LC: By and By is a great band that has played the festival since the beginning. They are the only one. Our talent people try to roll bands off after two years in a row and get some new acts. That gives us a chance to help [give] new acts a boost into the scene.

OT: Any new food vendors this year?
LC: Rocklands BBQ. They’ll be cooking all day, and I have a feeling I won’t be able to resist the smells.

OT: Tell me a little bit about the festival going green last year and becoming the first zero-waste music festival. How did that initiative come about? What will you do this year to maintain that eco-friendly status?
LC:
Last year, we hit 80 percent compostable and recyclable. We’re shooting for 90 percent this year. Everyone gets a reusable cup when they enter, and we limit the kind of things people can bring onto the island to control all waste on the island. I’ve been to my share of music festivals and honestly, it just feels good to not be wallowing in trash toward the end of the show, especially for an event that is focused on social good.

OT: Why do you think Kingman Island is the right fit for the festival each year?
LC: I think that if it weren’t on Kingman, it would be a very different festival. Part of the magic is the walk over the river and through the woods. Please forgive me for that one. The music is spontaneous. You just arrive in a meadow and there’s a fantastic band playing.

OT: What makes the festival unique? Why should newbies check it out?
LC: There really isn’t any other place in the District quite like Kingman Island. There are parts of it that are some of the most remote in the city. There’s a sense of magic at this festival because of the energy that Kingman holds. It’s a special place and [there’s] good will involved in the festival – the local music focus, the stewardship of nature, the escape in the city. Beer makes you feel good, but when you drink a beer on Kingman Island, you feel that good twice over because of where the money you spend goes.

Don’t miss the eighth annual Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival on Saturday, May 13 from 12-8 p.m. Tickets are $30. Click here to learn more.

Kingman Island (on the Anacostia River): 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Photo: www.instagram.com/townhalldc/
Photo: www.instagram.com/townhalldc/

Patrons Brave Rain at Virginia Gold Cup Town Hall Tent

Rain didn’t stop the partygoers in the Town Hall-hosted tent from having a great time at the 92nd running of the Virginia Gold Cup on Saturday, May 6. Transportation to Great Meadow in The Plains, Va. was by chartered coach bus, and despite the weather, the guests could see race action and enjoy the festivities from within the open-sided tent.

Town Hall’s guests enjoyed an open bar with many people choosing to drink mint juleps, the traditional race day cocktail. The buffet consisted of a full spread of race picnic fare, from lunch meats and cheeses to fried chicken and macaroni and cheese with assorted Southern-style toppings to shrimp cocktail.

Most of the guests wore traditional Virginia Gold Cup attire, with women in spring dresses and hats, and the necessary rain boots because of the muddy, rain-soaked grass at Great Meadow. Men could be seen wearing suits, some pastel or pinstriped, or colorful shirts and trousers. Bow ties were more the norm than the exception.

The tent was located on the North Rail with a great view of the eight races, including the Virginia Gold Cup race, the fifth, which was won by 10-year-old Ebanour, ridden by jockey Gustav Dahl. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe presented the trophy to Dahl and trainer Cyril Murphy at Winner’s Circle. It was Ebanour’s second win at Virginia Gold Cup.

Learn more about Town Hall here.

Photo: www.rosariodc.com/the-experience/
Photo: www.rosariodc.com/the-experience/

Rosario Enhances Adams Morgan Dining Scene

Adams Morgan is legendary for its nightlife, but its reputation as a culinary destination has long been spotty at best.

But that’s starting to change. The addition of Mintwood, Al Volo, and Smoke & Barrel in recent years has given those of us in search of more than a jumbo slice of pizza appealing options. And with the recent opening of Rosario – another serious dining destination – Adams Morgan has upped its dining game yet another notch.

Under the direction of Chef Logan McGear, the hip but cozy Italian eatery is turning out some excellent Italian staples, as well an intriguing array of specialty cocktails at a price point that won’t break the bank. The 60-seat restaurant – in the former space occupied by the absinthe bar Libertine – is perfect for a fun dinner date or a group meal with friends as a prelude to a night on the town.

During a recent weeknight dinner, we started with a savory olive tapenade containing seven different types of olives mixed with garlic and parmesan. A hearty plate of arancini (stuffed rice balls) anchored by delicious dollops of garlic pesto arrived next. The piping hot orbs stuffed with a meaty Bolognese sauce didn’t last long. A Caesar salad lightly dressed and draped with white anchovies was another winner, especially as it arrived in beautiful, house-made parmesan cracker basket.

