I’ve just been served an iridescent pinkish cocktail in a martini glass at Proof. I had asked bar manager Adam Bernbach for an herbal concoction and was greeted with a number made with Blue Gin, Velvet Falernum, and grapefruit juice, garnished with a twist and a sprig of sage. The drink is a lovely balance of bright citrus and herbs; the combination hits notes that resonate with the in-between season of late winter, early spring.
This is not the first no-name cocktail I’ve had from Bernbach, as making drinks to please a discerning palate is among his strengths. Bernbach draws inspiration from Federico García Lorca poems (a Spanish twist on the Negroni), photos of Grant Achatz holding a blowtorch (smoked bitters), and the restaurant’s wine director, Sebastian Zutant—which makes sense, considering Proof offers a wine selection to please the most highbrow oenophile.
But as anyone who has dined at Proof can attest, it’s not just a wine bar. A meal at Proof is among the more symphonic dining experiences the city has to offer, with Chef Haidar Karoum as conductor.
I was reminded of this during a recent dinner on a rainy Sunday night. A colleague and I shared the pho terrine, a riff on the Vietnamese pho that Washington can’t seem to get enough of these days. “It’s deconstructed soup,” he said of the veal loaf infused with star anise, cinnamon, and clove and spiked with a zip of lime zest and a bite of jalepeño. I also savored the miso-glazed sablefish, a buttery, unctuous dish paired with maitake and shiitake mushrooms, baby bok choy, and potato puree. The plate I dream about, though, is only available for lunch: The calorie-busting Wagyu beef steak and cheese is served on a house-made roll with provolone, wild mushrooms, and jalepeño aioli. It’s a sandwich that would make even the most avid Philly cheesesteak fan give up the Cheez Whiz version for good.
Now, Proof is no Komi, often named D.C.’s best restaurant. And that’s the point. It’s not the pricey, albeit beautiful epic journey that can offer either a transcendent experience or dinner prison—sometimes both—within the same evening. (One recent meal there lasted an interminable five hours.)
Proof is accessible to snobs and egalitarian eaters alike. It’s where chefs go on nights off. It’s among the most underrated restaurants in D.C., despite the fact that Karoum’s cooking has only gotten better since the restaurant opened in 2007. The experience he has gained over the past four years helming his own kitchen and opening up sibling Estadio has catapulted Karoum’s skills from good to great.
Proof is the flagship of owner Mark Kuller’s vision. Since his life hasn’t revolved around being a restaurateur—he built his career as a tax attorney—his work has taken him all over the country and the world. Kuller has dined extensively in other cultures and gotten a feel for more creative dining options in cities where risk-taking in restaurants is embraced. Now, his position is much like a patron of the arts that fosters rising talent locally.
Karoum and Kuller are the strongest of partners. The strength of their pairing creates a synergy between the front and back of the house that’s a rarity in a city short on restaurant staff for high-end dining. When Proof opened, Kuller had hired some of the best folks from around the city. That he’s kept them there is really saying something.