Allison Dinner
Cinchona powder, bay leaves, and orange zest enliven Bernbach's house-made tonic, while chunky ice cubes and fresh mint cool the elixir down.
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Iberian Inspirations

Juliet Glass - December 2011

With an inspired wine list and scratch cocktails, Washington, D.C.'s Estadio, a newbie with a Spanish accent, puts the fun back in drinking.

Opening a Spanish restaurant in Washington, D.C., the home turf of José Andrés, god­father of Spanish cuisine in the United States and owner of Jaleo (among many others), takes some serious chutzpah. But rest assured, when owner Mark Kuller opened Estadio in July 2010, his high energy Spanish concept, he got Andrés' blessing first.

"José was both inspirational and instrumental to the creation of Estadio, and we are forever grateful. Before we broke the story with The Washington Post about our plans for the space, I had lunch with José, who got very emotional and teary-eyed and promised to help us. In a town where Italian places and steakhouses open weekly, I think José saw us opening a Spanish place as a form of flattery." Kuller, who also owns the upscale wine-centered Proof, met up in Spain with Andrés for a food- and booze-fueled recon mission, and Andrés proofed the opening menu for errors.

That being said, Estadio and Jaleo are more like distant cousins--perhaps kissing--than siblings. Whereas Jaleo stays true to its Iberian roots (be them ultra traditional or avant-garde), Estadio draws freely outside the lines. Estadio's tapas are top-drawer, thanks to the highly skilled executive chef Haidar Karoum (who also helms the kitchen at Proof) and chef de cuisine Rufino Bautista. The duo mingle classic tapas, such as spot-on patatas bravas, fried potatoes doused in pimiento-spiked sauce, with dishes that travel far beyond Spain to include a spicy grilled chicken thigh with a cilantro/yogurt sauce that veers deliciously toward tandoori chicken with raita. And while the food is excellent, it's Estadio's bar program, a high-wire balancing act of mixing iconic Spanish drinks and flavors with fun experimentation, that caught our eye.

Overseen by wine director Max Kuller (Mark's son) and bar manager Adam Bernbach (who does the same at Proof), Estadio's bar program is Spanish at its core, paying reverent homage to the Spanish boozy trinity of wine, Sherry, and cider, all the while riffing playfully on Iberian themes with its dazzling cocktail menu. The wine list is peerless in D.C., with 400 almost exclusively Spanish labels (including dessert wines, Ports, and Madeiras) crammed into a relatively tiny cellar. "Casa Mono [New York City] and Mas [Charlottesville, VA] were our benchmarks," notes Mark. The opening list was designed by Proof wine director Sebastian Zutant, with Max taking over stewardship in October 2010. "Max has quadrupled our wine list since opening. We're limited only by space."

"There are 50 varietals currently listed," says Max Kuller. "We offer 70 red Riojas alone. We boast an enormous selection--35--of wines made from the still-up-and-coming Mencia grape, 100 different Spanish whites, and over 40 of the best wines that have been produced in Priorat.We source from over 15 local distributors, plus from dealers and auctions around the country. My dad and I both obsessively scour the Internet for rare finds, and often exchange emails or texts regarding purchases in the wee hours of the morning."

Of this sprawling collection, Max Kuller offers 16 by-the-glass choices from the Enomatic wine preservation system, along with a handful of nightly offerings. "The by-the-glass offerings are hypercurated," notes the younger Kuller. "Interest and excitement are what drive placement of wines on the by-the-glass list."

Max Kuller's domain also includes oversight of the Sherry list (Estadio offers 13 by-the-glass and hopes to expand to 15 by the end of the year) and ciders (sold by the 23 to 25 ounce bottle), which range from the briny, funky ciders of Asturias to sweeter carbonated specimens from Argentina and Québec, including the hard-to-find Michel Jodoin Cidre Rosé Mousseux, made using the Champagne method from the rare, red-fleshed Geneva apple. "Ultimately, I love it for its unique pink color and elegance. The bubbles are fine, and the fruit is restrained--with tart red berry notes and fresh acidity mingling with a hint of sweet apple and a leesy overtone I usually associate with fine Champagne," waxes Max Kuller.

As for beers, Estadio offers one draught, Barcelona's Estrella Damm Lager. "The Spanish craft beer movement is very young, really just picking up steam the past year," Max Kuller says by way of explanation for why the 24-plus bottle list includes fewer than a handful of Spanish specimens.

For cocktails Bernbach adheres to Iberian themes, either with flavors, such as sparkling cocktails enhanced with cava and served in a Champagne coupe, or with form, for instance sangria, Spain's perennially popular wine, hooch, and fruit elixir. All Estadio cocktails get the Bernbach scratch-bartending treatment; his seasonal sangria always starts with a base of white wine and Tequila, which he might spike with pineapple and sage in the summer or cinnamon, rosemary, and apple in the fall.

