Text by Warren Rojas / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
Here’s a little scoop for anyone who believes the life of a restaurant critic is all about extravagant meals, Dionysian wine tastings and hobnobbing with cheflebrities: It’s actually a down-in-the-weeds numbers game.
The equation sounds simple enough: multiple meals + repeat visits + painstaking calculations = composite snapshot of X restaurant / time.
But God/the devil/your personal deity resides in the resulting decimal points.
Why all the drama?
Because we know there are hundreds of restaurants vying for your attention. And we appreciate how hard you work for your money.
That’s why our annual Best Restaurants guide is devoted to making the most of the discretionary dollars reserved for dining out.
But don’t take just our word for it.
This year, your fellow readers are offering their two cents—see “A Second Opinion” mini-reviews—on the best/worst of the local dining scene.
We’ve done the work. Please enjoy the results.
$$$ FOOD: 8.2 AMBIANCE: 6.8 SERVICE: 6.6
1313 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 703-288-4422
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
“Make something for me. Anything,” a famished patron begged chef Driss Zahidi upon entering the poised-for-expansion Evo Bistro.
Much like that trusting chap (his reward: a sumptuous crab dish), fans of the modest McLean shop will soon enjoy additional seating (capacity will double to around 50 seats) and a more spacious bar once management co-opts an adjoining space.
Additional enomatics—restaurant currently showcases around 30 wines in the automated dispensers (just double-check descriptions; a lesson learned when someone mistakenly tagged the 2006 Layer Cake Primitivo as an Australian gem that’s actually from Italy)—are not currently in the works.
Zahidi, meanwhile, wants to integrate even more Moroccan cooking and artisan cheeses to his globe-trotting carte.
Robust sardines, juicy oranges and foamy jalapeno aioli produce a rising tide of deliciousness.
Wilted spinach rises to the occasion courtesy of cubed chorizo—the savory discharge infusing every leaf with an unmistakably porky richness.
Blackened tuna, its skin caked in cayenne and cumin, fortifies a salad of fried leeks, avocado and grape tomatoes (anoint the encroaching greens in acid and water).
$$$$ FOOD: 9.2 AMBIANCE: 9.3 SERVICE: 9
1800 Tysons Blvd., Suite 70, McLean; 703-790-4669; www.inoxrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
From a spare-no-expenses standpoint, Inox wants not for fabulous accoutrements.
Chefs/owners Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson continue to command respect—if not near-religious devotion—from pleasure-seeking pilgrims (“the venison and foie gras were life changing,” one companion gushed upon devouring the lusty double stack). Mal Krinn’s breads feature all manner of embellishments (roasted garlic, plump raisins).
And wine lovers can let loose in what staff affectionately refer to as “Wabeck’s playground” (wine director John Wabeck has over a dozen varieties of stemware and hundreds of sought-after vintages at his disposal).
The menu, alone, left us quite punchy.
Short rib-filled noodles tied together by shaved parmesan, garden peas and simmered ramps were exhilarating (“I could eat this all day,” a fellow diner exclaimed).
Pureed fennel injects a pesto-like creaminess and licorice kick to a corvina and summer bean succotash pairing, while lobster sauce exponentially increases the seafoodiness of the scantly seared fish.
Kalamata olives and dark chocolate are woven together into a bread pudding that’s undoubtedly curious (slick fruit add a complexity to the cake without asserting their full briny clout) and irrefutably delicious.
$$$ Food: 8.7 Ambiance: 8.4 Service: 8.3
3165 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-276-3165; www.eventiderestaurant.com
Open for dinner and late-night dining Tuesday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.
“We look down on them,” a barkeep sarcastically quipped as I eyed the Clarendon Ballroom from Eventide’s panoramic rooftop bar.
The (no doubt) well-rehearsed jibe would have come off as terribly immodest, were it not for the fact that: a) management has worked diligently to foster a “come-as-you-are” presence (down to the rolled-up sleeves and exposed tats favored by their service corps), and b) chef Miles Vaden’s visionary cuisine SHOULD make other local restaurateurs nervous.
The up-and-coming toque juggles three distinct seating areas and four custom-tailored menus—gourmet snacks downstairs, seasonal manifestations showcased on the main floor, chilled specialty dishes on the roof and Southern comforts with modern tweaks reserved for brunch—with gusto and poise.
