With all the requisite lobbying, campaigning and miscellaneous politicking that goes on in Washington, D.C., you’d think that there would be ample spots to uncork a deal with a bottle of Champagne. But it wasn’t until recently that the first ode to effervescence opened in the District’s happening Penn Quarter neighborhood.
Co-owners Errol Lawrence and Nancy Koide used the Palace of Versailles as the inspiration for SAX, the two-level, 9,700-square foot bubble lounge that melds classic French with a modern twist. To get to the space, guests first pass through a velvet rope outside and then a plush, crystal-adorned vestibule. Reclaimed church doors lead them to the main dining room, which boasts one hundred and fifty seats, gilded columns, damask banquettes and inlaid medallion tabletops. Thirty wall sconces and nine outsize chandeliers, all antique and covered in gold leaf, lend a swanky and sexy feel to a lounge that seamlessly straddles turn of the century with contemporary.
D.C.’s first sparkling wine-centric bar offers fifty bubbly options by the bottle and thirteen by the glass, organized by region, and priced $35 to $10,000 by the bottle, and $15 to $35 by the glass. Champagne is further divided by style, with both brand-driven and obscure bottles represented. But in spite of the ambiance, it’s not just the French stuff that gets its due here. Sommelier Andrew Stover, who also leads the wine programs at nearby contemporary Asian-fusion OYA and sushi lounge SEI, both also part of the Santoy Hospitality, LLC restaurant group, has crafted an eclectic mix of options from around the world. “While Champagne is certainly the crème de la crème for some guests, almost every corner of the world has something to offer on the bubbly front,” he notes.
Crowd-pleasing alternatives like Prosecco and Cava have their place, but SAX’s menu also includes unexpected pours like Thibaut-Janisson “FIZZ” Blanc de Blancs NV from Monticello, Virginia ($16 a glass); J. Tedeschi “Hula O Maui” Sparkling Pineapple Brut NV ($15 a glass) from Hawaii and Sussex, England’s 2008 Ridgeview “South Ridge Cuvée” Brut (priced at $85 a bottle). “People cringe at the thought of anything good wine-wise coming from England, but those in the know will realize that its climate and soils are similar to Champagne,” explains Stover.
SAX strongly encourages elixir experimentation. “The important thing is to try something you have not tried before,” says Stover. When he encounters a bubbly neophyte who just can’t get enough of Prosecco, for example, he’s apt to instead recommend an off-the-beaten path option like Lovisolo Nebbiolo Brut Rosé ($15), whose red fruit notes are met with a soft mouth feel that matches that of the mainstream Piemonte sparkler.
Experimentation by the Glass and the Bottle
Staff recommends that SAX patrons first order up an unfamiliar pour by the glass to get a feel for what they like, before diving into a bottle or two as they linger with friends. They can also opt for the “Dry to Wet” flight ($20), with a Blanquette de Limoux, Brut Rosé and Demi-Sec. The progressive sweetness of the three wines showcases the way residual sugar affects a sparkling wine. A handful of beer and still wine options appeal to the bubble-averse, and bottle service is available for parties of three to ten guests.
Each guest receives a small “amuse bouche” welcome cocktail from the bar, which is joined by a list of about twelve libations on the menu. “Seasonality along with varietal dictate the rotation of the cocktails, which we transition twice through the week,” explains Arris Nobel, regional operations direction and beverage director. Standouts include the lip-numbing Scandalous ($18), with serrano pepper-infused Grey Goose vodka and tangerine; and the crisp and floral Red Queen Tart ($22), which mixes Hendricks Gin with hibiscus, lemon, Dolin Blanc and grapefruit bitters.
The bubbles and acidity in sparkling wine make it an effortless match with so many of the items on the menu. Shareable dishes include Blue Crab & Gruyère Fondue ($25), Fromage with accoutrements ($35) and charcuterie ($40), with the rest of the menu divided into “Acts” with progressively larger portion sizes.
If you fancy more than a glass of fizz and some nibbles to nosh, SAX features a mélange of performance artists whose acts draw on theater, cabaret, illusion and even more provocative realms, all visible on a twenty-foot-long enclosed infinity stage that sits above the bar. “The performances become more risqué throughout the night, and Monday evenings are dedicated to mostly burlesque,” says co-owner Nancy Koide. Artists appear through a swirling fog of dry ice, rendering a dreamlike state that’s mesmerizing to view—and quite impossible for guests not to watch.
Whether guests are politicos (or not), an evening at SAX will have visitors willingly eschewing talk of paper trails for flutes of trailing bubbles. And the only talk of “transparency” will no doubt be references to the racy attire of the performers behind the glass.