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Elli Benchimol's The Rye Bar: Compelling in Every Way

PHOTO: Oaxacan Winter at The Rye Bar (c) Sery Kim

Darkly alluring, with flashes of gilded sex appeal, Capella Washington, D.C.’s The Rye Bar has been a near secret as a glamorous destination for those in D.C. looking for an intimate space to indulge their inner “dipsomania” (that’s scientific for desperately lusting for booze). Of course, part of the secret has been a result of The Rye Bar’s reputation for bracingly harsh cocktails. In the past, it was the kind of bar where the drinks, instead of being soothingly refreshing, shocked the senses with a brutal confrontation of seemingly unadulterated alcohol.

Thankfully, much like the gracefully delicious transition with Executive Chef Frank Ruta at Capella’s The Grill Room, Capella’s has turned over stewardship of The Rye Bar to talented Elli Benchimol, as Head Bartender and Bar Manager. With this final missing element of tightening off the beverage program, the Capella can now claim its place as one of the best hotels in Washington, D.C.

Despite looking like she just graduated from college, Ms. Benchimol has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry -- ranging from the restaurants of Alain Ducasse, Chef Geoff, Vikram Sunderam, Michael Mina and Bryan Voltaggio -- and her vast knowledge, along with her pursuit of a repertoire which combines being an Advanced Sommelier and mixology, brings a nuanced nose which makes her cocktails at The Rye Bar both refined and brazenly interesting.

Seven “craft cocktails” were on the menu the evening I stopped in. “What do you suggest I drink?” after Ms. Benchimol inquired as to what I wanted. She deftly came to conclusion I should begin with the Barrel Aged Manhattan ($22).

The cocktail arrived in a beautiful tumblr cradling Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye, Dolin Rouge, Byrrh and Rye Bar bitters. Taking the glass to my lips, upon the first sip of this mixture, I began to fall in love with Eli’s version of the classic Manhattan.

With Manhattan’s in particular, I find bartenders grapple with the correct alcohol volume. Too frequently, this classic cocktail ends up tasting more like rubbing alcohol then giving the sensation of falling in love. (You know … the timeless feeling where your eyes get drawn into someone and a slow blossoming occurs in your chest.) The Rye Bar’s Barrel Aged Manhattan gave me a similar rising feeling … and it felt, as well as tasted, delicious.

PHOTO: Cocktails at The Rye Bar (c) Sery Kim

I allowed myself a few lingering sips before transitioning to the next drink which, surprisingly, was even better than the first. The Oaxacan Winter ($18), made with Del Maquey Vida Mezcal, Aperol, Barolo Chinato, Lemon and Orange Bitters, was a singularly breathtaking drink. Sensual with a hint of smoke, it’s the kind of drink where you have zero expectations as to what it MIGHT be before you drink it. Then, once the flavor sensation burst like a firecracker in your mouth, the eyebrows raise, your mouth opens and the only words which come softly out is “WOW.”

Just wow.

When I rummage through my brain to think of what this drink might resemble, I am left with a blank canvas of memory. It tastes like nothing I’ve ever tasted because it’s not wholly sweet nor is it wholly smoky. It’s not a foreboding mezcal nor is it a tipping point towards citrus. I can only find comparisons of Oaxacan Winter to the first sighting of a rainbow. You knew something magical existed … you just didn’t know it existed right then-and-there.

PHOTO: The Cure at The Rye Bar (c) Sery Kim

The next cocktail was noted as a perennial favorite. A “simple” drink, with Argentinean roots, The Cure (16) was light and bubbly, almost like one of those kombucha drinks you pay $10 for at Whole Foods but with a vibrant alcoholic twist. Made with Fernet Branca, Cane Sugar Coca Cola, (Feret con Coca) The Cure evened me out from the high of the Continental Innovation and with three drinks under my belt, I felt sufficiently buzzed enough to realize I couldn’t go through the rest without embarrassing myself. (It’s embarrassing enough to admit I was getting tipsy on three drinks.)

Cumulatively, these cocktails made by Ms. Benchimol were the best drinks I’ve had in D.C. in a very long time. And with the strong combination of Capella’s atmosphere, sexy decor and extremely comfortable plush seating, The Rye Bar beautifully played my palate. Kudos to Eli and to many more wonderful cocktails to come.

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