Mass Ave Wine Shoppe's cafe is hit or miss 

I wanted this review to start something like this:

"I want to see droves of people filling the orange tapestry-backed booths of Mass Ave Wine Shoppe at lunch time.

"Yep - Massachusetts Avenue's best destination for decently priced wine is now the coziest spot for a lunch of crusty bread and fine meats and cheeses."

That's the way I hoped it would go after the first time I lunched here.

I was informed about a month ago that the Shoppe had added a cafe this past August with soups, "unique" sandwiches, homemade desserts and about 14 wines by the glass for $6 from their "Wall of Wine" that features over 100 wines for under $15. They even cut their fine meats and cheeses to order in their on-site deli. I made a note to visit the overlooked feeding spot.

My first trip was during an off-hour: too late for lunch, too early for dinner. I was about the only person inside the small space.

I eyed the chalkboard menu. The shopkeep suggested the Serrano ham and manchego sandwich ($6.99), and I accepted.

I took a seat and waited. And waited a little more. And then shopkeep emerged with a small sandwich sliced in half, the small baguette's crusty flakes littering the small black rubbery board on which it was served. An eccentric but nice presentation.

The sandwich was a prime example of something you could make at home, if only you had the sensibility to not doctor up existing perfection. The Serrano ham, Spain's answer to proscuitto, was dry, and yet just fatty and salty enough to carry the simple sandwich. Manchego that glistened with grease provided some unction to bind it all together (perhaps the job of the promised pecornio butter, which I didn't taste).

I took a trio of Heath bar-studded "Mermaid Treats" - three for $1! - for the road, and proceeded to indulge in the moist, bite-sized brownies. Impressions had been good all around. I would drag a friend in the next day.

The next day was Friday, and my friend and I decided on an early dinner at the Shoppe. Again we two were the only patrons circa 4:45 p.m. After a couple of samples from the by-the-glass list, we both settled on glasses of spicy red Porto Viejo Carmenere. I pounced on the special, a demi croque monsieur with a cup of tomato and corn pecorino bisque ($7.50).

I was in luck: The soup arrived quickly in its small recyclable cup (the Shoppe is eco-friendly in its serving platters and silverware). I wasn't in luck: It didn't match the integrity of my previous items. My first bite tasted of too-sweet, too-salty Chef Boyardee ravioli sauce. The corn also tasted canned: gooey, sweet, with no body to the kernels.

Another few people walked in, ordered wine and grabbed a couple of Robert Rothschild Farm's Gourmet Pretzel Dippers bags before retiring to a long table near the window. One long-haired male member of the party oscillated audibly between no other noshes, and just a cup of the soup. I had to wrestle myself to not stop him from opting for the latter.

My croque monsieur ($14) took a while to reach the table. When it did, the baguette was not smothered in melted cheese. A narrow rectangle of brie under the top loaf was only a bit warmer and softer than at room temperature; the white wine soaked genoa salami was good, though not the thinly sliced ham I'd expected.

The best value in terms of food gotten for the price here may be the hot corned beef and cheddar dip ($5.99). It's a perfectly pliable, golden brown sourdough boule with innards smothered in salty corned beef and barely discernible cheddar, and onions for texture and slightly sweet counterpoint. This was the almost raw tasting, abrasive variety of corned beef that usually accompanies hash. Luckily, the bread tempers the meat's pungency.

I got this one with a cup of onion blossom horseradish potato soup from Robert Rothschild's Farm ($3.50). So not all soups are homemade.

You can get a good lunch or dinner during a wine or beer run at this Massachusetts Avenue libation staple. You just have to choose carefully.

Mass Ave Wine Shoppe

878 Massachusetts Avenue



Monday-Saturday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Food: three stars

Atmosphere: four and a half stars

Service: three stars

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Jennifer Litz

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