Bulging cannelloni arrives wedged into a tiny crock, the close quarters providing the perfect metaphor for all the magnificent flavors (herb-laced rabbit, sublime parmesan sauce) layered within.
Roasted chicken enmeshed with aji chili aioli, currants, pine nuts and red onions yields a textural feast of pertinent spice.
Smoked tomatoes and charred squid blast a mock bouillabaisse into the stratosphere, leaving steamed mussels and pan-seared cobia in their delicious wake.
$$$ Food: 8.3 Ambiance: 8.1 Service: 8
8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church; 703-372-5161; www.seapearlrestaurant.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining, Friday and Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Though the surrounding neighborhood remains in various states of construction, Merrifield’s Sea Pearl is reeling in a semi-steady stream of regulars with some pretty far-reaching cuisine.
Chef/owner Sly Liao seems much more comfortable with seafood—his seasonally inspired menu typically includes over half a dozen dedicated marine offerings, and seafood creeps into at least half the pasta dishes—than poultry or game (sporadic chicken dishes, a few steak options).
But, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Adventurous eaters will be handsomely rewarded by the grilled pacu ribs (kin to the Amazonian piranha). The girthy fish mimics grilled pork incredibly well (hearty meat holds sauce like a champ; network of translucent spines keeps fire-kissed flesh intact), while the doctored tamarind glaze imparts equal shots of sweet and sour.
Garam masala-infused lamb swaddled in freshly baked naan receives a blast of freshness from dewy cucumber slaw (entire meal brings Indian street food home).
Pesto-smeared flatbread (its oil-absorbing prowess keenly exploited) is decorated with curry shrimp, tangy parmesan and vibrant tomato chutney in an expression of Indo-Mediterranean ingenuity.
Capital Ale House
$$ Food: 6.3 Ambiance: 6.8 Service: 6.6
917 Caroline St., Fredericksburg; 540-371-2337; www.capitalalehouse.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Sunday.
Expertly marrying the growing universe of craft beers with home-style cuisine is no small feat.
Doing it extraordinarily well hundreds of times per week is what makes Capital Ale House the toast of the Fredericksburg dining scene.
This budding chainlet revels in its beer-born nature, pouring frothy pints for everyone from Harley guys to lambic-sipping coeds to pint-swiping businessmen (amassing hoards of commemorative glassware like so many penny stocks).
Meanwhile, the kitchen takes pleasure in sloshing plenty of beer around on the burners (crab cakes bathed in hefewiezen béarnaise, dry ribs finished with malted barley barbecue sauce, fish and chips with brown ale tartar sauce).
Oniony piergoies are blanketed in horseradish-havarti sauce (spicy kick tempered by aged silkiness) and coarsely chopped bacon (bravo!).
A soft pretzel roll plied with hearty kielbasa, tangy sauerkraut, creamy havarti and sweet whole-grain mustard yields a brew-friendly snack that’s plenty filling in its own right.
Coconut cream sauce and spiced sweet-potato mash (bolstered with cinnamon and nutmeg) play sugar to an herb-caked jerk chicken’s spice (rousingly zesty rather than raging hot).
$$$ FOOD: 8 AMBIANCE: 8.2 SERVICE: 8.3
1250 S. Hayes St., Arlington; 703-412-2760; www.fyverestaurant.com
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Accommodation is key to surviving in the cutthroat world of corporate dining.
But rather than bending to the will of generic “safety” dishes and dumbed-down buffet fare, fyve toque Amy Brandwein keeps business diners and curious locals intrigued with Mediterranean-style mains supplemented by intriguing lounge snacks.
Her $5 bar menu (available from 5 p.m. till closing each weekday evening) features: global charcuterie (Serrano ham, zesty Italian soppressata), local cheeses (sheep’s milk blends from Everona Dairy, mountaineer from Meadow Creek Dairy), mini pizzas (margherita, spicy sausage) and other inventive offerings (mozzarella skewers, parmesan-parsley arancini).
Fresh figs and dreamy mascarpone burn tangy-sweetness into the core of chewy bruschetta; another version bearing roasted red peppers sprinkled with cracked black pepper and nutty olive oil runs a close second.
