Del Mar, The Wharf

On a Sunday evening – early, just before 6 PM – the impressive and cavernous Del Mar was packed, with no tables available, and so we took our chances, walked in, and found room at the bar, where we were offered a drinks menu and a tapas menu. We asked our affable bartender (whom we got to know on a first-name  basis – but I’m not going to mention his first name in this post) about getting the full dinner menu, and promptly received it.

After I washed my hands (in the lovely and spotless restrooms here), my dining partner went to wash hers, and as we both enjoy Gin & Tonics – Del Mar’s menu is chock-full of them – I asked our bartender about the $28 Hable de Ti for two (“Talk about You,” get it? Ti for two?), and whether there was good reason to order this menacingly priced drink, as opposed to having two of the “regular” G&Ts from the menu – he suggested that if we ordered two of the single drinks, we could try different types.

In my wisdom, I ordered two of the single drinks, but the exact same one: the Te Quiero (“I Love You,” $14) with lemongrass, rosemary, grapefruit, and homemade tonic – made with Tanquery gin, and served in giant Tanqueray goblets, this was a magnificent drink, beautifully conceived, presented, and served from a futuristic-looking infuser.

After our drinks were poured, I turned towards my companion, and remarked that these were not expensive at all – the goblets were huge, filled to the very top with ice, and after our drinks were poured, there was fully half of our tonic remaining, and nearly one-third of the infused gin left in the infuser (notice all the ingredients in the photo) – when I asked our bartender how many iterations they could extract from one set of these infusions, he told us, ‘about four or five,’ and that (surprisingly) it didn’t take all that long to replace the ingredients – I suppose these are made in pre-prep, and simply placed into the device – still, it’s an extraordinary presentation well-worth seeing and ordering.

I finished my glass, and was ready for the rest – then came what can be best described as an “awkward moment”: The bartender had taken the gin away, I assumed to keep cool, and after I poured in some more of the tonic, I got his attention, and asked if I could have some more gin. At that precise instant, our bartender realized that I mistakenly assumed that the entire infuser was for us, and made a halting gesture, while reaching for the infuser, and adding some of the gin to my goblet. At *that* precise instant, I realized (due to the bartender’s halting gesture) that the rest of that gin wasn’t meant for us, and that one pour was all we were supposed to get. After taking a few seconds to compose myself, I said to our bartender, “I’m really sorry, I didn’t know that we had been poured the entire drink the first time,” he instantly replied, “I know you didn’t – that’s why I didn’t say anything,” and all the awkwardness melted away. It certainly wasn’t his fault, and I don’t think it was mine – it was a monumental miscommunication on a small scale. Here is what I would do if I were Del Mar: Don’t put such an extreme amount of ice in the goblet, and don’t leave such a large amount of tonic in the decanter – those two things really contributed to my having thought there was more gin to come; given that there wasn’t, there was too much ice in this drink, and the large amount of tonic really wasn’t necessary (although it certainly doesn’t hurt, as it’s delicious on its own). This is why I don’t wish to mention our wonderful bartender’s first name – because he *really* did nothing wrong here, and if you had to point to someone responsible for the communication breakdown, you’d have to point to me. Well, it’s a funny anecdote, but none of it matters (other than the recommendation about the amount of ice and tonic) because the drink was just fabulous – and worth the price even without any extra gin. Incidentally, I’d asked how the Hable de Ti (for two) was presented, and it was via an entirely different, but equally impressive, vehicle – it’s also a more complex drink, as it’s made with brine foam, Cava, etc. – next time I come here, I may have to give this a try, even though I couldn’t have been any happier with the Te Quiero.

