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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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Queer Wino’s William Ferguson on a mission to queer wine

Educational website elevates stories of LGBTQ figures in the industry

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William Ferguson elevates the stories of other LGBTQ people in the wine field.

William Ferguson likes talking about wine. His mission: queering wine. Ferguson, who uses he/they pronouns, runs Queer Wino, a wine sales and education website.

When Ferguson began in the industry, he stood in the face of discrimination for his sexuality and gender identity. In search of support and community, he set out to forge his own path of visibility and leadership for LGBTQ people in wine. He now holds a Level II certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), but formal certifications and education were only the beginning.

With Queer Wino, his aim is simple: to raise awareness of the unique issues LGBTQ people face in the wine industry and to raise their profile. When buying wine, he endeavors to focus on smaller producers, unknown regions, and wines made by anyone outside of cis, straight, white men.

Ferguson’s work is neither pedantic nor esoteric. Breaking down barriers, he focuses on presenting the idea of wine – buying, tasting, pairing – approachable and enjoyable. His Instagram and TikTok feeds are full of thoughtful, candid posts about wine.

“The idea that only red wine can age is false, however, the whole story is complicated. Before I explain, let’s set the record straight — or gayly aligned — and acknowledge that there are age-worthy white wines, rosés, and sparkling wines,” reads one.

In another, Ferguson is strolling down a street in a simple white T-shirt. He posts an image with text that reads, “Red wine is more complex than white wine.” In the caption he states, “Ummmm. No. Just no. It’s not true. Both can be equally complex or simple.”

“Wine and food is a great way to create a space for people to connect,” he notes. “When people share food and wine it increases their feeling of connection and community. I just want this to be available to everyone, not just an elite few. So, I think what we can learn is that the magic of food and wine doesn’t have to be only one type of experience,” but an experience for all, he says.

Ferguson’s most impactful work began in 2020, when he launched a series titled, “Pride in Wine,” which highlights LGBTQ “wine nerds and professionals.” Pride in Wine is a series of profiles of queer people involved in the wine industry. Thus far, the series has profiled wine educators, vineyard managers, wine label owners, and more. The series is available on his website.

Wine is his profession, but also his passion. He looks for inspiration from people “who love it, and take it seriously, but still have a sense of humor about it.” As for other wine inspiration, he looks to the likes of writer Jancis Robinson and the activism of Justin Trabue, Darwin Acosta, and Elaine Chukan Brown. 

“There are countless situations where I just can’t tell if someone is taking me seriously or not because of how they may be perceiving me. Then there’s job-based discrimination. In a way, you can’t win. If you’re closeted on the job to protect yourself and seem to avoid things, people will think you’re lying, and if you’re out they may just not hire you or fire you or discriminate. I’ve even had an employer say there was just something about me at some point before firing me. It just makes you think and wonder.   

“A big part of visibility and representation is getting more people to see who you are authentically while doing what you love,” he says. Whether that’s debunking wine myths on Instagram or highlighting and elevating the stories of other LGBTQ people in the wine field, Ferguson is ensuring that there will always be space for queers in wine.

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An expansive vision leads D.C.’s Elcielo to a Michelin star

A conversation with Pedro Mendoza, Colombian restaurant’s ambassador

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D.C.’s Elcielo was awarded a coveted Michelin star earlier this year. (Photo by @Fleetstreetwriteup Rachel Paraoan)

Behind the 22 courses of Elcielo, the Michelin-starred, transportive Colombian restaurant that anchors the far end of La Cosecha in Northeast is a jack-of-all-trades translator. He is Pedro Mendoza, officially the Corporate Communications Officer of the Elcielo group, but more of a charismatic conductor, ensuring that the restaurant hits all the right notes coming from the composer – JuanMa Barrientos, owner and head chef, with a dozen-plus restaurants and bars and a hotel.

 Colombian-born Mendoza, a gay man, has worked with the Elcielo group since 2016 across its restaurants (Bogota, Medellin, Miami, and DC). He has been based in the D.C. outpost since its opening in 2021. While he works front of house many evenings at Elcielo, his day is filled with public relations and operational work for the other Elcielo spots and JuanMa’s many other restaurants. He also works in outreach for the Elcielo Foundation, a nonprofit that supports victims of Colombia’s civil war violence.

Mendoza has a long history in the culinary space. He has worked various events across Colombia, including the wine exposition Expovinos, the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival, and other performing arts, culture, and health fairs and festivals.

 Through his writings and work, Mendoza connected with Barrientos, who had by then established himself in the lofty Medellin food scene. He had founded Elcielo, a multi-sensory restaurant using modern, avant-garde techniques enmeshed with Colombian flavors and ingredients. Elcielo was what may have been the first fine-dining restaurant in Medellin, a tasting menu influenced by the country’s rich history but plated by JuanMa’s international vision. “It’s a fun luxury, not stuffy or rigid, it’s a fluid luxury,” says Mendoza. 

When he moved to Elcielo full time in 2016, Mendoza was focused on producing editorial content and promoting the brand. In 2019, he moved to D.C. to open this local project, acting as everything from designer to waiter to press officer. 

Mendoza also acts as ambassador of Colombia and Elcielo to D.C. and the world. “I am diplomatic and respectful, but also authentic and transparent,” he says. 

“As a gay man with 11 ethnic ancestors from four continents (my DNA test says so), I feel like a citizen of the world. My imprint is to do everything with passion and dedication.” 

