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Cleveland Park restaurants Bindaas and Sababa go bold on cocktails

Drinks designed to be vibrant, exotic without going too extreme

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Bindaas, gay news, Washington Blade

One of the exotic, but not too outre, cocktails at Sababa. (Photo courtesy Knightsbridge Restaurant Group)

The bespoke cocktail bar is no longer an entirely new idea in D.C. To step up the cocktail game, two new restaurants are pouring exciting, wildly original drinks made to match the vibrant, exotic flavors of the dishes.

On a busy stretch of Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, adjoining restaurants Bindaas (3309 Connecticut Ave., N.W.) and Sababa (3311 Connecticut Ave., N.W.), serving casual Indian and Israeli food, respectively, are shaking up a small revolution in cocktails. They are run by Ashok Bajaj, the veteran D.C. restaurateur of the white-tablecloth variety, including the Oval Room and Rasika.

Bindaas is the older of the two restaurants, opened in August 2016. In place of the tablecloths are lots of napkins — the street-food concept can get messy. The menu is a set of snacks (chaats), plus heartier dishes like kathi rolls, kebabs, and yes, plenty of naan.

Next door is Sababa, where Bajaj has taken another exciting leap. Just  opened in March, Sababa offers a menu of fresh hummus and salads, kebabs, shakshuka and more, using recipes from the diverse ethnic mix that is Israel — flavors and ingredients that span the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.

Besides sharing space and the same brash, modern style, the twin eateries also share names. Both Bindaas and Sababa mean “cool” in Hindi and Hebrew slang (and Arabic as well). And what’s cooler than cocktails that represent two flavorful cuisines? This being Bajaj, the dishes are street food, but elevated, and therefore require equally thoughtful drinks.

To create the menus, Bajaj enlisted Max Hill, a veteran behind the bar in D.C. The drinks are designed to reflect the cuisines of their respective countries. Hill has done his homework, researching history, herbs and spices to come up with the concept.

There are ingredients both uncommon and familiar, “like borage flowers, which tastes like cucumber,” Hill says, that he then pairs with gin and lemon. Some ingredients are more obscure, like rosehip, sumac and fenugreek.

Still, he notes, “None of them are so obtuse or so arcane as to be unenjoyable.”

Hill calls his approach to drinks “culinary.” When he devises the drinks, he works to “do what great chefs do: highlight certain flavors, using spices to accent rather than dominate.”

The drinks have cheeky names that echo culture and geography. At Sababa, quaffers find options like Halva World Away, referring to halva, a sesame candy. The flavors mirror those in halva, but turned way up. In the glass, there are elements of pistachio, cardamom and rosewater; the garnish an apricot rehydrated with brandy and then blasted by a blowtorch. It’s a mingling of sweet and bitter, perfect to prepare the palate for a range of flavors.

During the meal, a drink like Cradle of Civilization brings together everything on the plate: various ancient grains sneak into a drink built like an old fashioned. The liquor base is Scotch (with barley) and a Virginia bourbon (corn, wheat, rye), macerated with toasted rye to kick up the spice factor. Sorghum molasses is added for sweetness, along with house-infused caraway-sesame bitters. To round it out, it’s served with a caraway-sesame butter cookie. They both would pair well with fierce harissa-spiced meats.

Over at Bindaas, naan finds company in drinks like Instant Dharma. This one’s a bright palate-cleanser to stand up to heavier meats and wraps. It begins with sour tamarind and an herbaceous blanco tequila, topped with refreshing sparkling wine. To better wed the flavors, there are also touches of fennel, dried ginger and cloves.

The drink called Fool’s Gold is also nothing to laugh at. It’s a colorful drink crafted from a soda that Hill has been tinkering with for years, including citrus, cardamom, coriander, fennel, mace, and the showstopper, saffron. He works with D.C.’s own Cotton & Reed rum for its distillation from fresh sugarcane. The drink ends up tart and fresh, earthy and sweet.

Hill looks to local purveyors when possible, so the menu includes One Eight Vodka, Green Hat Gin, Filibuster Whiskey and others. But, true to the food menu, it also features native spirits. At Bindaas, there’s Amrut whisky and dark rum form India; at Sababa, the bar carries Israeli Arak (similar to ouzo).

Whether Israeli or Indian, Sababa or Bindaas, all the cocktails are different, cool and exciting.

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Dining

Saying an abrupt goodbye to Crazy Aunt Helen’s

Popular restaurant shuttered after just two years

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Drag brunches and other events helped establish Crazy Aunt Helen’s as a favorite in the LGBTQ community. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Vibrant, LGBTQ-owned restaurant Crazy Aunt Helen’s closed two weeks ago. Known for its purple staircase, maximalist décor, and parade of events, this Capitol Hill destination suddenly shuttered on Nov. 1, but will be remembered for the influence it had during its two years in business.

In a public statement on the closing, owner Shane Mayson noted that there were several challenges he faced, like “opening during COVID, our location challenges, staffing challenges, repair and maintenance costs associated with an older building and equipment.”