And while the Estadio cocktail program is scratch-bartending at its finest, it is, above all, fun. Estadio uses the porron, a traditional Spanish vessel for sharing wine where drinkers pour wine directly into their mouth from a tapered spout, but fills the porron with more than just wine. Always popular is the combination of Txakoli wine with house-made lemon soda and orange bitters. In warmer weather Estadio might offer a refreshing porron of rosé, muddled basil, and house-made lemon soda. When the temperature drops, Estadio too shifts gears with Schlafly pumpkin ale, Gutiérrez Colosia oloroso Sherry, and a dash of orange bitters. The menu warns diners to "Drink at your own risk!" as liquid dribbling down chins and stained shirts are common with porron rookies. Otherwise tight-buttoned Washingtonians have embraced it. "Porrons are catchy--one table orders one, and it will spread through the dining room and add to the grown-up party atmosphere," says Max Kuller.

Opening during one of the hottest summers in D.C.'s history helped make Estadio's slushitos (little slushees) one of its top-selling cocktails. While not directly Spanish, these frosty elixirs were originally inspired by frozen drinks enjoyed by Mark Kuller at New York City's Spanish hot spot El Quinto Pino. Yes, Estadio's slushitos are frozen drinks, but they are no less seasonal, everything-from-scratch cocktails, rich in fresh juices and botanicals. Summer brings strawberry, Campari, gin, and basil, and cooler weather calls for chamomile-infused Bourbon, spiced grapefruit syrup, amontillado Sherry, and lemon juice. "With the strong resurgence in tiki, I felt very confident that slushitos would work," says Bernbach. "Frozen drinks are another approach to the basic cocktail principle of dilution. Normally, you shake or stir a cocktail, but with frozen drinks the dilution is in reverse, and really more effective in a way."

Sherry, the quintessentially Spanish wine, shines in Bernbach's creations. "Sherry is an underrated ingredient in cocktails, and I felt it was important to represent it in the bar menu," says Bermbach of his Cóctel de Jerez offerings (all served in a Champagne coupe). He keeps two 19th century Sherry cocktails on the menu, the Bamboo (manzanilla Sherry, dry vermouth, and bitters) and the Adonis (dry oloroso, sweet vermouth, and bitters), the latter of which has enough of a nutty backbone to stand up to Karoum's crispy duck breast with lentils and Catalan-style sautéed greens with raisins and pine nuts. Bernbach changes the rest of the Sherry cocktails by whim rather than by season. "I get bored quickly, and like to try new things and fine-tune old ones," he explains. A recent favorite is El Cazador, a concoction of oloroso Sherry, Campari, honey, and lime. "It's a perfectly balanced cocktail with all the basic principles of strong-and-weak, sweet-and-sour," says Bernbach. Sherry finds its way into other areas of the bar menu and into the kitchen, where it both glazes black cod and stars in a soothing pudding topped with crumbled almond cookies by pastry chef Brittany Frick.

If you've ever been to Spain, you know that the national drink is not sangria, but rather the Gin and Tonic, which Spaniards collapse into a single word, Gintonic. "We wanted to play off that," notes Mark Kuller, "and Adam was up to the challenge. I asked him to create the best Gin and Tonic in the world, and he has pretty much done that." Bernbach concedes that it took a while--eight months to be exact--and the results, the Cadenhead's Old Raj Gin with house-made orange/thyme tonic, is perfect. It's also nothing like any Gin and Tonic you've had before.

"We took this iconic Spanish drink and did our own thing with it," says Bernbach of his beguiling creation. His tonic is infused with the portfolio of Spanish flavors--orange zest, thyme, and cracked bay leaves. Ground cinchona bark (the ingredient that makes tonic water) is added à la minute, along with Old Raj Gin, which gets a light yellow hue from saffron, another essential Spanish flavor. The finished drink is chilled by two massive 2 inch ice cubes. A true cocktail aficionado, Bernbach declares these cubes the sexiest thing ever. The drink is cloudy, sweet but not cloying, citrusy but not puckering, with the botanicals adding complexity and texture. Of all the Estadio cocktail offerings, the Gintonics are not the easiest to pair with food, but the Old Raj Gin goes swimmingly with the bacalao crudo, slices of salt cod bejeweled with jalapeño rings and cubes of avocado and orange, drizzled with fruity olive oil.

Even teetotalers can get in on the fun, either with virgin craft cocktails or Estadio's quirky soft drink selection, which includes Spain's ubiquitous Kas brand (in both lemon and lime), Mexican Coca-Cola, and Dublin Dr. Pepper (bottled in Dublin, Texas), the latter two of which are both made with cane sugar as opposed to corn syrup, and, yes, they really taste better. Who knows, ask nicely and you might even get your refresco chilled by a sexy ice cube.

Contributing editor Juliet Glass lives in Washington, D.C.