The Curious Winer And Diner
My friend, Patrick, is charcuterie and cheese's number one fan. Before I met him, sliced and cured meats were enjoyed once in a while in a sandwich, and cheese was always eaten as a garnish. Then I became friends with Patrick and started eating these two foods by themselves in copious amounts. (And I got him a cutting board in the shape of his home state for his birthday. Ideal for the cheese/meat/wine lover.) I began to appreciate these foods more, especially with a glass of wine. Naturally, I found the Curious Grape in Shirlington to be an absolute gourmand's delight.
The part wine and cheese shop, part espresso bar, and the part restaurant serves so many possibilities. Recently re-opened in March, this place offers wine tasting classes, an eclectic assortment of cheese, and an accomplished chef, Eric McKamey. The atmosphere is casual and comfortable, so that winers and diners do not feel intimated if they are no fine food connoisseurs. The menu directly reflects this feeling. Each starter and entrée is paired with a wine type such as medium-bodied white. Then you can look to the wine list, which is organized by type, to choose which wine you would like. The menu is like gentle guide that gives you the ultimate choice, unlike some other more pretentious menus in the area that
suggest direct specific wine pairings without explanation. This menu is certainly a reflection of the Curious Grape's owners, who are visibly on hand to offer advice about wine, cheese, and more. They've built an atmosphere to learn about these epicurean delights, so the place is aptly named the Curious Grape!
Chef McKamey joined the Shirlington neighborhood staple after stints at Palena, CityZen, and Proof. He brought his various experiences to the Curious Grape to create an eclectic menu with various international influences focused on seasonal ingredients. And if you don't know what's in season, no worries, the carefully-though-out menu includes a box of the day's seasonal ingredients such as spring garlic, asparagus, and artichokes. Luckily most dishes come in half-sizes, which is ideal for trying many dishes. I suggest ordering the delicate braised pork empanadas, which arrive with pumpkin seed salsa and a crème fraîche dipping sauce. The thin salsa is culinary magic - it's a blend of various peppers and a creative mix of spices. I couldn't get the recipe, but my server confirmed that there was no cayenne pepper or paprika, which I thought had clearly tasted. The baby artichokes with spring garlic (the little purple flowers) presented a vegetarian dish in a new light with some cooling mint and spicy chiles.
With each course, I tried and sipped a new wine because the restaurant offers half glasses. I truly wish more restaurants and wine bars did this because it encourages wine tasting and deters wasting precious liquid. I speak for more than myself when I say that I cannot always finish two glasses of wine at dinner, but one and a half is perfect. The wines are priced for any budget, and each manager and owner is a certified wine consultant. To complement the sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi, I tried the Pinot Noir, a 2008 wine from Yamhill Valley in Oregon. This light red wine went great with the pasta and the heavier braised lamb shoulder with baby turnips, which my dining partner ordered. Both entrées, whose portions were smaller than most restaurants, were an ideal size for a multi-course dinner. And of course, Chef McKamey cooked the lamb to tender perfection. The gnocchi was light and airy, and the pesto was fresh.
As many French do, we ended our meal not with a sweet confection but with cheese! Katie Park, the cheese manager, created a cheese selection from around the world that included TeaHive from Utah, Cambozola from Germany, and Zamorano from Spain. Utah-based Beehive Cheese created TeaHive by rubbing black tea and pure bergamot oil to the outside of the creamy cheese. You should enjoy this cheese if only purely for the smell. My favorite was the Cambozola, which is a Camembert cheese injected with Gorgonzola cheese's bacterial culture. It's creamy and sweet, but not as pungent as pure Camembert or biting as Gorgonzola. Curious Grape presents its cheeses with a generous variety of complementary bites such as fruit (dried and fresh), bread, cornichons, and nuts.
I left the Curious Grape more than satisfied. My ever-present dining partner, Guy, and I felt that we had learned more about wine and cheese from that experience. Although, we are not wine and cheese connoisseurs by any stretch of the imagination, the Curious Grape guided us on a potential trajectory to mastering these fine foods. They offer numerous classes for people like me, and best of all, no cloud of pretension hangs around the knowledgeable staff. Walking out the door with two of the cheese I had tried earlier that night, I know that I'm going to return to this warm wine and dine stop soon.
Patrick, if you are reading this, we must go to the Curious Grape!
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