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You won’t find Mark Kuller these days at the M Street Northwest law offices of McKee Nelson, where he was a partner until March, and now is of counsel. Kuller spends most of his waking hours across town amid construction rubble at the corner of 8th and G streets Northwest. There, he is building his dream, called Proof — what he hopes will be D.C.’s premier wine-centric restaurant and wine bar. But on a recent visit to the site, the ground floor of a new building in the busy Verizon Center/Chinatown/Penn Quarter area, Kuller is nowhere to be found. He left for a few minutes, says a hard-hatted architect, but he’ll be back. “You can’t miss him. He’s wearing a white shirt, and he’s about 8 feet tall.” Soon, Kuller lopes into view. He is 6 feet 6 inches tall, it turns out, but has a larger-than-life presence in this place. He looks and acts the part of a restaurant risk-taker, not a tax attorney, and he has the swagger and New York City mouth of Tony Bourdain, the chef and author of Kitchen Confidential. Kuller shows off the gleaming stainless steel and glass refrigerators that will be visible to patrons of Proof. One will hold 1,000 chilled wine bottles, the other 2,700. More than 40 wines will be for sale by the glass, and a champagne trolley will make champagne available at all times. He points to the four openings above the bar area where, he says, licensed images from the nearby National Portrait Gallery will be displayed on plasma TVs. Kuller joshes with the workers, and curses the suppliers who have forced him to put off his opening from March 15 to April 15 to May 27 and now, he hopes, to some time in the first week of June. With disgust, he displays a $30,000 pewter bar counter that was custom-made for him in France. Somewhere in the delivery process, the bar got badly scratched up, so now he is dealing with insurance companies as well as contractors. LABOR AND LOVE “When you come from a business [the law] where precision is important, and people don’t do it that way, it makes you nuts. There’s a lot of incompetence,” says Kuller, who is 54. “Take the three most complicated deals you’ve ever done as a lawyer, and square it. That’s the level of complexity here.” He adds, “This is a labor of love, but right now it’s as much labor as love.”
Mark Kuller, of counsel at McKee Nelson, has a legendary near-photographic memory for the wines he has consumed and loved. In the midst of his preparations for opening his restaurant Proof, Kuller was asked to name his favorite wines. Within minutes he e-mailed this list — heavy on French Bordeaux, but with some California and Aussie wines thrown in — along with commentary. Most of these wines cost hundreds to thousands of dollars a bottle.1. 1982 Chateau Lafleur — my death-row red. (Translation: the wine he’d like to drink on his last day on Earth.)2. 1955 Chateau d’Yquem — my favorite vintage of the most hedonistic beverage on Earth.3. 1947 Cheval Blanc — a legend that deserves all the hype.4. 1994 Harlan Estate and 1997 Bryant Estate (tie) — my favorites of all the cult Cabs — absolute perfection.6. 1998 Greenock Creek Shiraz Roennfeldt Road — unlike any wine on Earth, controversial but I LOVE it.7. 2001 Domaine de la Mordoree Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee de la Reine des Bois — my favorite CDP ever, and I drink more CDP than any other wine.8. 1961 Chateau Latour — another well-deserved Bordeaux legend — has never disappointed.9. 1988 Guigal Cote Rotie la Mouline — always amazing, the 1991 and 1999 are also sublime.10. 1990 Cristal — if offered any champagne to drink right now, this would be it — sorry Jay Z.

Labor, love, and money, to be precise. Kuller estimates he has sunk $1.5 million of his own cash into the nearly $3 million project; he is assembling investors for the rest. Ninety percent of the cost is construction, he says, because he was starting from scratch. He says, “Next time I’ll buy someone else’s mistake,” a restaurant that already has plumbing, gas lines, and other infrastructure. But he seems not to have any regrets; Kuller is adding construction lingo and HVAC expertise to his wine and law vocabulary, and loving it. Kuller grew up in Queens, New York, and well into his adulthood his wine knowledge ran from Manischewitz to sangria — with nothing in between. He credits Bill McKee, a founder of his firm, as his “wine mentor.” McKee had gotten into wines while teaching at the University of Virginia School of Law, and the two met 25 years ago while working on tax issues for the U.S. Treasury Department. A wine collector, McKee introduced Kuller to good wine, and Kuller was hooked. He recalls a 1978 William Hill cabernet sauvignon as an early inspiration. McKee says now, “I created the monster, I guess, but the monster has far surpassed me. He has a phenomenal memory for wines.” McKee and Kuller also worked together at King & Spalding. McKee Nelson was launched in 1999, and has turned into a top tax and securities firm with more than 200 attorneys. That, says Kuller, is where “I was able to make the money to make my dream come true.” The dream of opening a wine bar and restaurant formed about a dozen years ago, he says. In his food and wine travels, Kuller saw the growth of wine bars, everywhere but in D.C. He counts only two in the area: Sonoma on Capitol Hill, and Tallula in Arlington. “There should be a great wine bar here,” Kuller remembers thinking. Even as he built his tax practice, Kuller was learning more and more about wines and restaurants. “I was always the concierge at the law firms,” he says, and McKee confirms that Kuller is the person he, clients, and partners turn to when they need a reservation at a hot new restaurant in New York or Los Angeles. “He can make it happen. He knows everyone in the business,” says McKee. The entire firm, McKee says, is “pumped up” about Kuller’s restaurant venture. When Kuller began hunting for real estate, he hoped to own a place outright. “Having a landlord sucks,” he says, though he has one now at Proof. The idea for the restaurant’s name, says Kuller in an e-mail, came from the many elements of his life: “The legal world (proof the document, proof in a case), the world of wine and spirits, and the art world,” since Proof will be showing images from the National Portrait Gallery. And bakers “proof” dough while it’s baking, he adds. The time was right for what his friends call “Mark Kuller, Round Two.” His two children are grown, and he is divorced. “I can stay down here until 3 a.m. if I need to,” he says. Kuller says boredom with the law did not propel him into his new gig. “I think I always imagined having a second career. I still love being a lawyer, but I’m not going to bill 2,000 hours again.” Chances are good that in his new restaurant he’ll be working more than 2,000 hours a year, with no one to bill. He is hands-on, not only with the 500-bottle wine list but with the menu, and hiring staff. He lured chef Haidar Karoum away from Asia Nora, and is working with him to develop a menu driven by the wines, like the Rhone varietals he favors. The emphasis will be on high-quality, clean, and unfussy preparation, with a range of small plates, entrees, artisanal cheeses, and charcuterie. Lunch will emphasize salads and paninis. The restaurant will stay open late; scrambled eggs at midnight will be an option. Tastings and wine dinners will keep the buzz going, Kuller hopes. “I want Proof to be the wine destination in D.C., where you can also get spectacular food,” says Kuller with complete confidence, in spite of the construction challenges and the usual risks of the restaurant business. If Proof takes off, he envisions opening three or four more restaurants in the area in the future. Kuller knows that any new restaurant is a high-stakes gamble. “If I’m not successful, at least I took a shot,” he says, then adds. “But honestly, I don’t see myself failing.”


Tony Mauro, who covers the Supreme Court and reviews restaurants for Legal Times , can be contacted at [email protected].

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