When the owners of the Curious Grape wine shop lost their lease in May last year, they were faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. After 10 years in Shirlington, Va., during which time they garnered praise as one of the Washington area's top wine shops and venues for private wine tastings, they wanted to find a new location in Shirlington Village that would be convenient to loyal customers. Changing space gave owners Suzanne McGrath and Katie Park, both of whom hold certifications from the Society of Wine Educators, the chance to bring to life an idea that had been percolating for some time.
As a retail shop, the Curious Grape was all about helping visitors learn about wine, cheese, chocolate, and how to pair them to get the best out of each. They held regular tastings and offered more in-depth learning opportunities as well. But the ownership team, which also includes several silent partners, had long wanted the chance to extend the pairings principle to food. So they sought out a space that could accommodate not only the shop, but a dining space as well.
They found the perfect location in a large empty building just a few blocks away from the original site that is now home to a wine shop, wine bar, dining room, private dining room and cheese bar/pastry counter to give both diners and oenophiles a range of options.
Rolling several distinct activities into one space presented an interesting design challenge, so the owners brought on Grizform Design to help. Having done spaces for both wine retailers and wine bars, Grizform designers clearly understood the requirements and have created a pleasing and effective space. A central large black granite bar, which serves as the cheese bar/pastry counter and separates the retail and restaurant sections, sits under a vaulted ceiling painted with a tranquil mural of vineyards. Custom-made cherry wine racks lend heft to the retail side, while simple, sleek tables and chairs accented in black and chrome add to the uncluttered open feel of the dining space. Picking up the purples and greens in the mural for the walls and furnishings, the designers have created a harmonious and soothing atmosphere.
Opening a restaurant meant the owners also had to find a chef who shared their vision. A diligent search led them to a young but excellently credentialed D.C. native, Eric McKamey, who got his start serving under local notables such as Haidar Karoum at Proof, Michel Richard at Central, Eric Ziebold at CityZen, Frank Ruta at Palena, and Jonathan Krinn at 2941. Capitalizing on this background, McKamey moved on to lead spots at PassionFish in Reston, Va., and Local 16 in Washington, experiences that left him well prepared to take on the demands of creating a new restaurant and interpreting the owners' wine-centric concept.
McKamey has put together an eclectic menu of small plate starters and entrées that change often to incorporate seasonally available ingredients, which is done with marked success. The carnaroli rice fritters, deep fried with saffron, sage and fontina val d'aosta, are a perfect way to start a meal and make a nice snack with one of the suggested sparkling whites on the menu. For a lighter start, two excellent choices are the yellow tail, lightly cured and served with slivers of preserved lemon and fresh chili over paper-thin slices of radish and cumin seed, as well as the baby artichokes, served with spring garlic, mint, red chili and crispy bread crumbs.
Among recent entrée selections, a sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi with sugar snap peas, porcini mushrooms, pea shoot pesto and pine nuts was a delight that perfectly illustrated chef McKamey's characteristic approach, which emphasizes clear, bright flavors and elegant presentation.
McKamey's varied culinary background emerges in offerings that cut across styles, borrowing ingredients and techniques liberally to create a distinct signature. The braised pork empanada starter, served with cilantro, pumpkin seed salsa and crème fraiche, is a tasty, lighter version of the more traditional cousin. McKamey's ragu, served with penne pasta, is unusual for the Vietnamese-spiced pork that's added to the beef Bolognese. The unlikely combination lends an intriguing dimension to the flavor that raises the profile of the dish from comfortable to inspired. Meanwhile, a simple but perfectly roasted chicken is elevated with a complex spice rub that renders the skin crisp and aromatic and the meat moist and tender. The green onion polenta, braised kale and tomato give the dish a country-cooking feel, on steroids.
In keeping with the Curious Grape's original mission, all food on the menu is paired with wine choices selected by the chef and owners, who take the process very seriously (to the point where they will sometimes alter a recipe to achieve a good fit). But the suggestions aren't daunting — they're simple and easy to understand, a reflection of the driving philosophy behind Curious Grape, which aims to make wine more accessible.
The structure of the menu, which features plenty of half-plate options and myriad house wine suggestions in both full glasses and half pours, also makes it easy to sample a wide range of food and drink combos.
On a recent visit, the red wine-glazed braised lamb shoulder, perfectly tender and accompanied with Swiss chard, rosemary and glazed turnips, was partnered with a selection of medium- and full-bodied reds from Bordeaux, Australia, Spain and Argentina.
The wine list changes frequently as the owners find new labels that they believe represent a good value for their customers. One of the defining features of the Curious Grape's wine program has always been its emphasis on both quality and affordability. In the shop as well as on the menu, guests will find a broad spectrum of labels at both moderate and higher price points.
Owner McGrath, a former pastry chef, has taken on the task of developing a dessert menu to round out McKamey's inventively savory offerings. She is also responsible for the in-house baked goods that are available daily from the café pastry case. On recent visits, all the desserts have been perfect little bites of sweetness but one in particular, the lemon mousse served in a cookie cup with lavender blueberry sauce, stands out. The sweet and sour flavors and the silky smooth yet crispy crunchy textures combine to form a perfectly satisfying end to any meal. The strawberries and almond shortcake, served with white chocolate almond ice cream and rhubarb coulis, is another interesting choice. The little shortcakes are done with cornmeal rather than the typical white flour, giving them a more robust profile.
If cheese is more to your liking, the Curious Grape offers a nice selection, grouped in threes and paired with a specific type of wine. Diners can select from these or any that are available in the cheese case. The substantial selection of chocolate, mostly artisanal dark chocolates, also expands the dessert offerings.
A hallmark of the Curious Grape has always been the excellent staff, and this has not changed. Staff are trained under an in-house education program and can speak knowledgably about any of the wine suggestions for aficionados and neophytes alike. They are equally well prepared to discuss the beer selections, which are extensive and unusual.
Though still in its early days, it looks as though the expanded vision for the Curious Grape is well justified. It has retained the characteristics that made the retail business so successful, while taking the venture to the natural next step by adding food.
And while the Curious Grape Wine, Dine & Shop makes the wining, dining and shopping broadly accessible, with a setting that's decidedly casual, it has not sacrificed any quality. The food is easily as good as any available in the Washington area. How lucky Shirlington Village is that the owners of the Curious Grape decided to stay open and stay loyal to the area.
The Curious Grape
2900 South Quincy Street,
Dinner: Tue. - Thu., Sun., 5 - 9 p.m.; Fri., Sat., 5 - 10 p.m. (closed Mon.)
Cafe: Mon. - Sat., 7:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Retail: Mon. - Thu., 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Fri., Sat. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Small plates: $5 - $11
Entrees: $10 - $28
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.