A pocket-sized foccacia bulging from moistened meatballs, brazen pine nuts and smoky provolone pumps out more authentic Italian flavor than professional sandwich shops can muster in their embarrassingly feeble, foot-long offerings.
Glistening strips of yolk-laden noodles initially appear naked—only to manifest the camouflaged confluence of calorific butter, well-aged parmesan and robust pepper better known as al burro.
$$$$ FOOD: 9.1 AMBIANCE: 9 SERVICE: 8.7
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; www.restauranteve.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner and late-night dining, Monday through Saturday.
“Why not start with some sparkling wine? It’s the best way to kick off the evening,” a server suggested to a pair of wide-eyed newcomers to Eve.
A shimmering flute of buzz-inducing bubbly is, indeed, a fabulous way to get the ball rolling at chef/owner Cathal Armstrong’s culinary celebration.
Even if staff has, perhaps, begun to slack off a bit.
We stomached a few minor dalliances (sloppy water service that haphazardly dripped into delicate sauces). But when beverage guru Todd Thrasher and one of his wine lieutenants delivered dueling descriptions for the same pairing (she: French red; he: Oregon pinot; Thrasher was ultimately right), we thought it best to warn staff: TAKE YOUR TIME.
This food is worth waiting for.
Balsamic-soaked mushrooms and sauteed chard evoke a forest of flavors (a ribbon of shaved parmesan-reggiano contrasts brilliantly with the porous porcini).
Calves’ brains arrive lightly seared and sealed in salt and pepper (coppery exterior, snow white center), their entrancing payload buttressed by lentils stirred with butter, cumin and pearl onions.
Roasted Spanish mackerel floats contentedly amidst a sea of Nicoise olives (each glossy orb fully charged with briny potency) and simmered tomatoes.
$ FOOD: 6.5 AMBIANCE: 6.5 SERVICE: 6.3
6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881; www.presentcuisine.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
The crowds keep coming. And chef Luong Tran continues to oblige with traditional, yet innovative Vietnamese cuisine.
But a few false starts have left this critic wondering if perhaps all the positive press hasn’t started to go the Present wait staff’s head.
One server got downright snippy (“what else you want?” she demanded) toward the end of her shift. Another actively lobbied against my ordering the catfish. “It’s something Vietnamese people like. Very strong sauce,” he warned (if anything, the fish sauce was terribly tame).
Luckily, conscientious servers often still carry the day. As was the case when another server swooped in to provide tips on attacking a target-rich plate (cam on ban).
Steamed rice cakes topped with shredded shrimp, dried pork, scallions and fish sauce cover the flavor spectrum in a single bite. A pull-apart wonton bowl brimming with five-spice pork, fresh basil, onions, zesty sausage and fried rice is a fragrant masterpiece with an edible canvas. Ivory squid swims in an ocean of sweet-and-sour populated by pineapple, cucumbers and the most aggressive celery (inundated with fire) I’ve ever encountered.
A SECOND OPINION: PRESENT
Louise Glenn: Present certainly is a gift—Vietnamese food at [its] very best. And, as a bonus, one dish is more beautifully presented than the next. This was our second visit, and this time we brought along five friends. All agreed it was a perfectly delicious, perfectly wonderful dining experience.
The Wine Kitchen
$ FOOD: 8.3 AMBIANCE: 6.7 SERVICE: 7.2
7 S. King St., Leesburg; 703-777-9463; www.thewinekitchen.com
Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
Tracking down the ladies in Leesburg is quite simple. Just stick your head into the kitchen—The Wine Kitchen, that is.
The wildly successful wine bar is routinely packed with groups of bottle-draining women (colorful flights, fizzy flutes and tinkling glasses are their weapons of choice), along with multigenerational couples (well-to-do youths treating the ‘rents to show how grown up they are) and grape-savvy sippers galore.
Co-owner Mike Mercer dispenses introductory swallows of wine and oenological insight to first-timers and old friends alike. Meanwhile, the kitchen theme permeates every fiber of the restaurant’s being (from the dish towels as napkins to the reclaimed milk bottles from whence filtered water is poured).
