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Proof Is in the Sipping, but Food’s Good Too

The three-martini lunch is back, albeit retooled. Maybe the lethal gin-and-vermouth brew has been replaced with a fine chenin blanc, but still, lunchers are loosening up. So says Sebastian Zutant, wine director at Proof, the new wine-centric addition to Penn Quarter. It’s not surprising that a guy in his loafers would approve of such a development. He’s in charge of the wine program at the restaurant — whose name comes from the oft-cited Ben Franklin quote that wine is “proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Such happiness is on display during a typical lunch rush, where you’re nearly as likely to spot a glass of vino on a table as a tumbler of iced tea. “People are chilling out these days,” Zutant says.

It would, after all, be a shame to visit Proof and not sample its grape offerings. The well-edited list of by-the-glass wines is a definite draw, with the choice of 2, 6 and 8.5-ounce pours. Prices range widely, but luckily for those not on an expense account, there are plenty of under-$10 options for a standard 6-ounce glass. And servers are deft with suggestions and making some of the less-known varietals accessible. I’m content to follow their suggestions, a tactic that led to sampling a sylvaner from the Alsace region of France, a slightly sweet, yet refreshing, blend. “Do you usually like a sauvignon blanc?” my waiter asks. “Try this,” he offers.

But fear not, iced-tea sippers. Not all that’s good at Proof comes in a glass or a bottle. Chef Haider Karoum, a veteran of Asia Nora, is turning out some inventive fare. His background at Nora, one of D.C.’s organic-food pioneers, shows up in the seasonal, organic produce used in his dishes, much of which comes from local farms. There are few Asian touches, and the menu draws from globe-trotting cuisines with an emphasis on the Mediterranean region.

Some of the strongest dishes are lunch standbys with a twist. A riff on the traditional French salad nicoise features crisp-seared swordfish, romaine slivers and dabs of lemony dressing. Its play of textures (croutons crunching against creamy farm egg) and flavors make it a standout. Panini sandwiches, too, get gussied up to good effect in Karoum’s hands. An Italian-accented version combining cured meats and fresh cheeses between slabs of flaky flat-pressed bread tastes like a sophisticated take on your usual deli order, while a another rendition features rich bites of roasted pork sharpened with accents of pickled red onions. They’re antidotes for the luncher who swears he’s sick of sandwiches.

Those who like a midday graze will appreciate the charcuterie menu, which seems to be becoming a staple of Washington establishments. A rosy prosciutto or aromatic Spanish jamon paired with a few of Proof’s well- curated cheeses makes a fine lunch in itself — or an appetizer to share.

Among the desserts, you can’t go wrong with the passion fruit cheesecake, which pairs a tangy goat cheese filling sandwiched between a crumbly topping and a base of the tropical fruit.

Karoum lets seasonal produce take center stage, with late-season heirloom tomatoes upstaging the over-seared hanger steak they’re paired with on a recent visit. The reign of the tomato, though, is fleeting, like many of the menu items. And as the weather turns cooler, Karoum says to look for autumnal gems like pea shoots and delicate lettuces in new dishes. With a menu that changes at least weekly, diners won’t have to wait long.

Though its menu is straightforward, Proof has plenty of theatrics up its sleeve, from the rolling champagne cart from which Zutant dispenses bubbly to the glassed-in cheese staging area to the floor-to-ceiling wine racks. Also providing a show is the changing digital images over the bar. On one visit, I first noticed pictures of Abraham Lincoln on the screens, and thought little of it until I looked again a few minutes later to see the grinning mug of Ronald Reagan in Abe’s place. I asked the waiter if it was some kind of Republican-hero slide show. “No!” he said, looking surprised and explaining that the images were from the collection of the restaurant’s neighbor, the National Portrait Gallery, and that the GOP display was a coincidence.

Proof’s décor is both warm and contemporary, with rich textures like grommet-studded leather on the banquets and woven leather on the chairs cozying up the airy space. And though the dining room plays it safe, the bathrooms are pure cheek. In the hot-pink ladies’ room, the wallpaper is a design of sexy fishnetted legs and lingerie, and the men’s room (at least according to a male accomplice) features large photos of seductive, artsy nudes. One quibble here: Why are guys having all the fun with the peep show? Why not give ladies a little beefcake eye candy — at least beyond Abe and the Gipper?

Not that it’s necessary at Proof. The fresh fare and accessible, interesting wine list are entertaining enough.

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