A main course of osso bucco – braised with a Roseda beef shank instead of the customary lamb – was not only beautiful to behold but absolutely delectable on the palate. The tender beef, accompanied with a ricotta salata and saffron risotto, fell apart with the touch of a fork and revealed some serious skill in McGear’s kitchen. A plate of vegan chicken parmesan might not have had the osso bucco’s depth of flavor, but its texture and aromatic and tangy tomato sauce was convincing – and carried far less fat and calories.

While Rosario’s dinner menu is the star attraction, its bar is also on point with a carefully selected wine list an impressive array of unique craft cocktails. Although it’s been open barely a month, Rosario is quickly serving notice that when it comes to high-quality dining at fair prices in Adams Morgan, there’s an important new kid on the block.

Rosario: 2435 18th St. NW, DC; 202-791-0298; www.rosariodc.com

Photo: Courtesy of Lucas Bohn
Photo: Courtesy of Lucas Bohn

Lucas Bohn Details Journey from Teacher to National Comedian

A few years ago, Lucas Bohn was trying his luck as a standup comedian, booking gigs here and there, but not making the leap he wanted. One day while watching the show Tosh.0, he was really impressed with what the comedian was doing: taking videos and doing standup about them.

“I said to my friend, ‘This could be simplified, and it would be so much more effective,’ and I decided to just do it,” Bohn says. “I created a story using photos, which I tell through standup comedy as I do a PowerPoint presentation.”

The images originally came from his own collection, which has grown with shots from friends, family and things he’s found on the Internet.

“Every time I do a show, I have fans who will send me photos, and when they do, immediately, the standup in me takes over,” he says. “Sometimes the jokes are pretty obvious, but sometimes it can take some time as I analyze it and figure out what can be funny. I love it.”

From May 3 to 13, Bohn will be at the Drafthouse Comedy Theater in downtown DC, with his performance Lesson Plans to Late Night. The shows, which combine live standup comedy with stories from when Bohn was a public school teacher and uses actual examples of student work displayed on a video screen, will take place May 3-6 and 11-13.

“I thought there was an opening in this niche, and people just started to show interest. I started selling out theaters and working on cruise ships and in more clubs.”

Bohn first tried comedy while in college at Coastal Carolina University studying to become an elementary school teacher. He never expected it to turn into a career. Over the years, Bohn has performed with notable entertainers like Jimmy Fallon, Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart, and was nominated for “Comedian of the Year” in 2013 by Campus Activates Magazine.

“I thought you had to be so intelligent and so driven just to survive in this business,” he says. “I took a comedy writing class, but didn’t think I would pursue it for real. In 2010, I did a college showcase and booked a bunch of work and had to decide if I should stop being a teacher and focus on comedy full-time. I took the risk.”

Lately, it seems that a lot of comics are jumping on the image/joke marriage. Amy Schumer’s latest Netflix special saw the comedian using slides in a hilarious way, and other comedians are experimenting with photos in their acts.

“This is where it’s going. I never thought I was a prodigy or savant, but to me, why wouldn’t you embrace technology with standup? I recently got a performing arts venue and theater agent, and in 2018, I have already booked multiple shows in over 1,000-seat venues. This show is just one of those things that just sells. It’s funny, entertaining and visual.”

His hope is that one day he can follow in the successful footsteps of a show like Defending the Caveman, bringing Lesson Plans to Late Night to a Broadway stage.

“It’s such a fun show to do,” Bohn says. “If you like comedy and you like something that’s different, this is the show for you. It’s not like anything you are going to see anywhere else.”

For more information and a complete schedule of show times, visit here.

Drafthouse Comedy: 1100 13th St. NW, DC; 202-750-6411; www.drafthousecomedy.com

Halcyon

Halcyon Fosters a More Creative DC

The suggested attire for a recent event on a loading dock in DC’s Warehouse District was “revolutionary.” The “classical music rave” featured a full orchestra performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, along with world-class ballet dancers spinning beside audience members invited to dance the night away with them.

Granted, we’re talking Union Market’s Dock5, a space known for hosting trendy and experimental gatherings catered to culture-hungry urbanites. But the event’s intention was apropos as cries of resistance grow ever louder across the city.

And what was behind this pagan revelry? Halcyon.