Mendoza has seen plenty as an out Colombian who came of age during the terrors of its civil war. For that reason, working with the Foundation, which offers education and culinary training to wounded soldiers, ex-combatants, indigenous people, and other victims, is especially important.

“I love being a Colombian, succeeding in a market as demanding and cosmopolitan as D.C. is. Colombia is a special country whose inhabitants have suffered a lot from violence and the drug trade, which is a global problem, not just ours.” He is as proud of his Colombian heritage, of its bounty of fruits and vegetables and biodiversity, as he is of his personal life. “I was a flight attendant, I sang opera in a professional choir, I served in the army of my country. I don’t mind so much saying my sexual preference, because I think that belongs to people’s privacy; however, I don’t hide it, I show it with pride. If it is necessary to show myself as a 49-year-old gay man, I do.”

After just a year in business, Elcielo in D.C. was awarded with one Michelin star: the very first Colombian restaurant to attain this achievement. Earlier this year, the Elcielo outpost in Miami was also awarded one star, as part of the Michelin Guide’s first-ever selections for the Florida region. Michelin noted the expression of creativity and “serious culinary sorcery.” 

It’s JuanMa’s expansive vision, a reflection of Elcielo’ s name (meaning “sky” or “heaven” in Spanish), “so we try to ensure that everyone is treated with special care,” says Mendoza. This goes for the food, the customer, and the employee, Mendoza adds.

 “Elcielo is a very inclusive company,” says Mendoza. “I have had more diverse LGBTQ colleagues throughout the company: in administration, outreach, in the kitchen, and on the dining room floor, both in Colombia and in the U.S. I was able to start Elcielo DC from zero, and have now run communications and even visa logistics for other Colombian staff. This is an example of the company bringing opportunity to all types of people.” 

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Wharf celebrates fifth anniversary on Oct. 12

Live music, sidewalk sales, food, and drink on Southwest waterfront

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The Wharf in Southwest, home to Pride on the Pier in June, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Five years in, the sweeping Wharf is only growing. On Oct. 12, the city’s glittering renewal project that established the Southwest neighborhood as a waterfront destination, is celebrating a two-fold event: its fifth anniversary and the substantial near-completion of the entire development. With Phase 1 built out and Phase 2 tantalizingly close, this mile-long stretch along the Potomac River has come to life with restaurants, retailers, residences, hotels, shops, and businesses, surrounded by monumental views and a vibrant culture.

The celebration on Oct. 12 runs from 5-8 p.m., with activities, live music, sidewalk sales, outdoor vendors, and food and drink specials along the entire strip. Jarreau Williams will take the stage for live music on the Transit Pier floating stage, followed by The JoGo Project at 6:45 p.m. The event concludes with a fireworks finale just before 8 p.m. Meanwhile, an indoor ceremony kicks off at the new Pendry Hotel at 5:30 p.m., featuring remarks by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The Killers headline at The Anthem at 8 p.m. for that venue’s fifth anniversary show.

Phase 1 of The Wharf opened in 2017, with more than two million square feet of residences, offices, hotels, shops, restaurants, and a marina. It also featured intentional public areas, including parks, promenades, piers, and docks. Phase 1 also saw the establishment of a new water taxi system, the Southwest Neighborhood Shuttle, and a new bike lane. Some of the city’s most popular restaurants kicked off during Phase 1, like Del Mar, Grazie Grazie, ilili, Kaliwa, and Mi Vida.

Phase 2 will include a robust roster of chef-driven restaurant concepts, and 1.25 million square feet of development, including offices, hotels, restaurants, and shopping, in its own section of redeveloped waterfront. It will also include 225 boat slips and a 1.5-acre green space. New restaurants planned include:

• Flora Flora (655 Water St., S.W., 2nd Floor): Latin-influenced poolside restaurant combining the cuisines of Mexico, Peru, and Argentina.

• Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips (665 Wharf St., S.W.): Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay’s British-themed counter offering elevated fish & chips.

• Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen (652 Wharf St. SW): Ramsay’s surf-and-turf restaurant, which pays tribute to his hit “Hell’s Kitchen” TV show, with steak and seafood offerings, including its famous Beef Wellington and lobster risotto. Located in a two-story building directly on the water.

• Kinfolk Southern Kitchen (685 Wharf St., S.W.): Americana bourbon and barbecue restaurant featuring spirits and smoky flavors.

• Philippe by Philippe Chow (635 Wharf St.): Iconic New York City restaurant for almost two decades. Philippe Chow has become a staple with a world-renowned menu of Beijing-style dishes that has pioneered the way for elevated Chinese cuisine in the U.S.

• Slice of Match Box (664 Maine Ave SW): Wood-fired pizza eatery taking the best of regional brand Matchbox in a fast-casual setting with table service and a full bar.

At full build-out, the mixed-use neighborhood will feature more than 3.2 million square feet of development along a mile of Washington, stretching from the Municipal Fish Market at the north end to Fort McNair in the south. In total, the Wharf will have 300,000 square feet of retail space, featuring more than 85 restaurants and retail shops. And beyond the boats, there is also a free kayak and paddleboard launch.

This event kicks off The Wharf’s “Season of Celebration,” featuring nine months of community events and experiences commemorating the completion of The Wharf. This includes everything to a Dia de Los Muertos celebration, a holiday boat parade, Mardi Gras, and, of course, Pride on the Pier in June.

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