The green neon sign in the men’s bathroom at Bar Chinois tells customers what they’re in for, even if many of them won’t be able to read the Chinese characters that spell it out. “Party!” co-owner Dean Mosones said Friday, September 17, offering an enthusiastic translation hours before the new Mt. Vernon Triangle spot for Frenchified cocktails and dim sum hosted its first night of business with a limited menu.
Observers of the D.C. food scene will perk up their ears when they hear chef Tim Ma, a co-founder of the Lucky Danger pop-up that recently sold American-Chinese takeout out of the same space, is the consulting chef for the space’s latest revamp; before the pandemic, it was previously Prather’s on the Alley. But ask anyone involved with the new project, and they’ll tell you this is a bar first.
“We’re trying to throw a whole vibe in here, throw a party,” says general manager Margaux Donati, who tasted around 350 different wines while building an all-French list that stands at about 90 different bottles. Donati, who has French heritage, wants bubbles to be a big focus, so she’s stocking lots of Champagne and rosé, both available in large formats of 1.5 to 3 liters. People can “ball out” with a $400 bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee brut if they want, but Donati says the majority of the bottles (full list below) cost from $50 to $70. The most affordable white is a $34 pinot blanc from the Alace region in Northeastern France. The lowest price for red is a $36 gamay from Beaujolais.
Donati brought over Jacob Simpson, a colleague for over six years at popular Shaw ramen bar Chaplin’s and sister sushi spot Zeppelin, to manage the bar in Mt. Vernon Triangle. Put in charge of stocking spirits and developing a cocktail menu, Simpson stocked up on French whiskey, cognac, and absinthe, as well as apertifs and digestifs such as Sauternes sweet wine, Dolin vermouth, and apple-scented Claque Pepin Calvados brandy.
Anticipating a high volume of drinks, Simpson worked to pare down recipes. He doesn’t want bartenders grabbing more than two or three bottles. “At parties you need fast drinks. You can’t be faffing about,” he says in an accent shaped by adolescent stops in Brazil, Portugal, Italy, and England. For example, take a look at the Calvados daiquiri with lime and simple syrup, or a “Big Pink” with tequila, Créme de Cassis currant liqeur, and Q grapefruit soda.
Ma, the chef, says there won’t be any fusion on the food menu, which will start with basic snacks outsourced from purveyors: dumplings from local company Laoban, soup dumplings, chicken shu mai, and veggie egg rolls. Dipping sauces for different dumplings include different ratios of soy sauce, rice vinegar, raw cane sugar, chili crisp, and sesame oil. Ma has long wanted to open a dim sum bar, and he’d love to serve rice flour crepes stuffed with shrimp or spare ribs with fermented black bean and chile. But those dishes would need to be made on-site, and he hasn’t found the right cooks to make them yet. “Sourcing dim sum is really hard,” Ma says.
Simpson’s bar, by contrast, does blend in some Chinese ingredients. He infuses sweet red vermouth with lapsang souchong (smoked black tea) from Teaism to mimic the flavor of peaty scotch in a Rob Roy that mixes in Brenne single malt whisky aged in cognac casks. A riff on a Vieux Carré folds in Sichuan pepper amaro from Baltimore Spirits Co. Simpson expects the Chinois mule, livened up by a macerated jalapeno and berry shrub, to be a big seller. For a cheeky “probiotic Collins,” Simpson is planning to source Daring Kombucha made by D.C. bar industry colleague Frank Mills.
Bar Chinois features patio space out front, and an open, industrial design inside. Red glass light fixtures are a subtle new touch to the main room. Two new neons, one with a French phrase, and one behind the bar that spells out “Welcome friend” in Chinese characters, will surely attract cameras.
Ma, who co-founded a now-national Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate initiative with Moon Rabbit chef Kevin Tien, says he wants Bar Chinois to be careful to avoid anything that veers into appropriation or negative representation. Nothing on the bar side is claiming to be authentically Chinese. Ma says he’s curious to see how the bar is received — he thinks it will be the type of party spot the neighborhood has been missing — and he’s “open to the conversation” with anyone who wants to talk about representation.
Bar Chinois (455 Eye Street NW) will hold more test runs from Thursday, September 23, through Saturday, September 25, before an official opening with a larger food menu Friday, October 1.