One of the District’s newest and most exciting nonprofits, Halcyon grew out of S&R Foundation’s Halcyon House in Georgetown – a well-supported, in-residence incubator for social entrepreneurs founded in 2014. Halcyon launched this year as a standalone organization with the mission to “catalyze emerging creatives striving for a better world.”

The incubator remains a major part of Halcyon, where the types of projects fellows develop are businesses geared toward greater social good.

“These are not dating apps, as we like to say,” says Kate Goodall, Halycon’s CEO. “They are meaningful companies that are actually going to respond to what we’re seeing as a shift in consumer culture around what they want the products that they’re buying to be doing.”

Along with the incubator, Halcyon introduced its arts lab this spring, a sister program for civic-minded artists. Eight artists selected from DC and around the world will have the opportunity to partake in a nine-month fellowship that grants funding, resources, entrepreneurial support, and creative and intellectual collaboration. Fellows will live in the historic Fillmore School in Georgetown, and will broaden their community impact through a creative mentorship program with local high school students.

“[Halcyon] is about providing haven,” Goodall says. “It’s about creating a safe space and community for creative people to produce…and this idea of supporting and really being devoted to the power of creativity, which we think will be more and more important in the 21st century.”

For Halcyon’s team, that desire for meaningful creation also translates into desire for meaningful shared experience, the impetus behind the Rite of Spring event. So, in addition to the incubator and arts lab, the organization is taking collaboration and creative engagement into the community with several programs, including Halcyon Stage, Halcyon Stage pop-ups and Halcyon Dialogue.

Enter Septime Webre.

The city’s beloved and charismatic choreographer stepped down as artistic director of the Washington Ballet last June, after 17 years.

“I think what we’re seeing in Washington, DC is a kind of breaking of molds in lots of ways,” notes Webre, who says that his new adventure at the helm of Halcyon Stage is “dizzingly exciting.”

“As we started to envision how we might foster a dialogue about the nature of creativity in the 21st century, we knew that we needed to de-silo the conversations,” he says. “Creativity was happening in lots of places, but not in any sort of way that one could experience it the way we experience life, which is all of these exciting things abutting each other. And so that was the premise. We wanted to be as eclectic as our lives are, and be somewhat comprehensive, but also develop programming that was not being developed by other organizations, so that it would be unique.”

The resulting programming is indeed eclectic – from more intimate experiences like an incubator and artist meet-and-greet beer garden, to a one-man show with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, to the explosive DC premiere of BalletX with works from choreographers Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan set to the music of Amy Winehouse and the indie rock band Beirut (on May 13).

The stage events like the Rite of Spring rave and BalletX come with a price tag, but Webre and the other organizers seem aware that inclusivity and outreach is crucial. Halcyon Stage pop-ups and experiences “to activate the whole neighborhood” compliment ticketed evening performances. For example, at noon on May 14, there will be a pop-up dance performance to the music of Beirut right at Union Market, with a different three-minute public concert at Dolcezza at 12:15 p.m., another behind Cotton & Reed at 12:30 p.m., etc.

And while the pop-ups are sure to be a draw for the Union Market and Ivy City distillery-going crowds, beyond the urban elite, Webre says a suite of educational engagement programs are critical to help “unleash the creativity inside” everyone.

Halcyon Stage House Party, which culminated last month, for example, was both a public concert and a workshop run in partnership with KIPP Public Charter Schools. Using the theme “visions of the future,” one group of students composed and performed an original hip-hop song, while another group choreographed a dance to it, and still another 20 students painted original works inspired by their peers.

“That was the kind of empowering, educational [and] engaging program that we will replicate over time,” Webre says.

DC is a smart city, and one full of people and organizations pushing boundaries to make change in the world. But there are also changes happening here, now – and with everyone looking for their bite of the capital’s apple, it is critical that we all play an active role in making those changes the right ones. If Webre’s vision is any indication of what that might look like, Halcyon appears to have the promise of DC’s big names doing it right.

“We can find beauty all around our lives,” Webre says. “So it’s not just a moment for the community to come together, it’s also a really important metaphor – instruction, really – for how we should walk through our neighborhoods, the places we live in, the places we call home, and see the beauty all around us.”

Learn more about Halcyon and the organization’s upcoming events at www.halcyonhouse.org.

OnTapAvenir-59

Avenir Pumpkin Festival 2016

Guests at Avenir Pumpkin Festival enjoyed food from area restaurants along with fall fun, trick-or-treating, pumpkin decorating, live music from Justin Trawick, pumpkin brews at the beer garden and more. Photos: Mark Raker