Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | March 26, 2010

The Columbia Room

Last night I made my long-overdue first visit to The Columbia Room, Derek Brown’s omikase-style cocktail room in the back of The Passenger. I’ve had a number of friends go and, naturally, only heard positive things. One coworker described it as “the best service I’ve ever received at a bar or restaurant.” I’d say that was about right and pretty much what you need to know going in. You will be pampered from the moment you enter the ante room to the moment you pay your check at the end of the night.

When I was at The Passenger’s media opening last year, Derek showed me the space that would eventually become The Columbia Room. It was full of construction detritus and was completely raw. I believe a bar could be there, but had no clue what a polished space would emerge. From the back Pullman car room in The Passenger, you enter a Victorian Age ante room. Up a step and behind another door is The Columbia Room. It has an eight seat bar, with the back bar area a couple steps lower from the bar itself, allowing guests to sit in regular chairs and not high stools. On the wall opposite the bar there is a row of plush benches with integrated small tables. While no one was seated there last night, I imagine these seats are useful for the classes The Columbia Room hosts a few times a month on various cocktail and bartending skills (I’m taking one on bitters next month).

After we were seated at the bar, we were offered hot, magnificent smelling towels to wash our hands. We were promptly provided water (flavored lightly with cucumber slices) and a glass of champagne. The Columbia Room is only open three nights a week (Thursday through Saturday) and obviously seats are very limited.

It probably is a bit of different experience for me than other customers of The Columbia Room, as Derek has known me and my drink preferences for about a year and a half. He had created a cocktail with my palate in mind for our first round, which was made with three potable bitters as base spirits — Fernet Branca, Campari,  and Cynar. While I was excited by the idea, I think my face showed some skepticism about how such a mix might work out. Derek quickly jumped in with a reassuring, “And it’s balanced!” And it was. In addition to the amaros, the cocktail included orange juice and sweetened lemon juice (the oranges were a special variety and I may be leaving out a bitters). It was garnished with a grilled orange slice and a sprig of fresh mint. It was a remarkable cocktail, with incredibly soft and creamy tones that belied the bitter base. It was as complex as you would expect but not overly bitter at all. My girlfriend usually isn’t a big Campari fan, but she liked this a lot, which was a testament to how well-crafted this drink was.

The second cocktail was a Martini variation. It contained equally parts of Plymouth Gin and Dolin Dry vermouth, both stored chilled. The Plymouth was kept at 20 degrees and the Dolin at refrigerator temperatures. The ingredient that made the drink was Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, a concentrated version of Chartreuse that is 71% alcohol and used by Derek in a similar fashion to bitters. I’ve seen Elixir Végétal in recipes of drinks at bars outside of DC, but I’d never had a drink with it before last night. The Elixir Végétal really made this drink, transforming what would have been a sweet and light 1:1 Martini into a complex and intricate cocktail. Lori said it may be the best cocktail she’s ever had in a bar and I could see it. It’s a simple evolution of a Martini, but it takes the historic cocktail in such a different direction that it really deserves to be tried by all. The challenge with this drink was that I didn’t want to finish it, for fear I might not have it again.

At this point in the night the guests down the bar from us started talking to Derek about his inspiration for the bar. Derek told stories of his travels in Japan and the level of service he received from some of Japan’s elite bartenders. The Columbia Room certainly pulls in some practices from Japanese bartending, but this is unquestionably an American bar. Or more specifically, Derek Brown’s bar.

Ice Diamond & Whiskey

Ice Diamond & Whiskey

Naturally with all this talk of Japanese bars, I asked Derek how his ice diamond carving skills are (I know, I’m kind of a dick). But about two minutes later, I was staring at a truly dazzling diamond that looked like it was ready to be fitted into a (very over sized) ring fitting. The ice diamond was marveled at by all, then promptly dropped in a double rocks glass and garnished with Hibiki 12 Year Old Whisky, a Japanese blended whisky that I’d never had before, but was pretty fantastic.

Things started to get fun from here. Derek decided, against his stated better judgment, that he would make a party of four at the bar a round of Ramos Gin Fizzes. This famous New Orleans cocktail is supposed to be shaken for about 12 minutes to get the right consistency. The Ramos Gin Fizz is made with old tom gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, orange flower water, and cream. When all the shaking is done, club soda is added too. It’s a great drink and the biggest reason I don’t make it at home is, well, I usually have something better to do for twelve minutes than freeze my hands onto a metal tin. In the future, though, I think I’ll have to reevaluate that assessment. This is an incredible cocktail and fortunately Derek made enough for the whole bar to try. I would never ask a bartender to make me a Ramos Gin Fizz unless I was getting along greatly and there weren’t many other customers at the bar, but in this setting it was a good fit and really the sort of drink that shows the genius of The Columbia Room’s model.

The last drink of the night was a Fancy-Free Cocktail. I’d never heard of this one before, but it is surely on the classic side of the spectrum. Recipes seem to vary slightly, but it looks like it is:

Fancy-Free Cocktail

2 oz Bourbon
0.5 oz Maraschino
1 dash Orange Bitters
1 dash Aromatic Bitters

Stir over ice & strain into a chilled cocktail glass

File this under cocktails that anyone who knows me knows I will like. Rich, savory-sweet, and intense, it features maraschino more than most other cocktails dare. But trust me, it works. And for those cognoscenti out there who are already in love with maraschino, well, this drink is for you.

So far unmentioned in this write-up is the food at The Columbia Room. For the first cocktail course, there was a small plate of artichoke hearts and swiss chard with a filo dough wedge that went very well with the three bitter cocktail. Later, we were given bowls of truffle oil-covered popcorn: Truly luxurious.

The Columbia Room is a pretty special bar and I would say a requisite stop for anyone coming to DC to explore our cocktail scene. There’s not much more to say about the visit, other than this is just a fantastic place for Derek Brown to showcase his creativity, his attentiveness to his craft and to his customers. Undoubtedly one of my most memorable nights at a cocktail bar and hopefully just the first of many visits.

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