He also said, “we gave it our best go. I’m so proud of my waitstaff and kitchen crew for taking my vision for Crazy Aunt Helen’s and bringing it to life. They are the reason we made connections with our neighborhood and the DC community. I will miss working with them very much.”

Crazy Aunt Helen’s opened in 2021 to much fanfare, given that owner Mayson was no stranger to the industry. He had previously worked with the Hank’s Oyster Bar team for several years, on top of three decades in the restaurant world.

Setting up in the former Finn McCool’s bar space, Mayson crafted an all-day, Americana-style restaurant based on comfort food and lots of entertainment.

“We offer a fun, welcoming space for guests, as well as employees,” he said to the Blade last year.

To start, Mayson solicited design assistance from Pixie Windsor of Miss Pixie’s (also an old friend of his) to bring the space to life. Windsor’s tastes and style resulted in the restaurant’s highlighter hues, vintage flatware and plates, cozily mismatched furnishings, and celebrity prints that gave the space unique character.

On the table was American comfort food, but with Mayson’s own twists. Appetizers included items like fried green tomatoes, and entrees featured chicken fried steak smothered in chicken sausage gravy and vegan crab cakes. The restaurant became known for its big brunch and breakfast menu, decadent in offerings with items like cinnamon bun pancakes.

On the drinks side, Jo-Jo Valenzuela, from the Game Sports Pub in Adams Morgan helped put together the cocktail list, with drinks like a lemon drop. The team leaned on locally produced liquor and beer to support D.C.-area business.

The restaurant quickly earned accolades – and detractors.

In 2022, Crazy Aunt Helen’s, after just a year of being open, won the Best Restaurant award from the Blade. It was nominated in two other categories. It won the Blade Best Of award again just last month.

The restaurant was also known for pushing boundaries. Among its many events, the Drag Storytime event in February of this year garnered attention for its targeting by far-right groups. While these groups did not appear, hundreds of supporters from the neighborhood and across D.C. did show up in a massive display of solidarity. Holding rainbow umbrellas in a chilly drizzle; they showed support for and by LGBTQ community and allies. There was also a small police presence to protect the supporters.

One of the Drag Storytime performers was Tara Hoot, who took a leading role in the events held at Crazy Aunt Helen’s. Such events featured a Broadway cabaret, a circus-themed murder mystery, a “Mx. Tater Tot” competition, comedy shows, dinner theater, trivia, and dozens of drag brunches.

Tara Hoot got her start in live drag performances at Crazy Aunt Helen’s after Mayson spotted her on Instagram. “I’d have to refer to him as my Fairy Drag Father for giving me the chance to jump in feet first at Helen’s.”

Diving in, Tara hosted the ‘Tara Hoot’s Bingo and a Show’ and ‘Tara Hoot’s Story Time Family Brunches’ often, selling out the 90-seat audience. “I tried to make them something different, campy, and fun.” She was also a host for the weekly Sunday brunch that featured other queens like Shiqueeta Lee. It was this brunch that helped put Crazy Aunt Helen’s on the map.

“I really learned how to be a performer during my time at Helen’s because of Shane giving me the chance to be creative,” she says. “The connections I made with so many people was also super important and magical.” She attributes not only getting her start but several connections with other performers and opportunities to working at the restaurant.

She also spoke to how impactful Crazy Aunt Helen’s was for her and the other performers – as well as the diners. “The world can be such a terrible place filled with hateful humans and people trying to bring you down. Crazy Aunt Helen’s was an escape from that — a really wonderful place to celebrate performers of every kind, not just drag, and I’m really going to miss it.”

In his final statement, Mayson expressed thanks to Capitol Hill for welcoming and supporting the restaurant.

“When I was creating the restaurant, I knew I wanted to create a space where everyone felt not only welcomed, but CELEBRATED! My hope is that we accomplished that and folks could feel that when they came in to dine with us or to see a show.”

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Dining

At DC Vegan, serving up proud, gay, Black, plant-based identity

Sargent Nelson crafts ‘experiences that blend flavor and connections’

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Sargent ‘Sarg’ Nelson is the beverage director at DC Vegan. (Photo courtesy Nelson)

Wine, but on his own terms. At DC Vegan, Sargent “Sarg” Nelson is serving up his proud, gay, black, plant-based identity.

Nelson didn’t start out yearning to be behind the bar extolling the virtues of funky wines and herb-infused spirits. Yet studying architecture as an undergraduate, he soon realized that “it was beverages that I was designing.”

 He’s found a place to fully build out his raison d’etre crafting and mixing as the beverage director at DC Vegan, Dupont’s Italian American-inspired bar/restaurant/deli/fromagerie, “crafting experiences that blend flavor and connections,” he says.

The progressive virtues of working at a vegan restaurant allow Nelson to embrace his gay identity. He sees diversity not as a buzzword but as central to what makes life interesting. Yet coming up and stepping into leadership roles as a gay Black man in the hospitality industry was not easy.

“While our industry has come a long way, I won’t deny facing challenges and barriers because of my sexual orientation. However, those moments have fueled my determination to create inclusive dining spaces where everyone feels valued and heard.”

