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.