Cocktails with food pairings and Champagne at Columbia Room in Northwest Washington

Cocktails become art at Derek Brown's Columbia Room

By now, omakase-style dining at Japanese restaurants has become a familiar offering, but putting the menu into an expert's hands isn't just for sushi anymore.

At Derek Brown's new 16-seat Columbia Room, the drink offerings are completely up to the bartender.

The tiny bar, which opened last week in a room at the back of The Passenger, is Brown's chance to share lesser-known spirits with discerning clients in an interactive, reservations-only environment each Thursday through Saturday night.

Brown (pictured) and sommelier Kat Bangs work together to create a cohesive three-drink experience ($49). After an introductory glass of Champagne, the first drink is predetermined to pair with a small bite from the kitchen. On a recent night, it was a Cognac-based cocktail made with a tickle of absinthe, served alongside a country pork terrine.

Each drink is full of unexpected, seasonal flavors. Brown borrows from the art of bartending by paying special attention to ingredients (like fresh bergamot) and hand-cutting ice with razor-sharp Japanese knives.

The third cocktail is your chance for input, when Brown mixes to order. Be bold in specifying favorite flavors; the ingredient aficionado hunts far-flung components for the brightly colored tinctures, syrups and garnishes that sit in apothecary jars behind the bar.

Brown, who developed a cult following during stints at The Gibson and Komi, and as the founder of the cocktail consultancy company Better Drinking, also teaches intimate courses in cocktail making and tasting every other Wednesday. Upcoming classes include vermouth and the benefits of shaking versus stirring. Take one class ($65) or sign up for them all on the bar's site. Ultimately, it's your choice.

Columbia Room, 1021 Seventh St. NW (between New York Ave. and L St.); 202-393-0220 or passengerdc.com