Spirited Debut Gives Way to Longevity at Wine-Centric Proof
In 1779, Benjamin Franklin wrote from Paris that wine is “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Fast-forward a few hundred years. Nightly proof of the sage’s wisdom is poured out in glasses of liquid ruby, diamond and gold at restaurateur Mark Kuller’s Proof. But much more than that is getting proved at the popular spot on a quiet street at the edge of Penn Quarter. The novelty of Proof when its opened back in 2007 of course was the wine and all its accoutrement — 40 wines by the glass, more than 1,200 bottle selections, two climate-controlled wine storage units displayed prominently in the dining room and a state-of-the-art Enomatic wine-serving system that pours tasting portions and full glasses with the push of a button. Today though, the restaurant’s longevity and continued success in the tough Washington market and even tougher economic downturn may be more a result of owner Kuller’s deep appreciation for the importance of really good food as a backdrop for libations. To interpret his concept, Kuller sought a team that could share his vision for the wine-centric restaurant. He tapped as executive chef Haidar Karoum, a Washington native with classical training at the Culinary Institute of America, who spent time at Michel Richard Citronelle and Gerard’s Place before ending up with Nora Pouillon at her two establishments. Working with Pouillon, Karoum became committed to using local and organic produce to create healthy and environmentally sustainable dishes that are a hallmark of his work at Proof today. Given the importance of wine to his central concept, Kuller was equally careful in his choice for director for the wine program at Proof, selecting certified sommelier Sebastian Zutant. Another native of the Washington area, Zutant was well regarded for his work in developing the wine programs at both Rasika and Komi. To round out his team, Kuller brought on Michael James to serve as maitre d’ and general manager. Kuller chose well in putting together the team. It is still in place today. As the weather gets colder, a heavy sweater, a sidewalk table, a bottle of hearty red wine, and a plate of meats, cheeses and crisp breads feel perfect for watching the leaves fall. Proof seems almost made for this kind of autumn outing. Inside, the contemporary feel — created by Grizform Design — features a handsome Jerusalem stone entrance, exposed brick walls, wide-plank walnut floors, woven leather seats, hand-crafted French pewter bar and antique Chinese chests. The seats, and the atmosphere, are relaxed and comfortable. With better acoustics than many other establishments, except on very crowded evenings, the sound level is allows for intimate conversations both in the booths and at the tables. Chef Karoum has developed a menu for Proof that is as robust as the wine list. Changing daily to reflect seasonal availability, it reflects the broad range of influences in the chef’s background. With a balanced hand, Karoum mixes ingredients and techniques across cuisines not so much in a fusion style as in an eclectic, take-a-bit-of-the-best-from-everywhere approach. The charcuterie, for instance, features a delicious range of house-made choices including several excellent terrines. The chicken chorizo and pate campagne with cherries and pistachios are particularly good. Karoum’s earlier work at Asia Nora shows through in his Pho terrine. Rich and meaty with a complex Asian profile and hints of beef, basil, onion and cilantro, it strongly evokes its eponymous Vietnamese dish. Likewise, the cheese selection is intriguing. Broken out by milk source and originating from a wide array of sources, the cheeses offer an interesting variety of tastes and textures. The only downside is that a favorite might not be available when you make a return visit. Among the salads, a highlight is the roasted beets with pea shoots and pickled carrots, dressed with sherry mustard vinaigrette, goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts. For a more acidic profile, the butter crunch lettuce salad with avocado, grapefruit, Valencia orange and toasted quinoa is a good choice. Small plates, large enough for two people to share in most cases, offer a range of possibilities. The sautéed potato gnocchi — served with sheep’s milk ricotta, spinach, basil and end-of-the-season mixed baby tomatoes — is subtle but delicious and improves as the dish cools. Meanwhile, finely textured meatballs, served recently with a delicious cheese ravioli, represent the finest in comfort food. Upscale croquetas of crispy jamon and prosciutto have a vaguely tropical feel, with their pickled cucumbers and piquillo pepper puree pairing. And the tempura of Pennsylvania mushrooms and French beans, served with a lemon-truffle dipping sauce, are worth a trip in and of themselves, though unfortunately sometimes run out on crowed evenings. It’s fun to visit Proof often just to see what Karoum will think of next. Though he does not tend toward outrageous pairings, he has a solid understanding of his ingredients and puts them together in ways that enhance the total effect quite effectively. A recent chicken dish featured a roasted organic chicken breast stuffed with a rich goat cheese-wild mushroom interior, and served with sautéed rapini and creamy polenta. The bitterness of the rapini brought out a mild, nutty flavor in the chicken that was as surprising as it was delicious. Karoum is particularly good with fish. A spiced halibut is paired with sautéed baby kale, steamed jasmine rice and fragrant coconut-curry emulsion to create an Asian-inspired dish that is clean and light. A heavier choice, the sherry-glazed sablefish — served with garbanzos, spinach, pumpkin seeds, raisins and smoky romesco — is one of the standouts on the menu. Proof diners also have several excellent choices to finish off a meal. The dessert menu varies, but one of the best that appears regularly is the sticky toffee pudding cake with butterscotch sauce and a tiny topper of homemade ice cream. Homemade sorbets are a nice light choice, and for those who must have chocolate, a warm, dense chocolate hazelnut cake with tracings of espresso sauce will satisfy even the toughest chocoholic critic. In addition, there are the kinds of special touches that give Proof that indefinable little something extra. A row of plasma flat-screen TVs behind the bar runs a slow-moving, continuous loop of the art collection at the neighboring National Portrait Gallery — tempting you to stay put just to see what comes up next. Concealed table leaves in the booths pull out to make room for bottles or the many plates that accumulate as you taste your way through the small plates, entrees, artisanal cheeses and charcuterie collection. Even the bathrooms offer something special in the way of design. Three excellent and successful years have given Washington incontrovertible proof just how wise Kuller was in heeding Benjamin Franklin’s words when he decided to leave his law practice to follow a dream. The results for the rest of us have been nothing short of intoxicating. Proof 775 G St., NW Phone: (202) 737-7663 Web: www.proofdc.com Dinner: Monday – Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 5:30 – 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 – 9:30 p.m. Small plates: – Entrées: – Desserts: – Reservations: Suggested Dress: Casual chic
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.