For our second “awkward moment” of the night, we remained in the drinks department. After we finished our cocktails, I decided to order a bottle of Godello, my favorite white wine from Spain (recall the article “Waiting for Godello” which I wrote for Washingtonian in 2007) – just a couple weeks before we dined at Del Mar, we were in Catalonia (or Catalunya, if you wish), and even in places as cosmopolitain as Barcelona – which is nearly 600 miles away from Godello’s native Galicia – Godello was quite difficult to find, which really surprised me. Knowing from first-hand experience that Godello made in oak is more expensive than in stainless steel (and sometimes made just to export to Americans), I purposely ordered the least-expensive Godello on the menu – Godello isn’t an expensive wine, and this is one variety that I recommend people order the least-expensive offering they can find, because that possibly means that no oak was used. Hence, I ordered a bottle of 2015 Rafael Palacios “Louro de Bolo” ($56) and to nibble on while we waited on our entree, a classic tapa of Pan con Tomate ($10) – bread with tomato spread. Shortly after ordering, the sommelier arrived, apologized, and said they were out of the Rafael Palacios, but that he had another Godello that was even better. At this point, I expressed my proclivity towards Godellos with no oak, and he assured me that this wine was made without oak, and not only that, but as he was pouring it, he said he’d give it to us for the same price as the Rafael Palacios, which was a truly nice gesture. So instead, we got a bottle of 2015 Avancia “Old Vines” ($70 on the list), and this is where the moment became awkward, although the awkwardness was entirely contained within ourselves. The sommelier put the bottle on ice, walked away, and I turned to my companion and said, “How do you tell a sommelier he’s wrong about the wine not being made in oak?” The answer is: You don’t; you just enjoy it for what it is. The little sticker on the bottle that says ’92 points from Robert Parker’ should have been enough to tip off any wine professional that this wine had seen a healthy dose of oak, but then, there’s this:

which explains everything – the gentleman was probably “acting sommelier,” and I’m glad I didn’t say a word.

Back to that Pan con Tomate – we had just spent about five days in Spain, and had dined very well. Including some obligatory tapas-hopping in Barcelona, we’d just had Pan con Tomate twice, including once in a Michelin one-star restaurant. With all this fresh on our minds, we both agreed that Del Mar’s version was better than any version we had in Spain, and even if two pieces of ficelle topped with some garlicky tomato spread might sound expensive for $10, we also both agreed that the price was commensurate with quality – this was possibly the best Pan con Tomate I’ve ever eaten (I can’t swear to this, as I’ve been to Spain several times in the past ten years, but I’ve never had any this good in the United States). Simple and perfect, this bread is every bit as good as it looks (my apologies for the slightly blurred picture, and the lack of perspective in terms of size – they were ample pieces – not mammoth, but ample).

For comparison, here’s an order of Pan con Tomate (5 Euros) we had at a delightful little Bib Gourmand restaurant, Antaviana, in Figueres.

As an aside, while in Barcelona, the former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, had been arrested in Germany, and was in danger of being extradited back to Spain for trial. Many Catalunyans didn’t take kindly to this, and on Sun, Mar 26, we were right in the thick of some pretty intense protests that seemed not-too-far from becoming riots. While walking to dinner, I caught some of the action on my phone:

On to the main event! Del Mar is bringing Las Vegas to DC, in terms of size, atmosphere, and prices, so I wanted to go straight for the jugular, and let the restaurant show at its best. We ordered the Paella de Pescado y Mariscos ($98, serves 2-4) with Maine Lobster, wild calamari, PEI mussels, and tiger prawns, made with Bomba rice, and served with real garlic alioli (although certain purists would argue that Catalan allioli (note the two ls) should never have any egg, there are varying degrees of tolerance for this pressing issue):

Aug 10, 2009 – “Allioli, the Catalan Accompaniment” by Edward Schneider on dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com

The paella is just the right amount for two people, if that’s all they order, and is served tableside – the seafood was fantastic, the portions were generous, the rice was just right (both in quality and ratio), and the alioli (however you want to spell it) hit a home run with me. I barely finished my half, and helped my dining companion finish her lobster (*that* wasn’t going to waste), but there was some rice left on her plate that I just couldn’t finish – this doesn’t look like a huge portion, but it’s deceptively rich, the alioli not helping in that department. I got permission from our jovial server to take a picture, and although I said I’d try not to get his face in, he said he didn’t mind (I actually did try not to, but failed).

Overall, there wasn’t much more we could have asked from our meal at Del Mar – with tax and tip, the final bill was right around $250, and while expensive, we both felt the meal represented very good value for the money, as it was outstanding in just about all facets – atmosphere, service, and cuisine. Dining here won’t come cheap, but it’s *easy* to say I’ll be back here numerous times, and mean what I say – Del Mar is a wonderful restaurant, and just what The Wharf needs as its anchor.

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