In ways loud or quiet, Nelson says he brings his identity wherever he goes. “I’m usually in spaces where I’m not the majority, so I want to show that I have a voice.” At a recent bar competition, he named a drink “You Better Work,” in reference to a popular phrase in the LGBTQ community well-known from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Before DC Vegan, Nelson was the sommelier at southern restaurant Yardbird, where he relished the opportunity to bring a diversity of wine options to a mostly Black clientele. He grew the restaurant’s wine list to reflect the globe, but always knowing how to pair the best pour with Yardbird’s famed fried chicken.

Searching for the next step, Nelson had met the DC Vegan owners, falling in love with their concept. “It was a new opportunity for me to work in a space where I can eat [as a vegan],” he says. “I loved meeting people who cared even more about sourcing, conscious eating.”

“Joining the vibrant DC Vegan family felt like finding people that were ready for inclusive hospitality — their commitment to plant-based cuisine aligns perfectly with my belief in conscious consumption.”

Traditionally, winemakers use animal products in the fining process – but vegan wines do not. His next challenge is to pair these vegan wines with big, bold flavors in the dishes. The hearty marinara sauce goes well with a rustic red, he says, while the eggplant dish matches best with a sparkling wine like Prosecco. And when creating drinks, he likes to add poetic garnish flourishes to cocktails.

The creativity and sourcing go beyond the bar. Last year, the restaurant expanded from a deli to a full-fledged sit-down restaurant with a liquor license, so Nelson has the opportunity to stock the bar as well as the wine bottle collection at the deli. DC Vegan also recently rolled out brunch, another opportunity to meld vegan ethos to a favorite D.C. pastime.

The purposeful ethos at DC Vegan’s heart allows him a space to marry inclusivity in identity with inclusivity in the kitchen. It is here where he feels encouraged to “kiki on the patio.”

At DC Vegan, he works with the owners – allies – to let him operate events like drag shows and late-night exotic readings, and a huge all-day Pride party (the restaurant is right on the Pride parade route).

He works with them on purposeful sourcing, like using vodka from gay-owned distillers and beers from gay-owned breweries. The rest of the staff is diverse, he says.

Post-pandemic, he sees that both the restaurant and LGBTQ community have changed and evolved in unpredictable ways. But they both came out “with a stronger sense of pride – we have a greater appreciation for what we have to offer in D.C.”

For now, he loves celebrating beauty in difference at a vegan restaurant through the lens of drinks, whether alcoholic or zero-proof.

“There is magic that happens behind the bar,” he says.

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Dining

Now Open! Limani Brings Upscale, Authentic Greek Cuisine To The Wharf

Premiere waterfront dining has arrived in Washington, DC.

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(Photo by Austin Reeves)

On Monday Limani Restaurant opened its doors on The Wharf, bringing an elevated dining experience unlike anything DC has seen before. Serving upscale, authentic Greek cuisine over breathtaking views of the water, Limani all but guarantees an unforgettable meal.

You might recognize some of Limani’s classic Mezze dishes, but the flavor of each is wholly unique. The restaurant adds a refined, modern flair to traditional Greek specialities. True to the Mediterranean dining experience, the appetizer and entree dishes are designed to be shared among family and friends. This style of service sets Limani apart from other DC restaurants, but the unique flavors steal the show.

Limani serves only healthy, quality ingredients. Fish is flown in from the Mediterranean and never frozen, while produce is locally sourced. They cook every dish with extra virgin, cold-pressed olive oil imported from Greece, which is available to purchase separately. There is no fryer in the kitchen, and not a single dish contains butter. Limani stays true to the Mediterranean diet with each plate they prepare, and diners can taste the difference.

(Photo by Austin Reeves)

Some of Limani’s most famous dishes include the zucchini and eggplant chips, pan-fried calamari, signature grilled octopus, whole roasted fish, shrimp saganaki, and spiny lobster. The restaurant also offers a wide array of vegetarian options, including moussaka, to accommodate a range of dietary needs.

Of course, no meal at Limani is complete without dessert. Limani’s popular dessert plates round out an evening of memorable dishes. We recommend the baklava and Loukoumades, a Greek donut cooked in olive oil.

The delicious plates might be the star, but Limani’s ambiance is just as breathtaking. Limani brings a new level of elegance to DC’s dining scene with its flagship location on The Wharf. The unique flavors and presentation of each dish allow for an elegant evening, heightened by the waterfront views surrounding the restaurant.

(Photo by Austin Reeves)

Limani’s restaurant and rooftop bar offer panoramic views on all three levels, with the largest full-service terrace on The Wharf. Meanwhile, the thoughtfully designed interior sets the tone for a sophisticated evening that transports you to the Mediterranean.

The restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows and a meticulous design that provides an intimate, sophisticated atmosphere. The decor includes a bar made from marble flown in from Greece, the same type of stone used in classical Greek monuments dating back to the fifth century. The resulting dining experience provides a calm, intimate atmosphere in the heart of the bustling Wharf.

No matter the occasion, Limani is the restaurant of choice for an unmatched dining experience. Discover the DC’s newest waterfront destination by reserving a table at Limani.

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