Husband-and-wife team Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng.
The bartenders behind the galvanized metal bar are also sommeliers.
Toasted bread with tomatoes, garlic, and Serrano ham.
The couple are both seasoned bartenders.
The menu has four types of cured ham.
White anchovies with tomatoes and green herb sauce.
One of the first amontillados the couple tried, this rich, dry variety is among their favorites.
by leslie quander wooldridge | September 10, 2013 | People
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in Northwest Washington, and Derek Brown, owner of The Passenger and the Columbia Room, is tucked into a corner table at Mockingbird Hill with his wife, Chantal Tseng, a renowned mixologist formerly of the Tabard Inn. The two recently opened the bar and restaurant in the burgeoning Shaw neighborhood, quickly garnering critical praise for its original bar concept and distinctive menu offerings, which marry sherry and ham.
Brown grew up in Maryland and met Tseng in 2002 at (naturally) a District bar. “I don’t know what I was drinking,” Tseng admits. Brown adds with a laugh, “If she fell for me, then it must have been really strong.” Their demeanors are disparate—she is soft-spoken during our chat and he proves to be a passionate talker—but they have much in common, including the longtime love of sherry that inspired this new DC hot spot. In fact, their joint venture offers a heady sampling of more than 50 varieties of the spirit—including amontillados and very dry finos—along with savory bites such as Serrano ham and smoked trout. Here they talk to Capitol File about their love for sherry and each other, and how that informs their partnership in business and life.
So, tell us more about how you met.
DEREK BROWN: In a bar. At Toledo Lounge, when it was a dive. She used to walk past this bar that I worked at, and I used to clean the windows at the beginning of the shift and look out and she’d be walking. Everyone at the bar knew that I had a crush on her. Chantal, did you know?
CHANTAL TSENG: I just knew that somebody was staring at me when I was walking by. [Smiles]
DB: And then we met and just actually became really good friends.
CT: We used to play chess.
DB: It’s always better to become friends first. It’s going to be a lasting relationship.
So, is the fact that you have the bar scene in common a good thing?
DB: Yeah, it’s pretty important. If your husband comes home at 4 in the morning smelling of booze and you don’t understand that that’s his job, you’re in for a world of trouble. So we both understand the bar life. It has made it easier for us to be together. If one of us was on the other side of that, it would be really hard.
How do you blend working together and marriage? Is it an art?
DB: I think it has its peculiar challenges. We definitely don’t get to spend as much time together as most couples. Like, if I’m bartending here [at Mockingbird Hill], then Chantal’s not, and vice versa. But these things also make it a little more special when we are together and not working. It’s difficult, but we’re both really driven people who love what we love intensely.
CT: Opening this new place has its own energy, and doing it with the love of my life has its own energy. So right now it feels somewhat effortless. I mean, it’s not—I was exhausted the other day. [Laughs] But starting from that foundation, it’s just what we do.
Speaking of your work, some people love the term “mixologist” and some people hate it. What’s your preference?
CT: I guess I prefer “bartender,” but I also prefer whatever communicates. Since we’re focusing on sherry, the idea should communicate a type of wine bar.
What’s been the reaction to this new place?
DB: We get really busy in here, actually. We’re really happy about that. The number-one thing is that people come in and sit down and go, “This seems cool; I like the place. What is sherry?” And then we go into our spiel and give them a taste.
Why are you focusing on sherry?
CT: I just have a very long relationship with sherry. [Years ago] I picked up a real bone-dry variety and just hated it. Then I remember having a cocktail with amontillado sherry and kind of going, “Why do I love that so much?” It’s been sort of this progression. And then, all I ever wanted to drink was amontillado sherries. [Derek and I] named our cat after amontillado, which is the style of sherry I fell in love with at first.
Is sherry misunderstood? Can it be served too warm, for instance?
DB: [Accepts a glass of fino from Tseng.] All of them are really good, and the finos are probably better with certain kinds of food. This one, the fino, if you serve it room temperature, it’s okay. But it definitely finds its real resonance once it’s chilled. This is meant to go with seafood. We were drinking this at a seafood restaurant in Jerez, Spain. Two percent of sherry production is the sweet type; 98 percent of it is dry.
Why is sherry a good choice for those who consider themselves continued from page 66 cocktail connoisseurs?
DB: I think you should… absolutely fall in love with what you drink. And you can’t fall in love with things that are easy. So that’s why I think that [Chantal is] describing sherry as something that you taste and you’re like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” And then it’s like a song that gets stuck in your head and you can’t stop humming it.
CT: There are a lot of sherry associations. People will say, “Don’t you just cook with that?” But it kind of changes; it never tastes quite the same. It has certain flavors and tasting notes; it just warms your palate.
DB: I don’t write poetry; I make bars. So this bar, in a sense, is a love letter to Chantal and her [appreciation for] sherry. And I love it, too.
photography by greg powers
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