Friday, January 17, 2014

Spain Meets the South at Mockingbird Hill

Fino Cesar Florido
“Do you think that Washington, D.C., is small?” the Frenchman next to me said. I started to answer, but he cut me off. “To me, it seems a very small city.”

It was 91-degrees and steamy outside, but inside Mockingbird Hill it was pleasantly cool. I was drinking pale golden sherry and sampling thinly-sliced ham.

“What does the sherry taste like?” the Frenchman asked. He was drinking a draft beer. “Is it sweet or dry?”

“Pretty dry,” I said. “But there’s some sweetness to it, too.” It was a Fino Cesar Florido, and it seemed unfair to box it in either way. It tastes like sherry, I wanted to say. It had a touch of citrus and pear and a firm undercarriage from fortifying spirits.

“I can tell you one thing,” I said finally. “It goes great with ham.”

Helping the good folks of Washington, D.C. discover the beauty of that combination is the singular mission of Mockingbird Hill, the South’s first ham-and-sherry bar. It’s the handiwork of Derek Brown, who shook his way to cocktail acclaim at the Passenger and the Columbia Room, and of Chantal Tseng, who ran the bar at D.C.’s noted Tabard Inn for close to a decade. They happen to be married to each other.

Ham Sampler
Their new venture is inspired by Madrid’s famed sherry bars, but with a definite local spin. The offer almost five dozen varieties of Spanish sherry, and they pair it not with a parade of imported Iberico or serrano hams but with meats from much closer to home.

That evening’s ham sampler included an American prosciutto from La Quercia and a fine lomo--a Spanish-style cured pork loin--made just a few miles away by D.C.’s Red Apron Butchers. In the platter’s 9 o’clock position lay fold after fold of “surryano” ham from S. Wallace Edwards & Son of Surry, Virginia. Long-aged and smoked over hickory, it has a deep mahogany color and a flavor that’s smoky, earthy, salty, and rich--every bit the equal of the fine Spanish sherry with which it’s paired.

As if to forever smash sherry’s frumpy image as an old ladies’ tipple, Mockingbird Hill has a brash wood-and-stainless steel decor. The long metal bar top gleams in the orange sunlight angling in from the big front windows. Patrons perch on three-legged wood-capped stools. Mission of Burma and the Clash wham out from the sound system.

More than Ham: Sardines, Too!
As I sipped my sherry and nibbled the last of the ham in the sparse but stylish room, Spain and the South merged into a strange but comfortable whirl, propelled by a punk beat. I vaguely recalled that two centuries ago D.C.’s political elite sealed bargains not over dry martinis or peaty scotch but with glasses of the finest imported port, Madeira, and sherry.

I paid my tab and stepped out into the steamy D.C. night. My former bar-mate was leaning against a sidewalk planter, having a smoke and arguing in French on his cell phone. I waved as I passed, but he didn’t look up. 

I only got panhandled twice before I flagged a cab and slid onto the stiff, cracked vinyl of the backseat. 

No, I thought as the taxi dodged its way west through a sea of tail lights. D.C. doesn’t seem like a small city at all.

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