L’Annexe’s Infusion-Fueled Cocktail Experience
November 5, 2021 @ 2:00pm
L’Annexe, translated in English as annex, is anything but an appendage to the District’s exploding beverage scene. From its esteemed perch in the Georgetown neighborhood, the charming space is a welcome retreat where sophistication, innovation and discerning taste converge and carry their own weight — much like a well-balanced drink.
I’ve visited the establishment several times before, but on this particular mid-October evening, the experience felt different — as if I knew I would come away with more than simply a deeper knowledge of the bar’s inner workings. Maybe it was the warm personalities.
Upon arriving, I’m greeted by a familiar face and swiftly ushered past the exposed brick walls and tree trunks hanging over the bar into the back library: a stunning room with gloriously backlit shelves teeming with a curated collection of hardback books, accented by ornate carpeting and plush mocha couches and green chartreuse-colored lounge chairs. There’s a large animated group of young professionals whose laughter fill the room. Their revelry adds some background noise and a welcome slice of normalcy.
It’s the perfect escape within an oasis that offers a rare variety of housemade infusions, cocktail creations and compliments of salivating food options in the form of elevated small plates that leave you begging for more, like the Raclette Burger: a dish comprised of applewood smoked bacon, housemade pickles and a side of roasted potato wedges.
Together, they’ve planted a true sanctuary in the District, well-equipped to shake up local perceptions of cocktail artistry. L’Annexe is born from the vision of general manager Fady Saba (the casually dressed gentleman now sitting opposite of me. So casual in fact, he apologizes for his appearance – in the most gracious manner), in collaboration with the brilliance of beverage director Hakim Hamid and chef Mark Ouellet, who are as talented a trio as I’ve seen in the District.
It’s a marvel to witness what unfolds from a modest kitchen that Saba describes as “no bigger than my bedroom” and punches well above its weight. Saba’s original dream was to fashion a unique environment that could not be easily replicated, where he could elevate patrons’ expectations of what a cocktail bar could and should be— with his own European flair. And his fingerprint is everywhere. The space has personal details proliferated throughout, spanning the disciplines of art, literature and music. This measured sophistication translates into L’Annexe’s distinctive approach to mixology, with infusions serving as key features.
“The cocktails [that] we do, we chose a road that is very tough — infusions,” Saba reveals. “Why? Because infusions take time to give you the [right] taste.”
Saba goes on to compare the infusion process — which can take as long as three weeks – to making wine, though in much less time. Imagine dropping ripe peaches into a mason jar of your favorite whiskey, for weeks on end. Through this technique, which requires a few more considerations than described, the flavors literally fuse together to create a satisfyingly original concoction, perfect for mixing or sipping.
And like the aging of grapes, with time and patience comes the ultimate payoff: a rich tasting profile that challenges the traditional view wine lovers often hold of cocktails as “vulgar,” as Saba illustrates it, not holding back his aversion to the cocktail’s reputation among oenophiles.
L’Annexe’s infusions flood your palate with inspiration without leaning too far into the realm of opulence. Instead, the hope is to cultivate an approachable adventure with every sip that’s fun and disarming, rather than gimmicky, in a way that jolts the senses.
“We’re trying to shock people a little bit with our cocktails, but we also don’t want to be too avant-garde,” Saba admits.
L’Annexe has no interest in manufacturing an air of superiority or the drabness that often greets guests at high-end restaurants replete with white linen tables and preset glassware and dinnerware. Though, the menu could easily rival some of the best dining destinations in the region. As Saba describes it, the bar embodies a French spirit without the assumed pretentiousness; it has texture, edges, complexity and is fully comfortable in its own skin.
And as soon as Hamid joins the conversation, it’s easy to see why there’s so much buzz around the bar. He’s a maestro behind the bar and a deep soul. With a sharp mind and quick tongue, he expands on Saba’s earlier musings, providing a crash course in infusions. Though, it feels more like an accomplished hip-hop artist schooling an emerging talent on the particulars of song structure and music production.
Hamid describes the process of maceration with the beauty of a sculptor: “[It’s] when you sit anything at room temperature on something else, so that those two things can share a common bond.”
He then draws a distinction to sous vide, a speeding up of the maceration process by cooking the mixtures at high temperatures, traditionally in vacuum sealed bags — 165 degrees for infusions and 185 degrees for syrups, respectively.
It’s also when I finally get my introduction to the star of the show, a rundown of several original cocktails, that doesn’t disappoint. There’s the IPA (not to be mistaken for the beer classification) that mimics the look of a beer and stands for “I prefer absinthe,” which provides the smell of absinthe without overpowering you with taste. It’s a double entendre of sorts and showcases the bar’s playfulness and cunning. It features vodka, seasonal fruit shrub, absinthe, lemon and egg white.
The IPA also forwards the bar’s Green Waste Initiative: The goal is to give its produce as many lives and purposes as possible, in as many delicious ways as possible. In this case, they use elements of the IPA recipe to yield shrub: a non-alcoholic syrup that’s a combination of fruits, sugar, aromatics and vinegar.
Then, there’s the Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree, which Hamid hails as something “that tastes like the best apple pie you ever want to have in your life.” It features cognac, elderflower, and a bit of cardamom, cinnamon and lemon.
Lastly, a true treat — Rye whiskey washed with duck fat that is also used to render the duck breast dish on the dinner menu. It is savory, decadent and especially satisfying.
In every way possible, L’Annexe is a refreshing detour from the typical bar experience. They dial up the ingenuity, deliver well-crafted, eccentric creations and showcase a mix of flavors, across the board, that perplex, stoke your curiosity and take you out of your comfort zone. It’s exactly what Hamid envisioned when he first took the helm behind the bar.
“The first way that I approached the venue was, you were traveling in your neighborhood, but the neighborhood is Paris,” he says. “And then you travel out to Europe. And to go really wild, you go to America. I really like to play with American flavors and profiles because being here, we think we know it so well. But do we? I think [L’Annexe] is a great way to reintroduce the way we can manipulate certain things.”
I, for one, can’t wait to return for another journey into Hamid’s mind.
L’Annexe: 2917 M St. NW, DC; lannexe-bar.com // @lannexedc