When Paul Carlson and Brittany Carlson say they want their rebranded wine bar to feel like home, it’s not just a platitude.
Lulu’s Winegarden opens with a limited menu and hours tonight at 1940 11th Street NW. The Southwestern-style bar succeeds Vinoteca, a 12-year-old staple off U Street that the Carlsons have been talking about refreshing for years. The new look, implemented without a professional designer, includes hanging plants that have grown for years at the Carlson house down the street. A huge, rectangular display of dried flowers hanging on a wall came from the same arranger they found in a plaza in Antigua, Guatemala, to spruce up their wedding there a couple years back. The place is named after their 8-month-old daughter, Lucilla.
The Carlsons brought on chef Cable Smith as a partner — he already oversees the kitchen at the Royal, their Latin all-day cafe in Shaw — knowing full well they wanted him to make the white queso he provides in quarts for their Super Bowl parties. Thanks to those dried flowers, Lulu’s fills up with a subtly sweet smell found in homes throughout Mexico, Texas, or Arizona, Brittany Carlson’s home state. Smith, who hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and worked his way up in Austin, wanted to make a menu full of dishes that could be eaten standing up at a border state house party.
“We wanted it to be in the same idea as a beer garden that has sandwiches and food for everybody,” Smith says. “It’s not too hoity-toity.”
So there’s Smith’s bowl of queso ($10), a melted concoction full of roasted chiles, lime juice, cilantro, and, he says, “special delicious processed cheese, because it’s the best.”
“Queso is a form of fondue,” adds Paul Carlson, a sommelier.
Smith inadvertently drew the fire department to the bar recently by smoking pork belly pastrami that gets brined for two days, dry-rubbed for a third, and slow-cooked with apple wood chips for four hours. It’s then cooled, sliced thin, crisped up, and served as a $14 sandwich on Texas Toast with fermented red cabbage, Smith’s pickles, lots of crispy shallots, and an aioli he makes with pork drippings and more pastrami spice.
“I wanted some Texas-y stuff on here,” Smith says. “If you look at the place, it looks very Southwestern. I’m from the dirt.”
The most outlandish dish on the menu completes a dare that Smith’s fiancée has put out for years. She always wanted him to make a fancy corn dog, so he came up with a Cordon Bleu version ($12) with a battered chicken sausage wrapped in ham and stuffed with Swiss cheese cubes that melt when the dog gets dunked in the fryer. It’s served with a dijonnaise emulsified with fat rendered out of crisped up, Brunoise ham pieces that go on top of the dip. Another party food gets an update with a French onion toast that tops a slice of grilled sourdough with caramelized onion dip, salt and vinegar chips, and onion ash.
A beet and goat cheese salad is a standard wine bar dish. Smith serves the vegetable two ways: chunks of salty roasted beets sit on a puree of more beets, goat cheese, and yogurt with pieces of citrus, pickled mustard seeds, pistachios, and watercress.
Paul Carlson’s wine menu takes price out of the decision-making process. Eight varieties, including a Portuguese Vinho Verde and a Bulgarian Cabernet, are available by the glass for $12. Nearly 50 wines are available by the bottle, and every one costs $49.
Carlson is excited to serve a couple wines from the Valle de Guadalupe region across the border in Baja California. That includes a red Baja blend of five grapes from the Viñedos Malagon vineyard. Old world wines dominate the list, and focusing on bottles allows Carlson to add options he says would baffle other wine directors around town, like a 2002 Bordeaux classified as a Grand Cru from the tiny French town of Saint Emilion. Bottles that necessitate chilling come from the bar in metal buckets of ice that fit snugly into holes at the center of communal tables repurposed from the wooden bar at Vinoteca.
Carlson is also on a hoppy kick, bringing $9 drafts on IPAs from Stone and Cigar City and local Virginia brews from Aslin Beer Company (Doch Amber Lager) and Solace Brewing Company (Crazy Pils). Alonzo Freeman — also from the Royal — is making cocktails ($12 to $13) like a vodka and white rum Oblinger with a coconut mint cordial and lime.
Brunch was a big deal at Vinoteca, but Lulu’s will wait a few weeks before it starts accepting day-drinkers on the weekends. The front patio will open at the start, but the back garden with a bocce court won’t open until later this year.