Chef Chris Carey cooks down a pork shank, paints on barbecue sauce and wraps it all in Swiss chard for homemade roulade (honey-vinegar glaze takes care of business).
Tandoori escolar glides atop a lake of sweet-tart mango coulis and zesty chutney.
Fried quail (encased in a deep brown crust that smacks of sugar and lingering fire) and herb-laced waffles drizzled in bacon-caramel sauce (so sweet) make for can’t-miss breakfast fare.
A SECOND OPINION: WINE KITCHEN
Stacey Sheetz: It’s the Chicken & Waffles that I find myself craving most. The perfectly fried, succulent pieces of quail atop cornmeal herb waffles drizzled with bacon caramel syrup leave me sucking every little piece of meat from the bone and wishing I could lick my plate clean without shame!
$$$ FOOD: 8 AMBIANCE: 8.1 SERVICE: 7.2
4301 Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703-465-8800; www.willowva.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday.
Willow sways between dining showcase for visiting guests and neighborhood retreat where the barkeeps have a gin and tonic waiting for you before you slide onto your favorite stool.
Chef/owner Tracy O’Grady flirted with a craft brew and flatbread deal (sorry it’s gone), but opted to broaden her customer base instead with a slew of mouthwatering bar snacks (portabello “fries,” avocado- and bacon-topped salmon sliders).
Too bad her goodwill is so casually undermined by staff.
During one tragic turn we waited—and waited—for water refills (10 minutes), overdue entrees (over an hour) and even absentee checks. (The entire ugly episode capped by an exasperated neighbor rattling his ice-filled glass at no one in particular, ranting, “I’m thirsty. I NEED something to drink.”)
One summer refresher swirls cucumber and ripe avocado (brings luxurious heft to partnership) in a chilled brew.
Spinach tart, brimming with molten cheese and stout greens, overpowers filet medallions devoid of any real seasoning.
Calamari gets top billing on a signature flatbread. But the real stars are the wonderfully evocative savory, roasted tomatoes and lemon confit riding astride the bubbled-up dough.
$$ FOOD: 8.5 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 7.9
911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117; www.majesticcafe.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
Don’t be fooled by the folksy descriptions and commonplace ingredients sprinkled about the Majestic’s easily approachable menu.
This type of home cooking requires incredible skill.
Though she makes every meal seem effortless, Majestic toque Shannon Miller has carved out a niche for herself as one of my favorite maternal stand-ins. Staff play their part in every faux homecoming by keeping the dishes coming and fun-to-sip libations flowing (if only most family gatherings were this efficient and/or entertaining).
A seafood salad of shredded crab and plump shrimp poured into a meaty avocado and drizzled with champagne dressing was so tempting, it barely survived the trip around the table.
Heavenly chicken—brined so the meat spills forth juice and studded with salt crystals devilishly twinkling from within the folds of its deep-fried flesh—produced long periods of determined chewing (the crackling of the golden crust giving way to garbled sighs of satisfaction) followed by high praise for all things country picnic.
Mammoth slices of cobbler reveal big, syrupy-sweet peach quarters baked beneath a delightfully crumbly strudel soaked through in rich, bean-y vanilla ice cream.
$$$$ FOOD: 8.9 AMBIANCE: 8.6 SERVICE: 8.5
218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007; www.labergerie.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
Several guests joined in raising a glass to a joyful pair celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary during an evening at La Bergerie.
“That’s so rare,” exclaimed one well-wisher. “We know we’re dinosaurs,” shot back the marriage vet.
The exchange drew laughs from some of the more mature guests in the crowd, a group that seemed to revel in their own antiquity—particularly as it applies to the appreciation of classic French cooking.
Dishes fueled by butter, cream and fleur de sel remain standard (somewhere, Julia Child is likely beaming). And staff always keep brandy at the ready (nearly every course includes at least one flambé option) for a quick, tableside show.
Knobby bones housing wells of unctuous marrow (marvelous) are complemented by shredded oxtail lacquered in a tangy, tamarind glaze.
Poached lobster is flash seared till just crisp then quickly flambéed (big, beautiful claws grasp the cognac and lobster sauce well) before being deposited atop saffron-laced risotto.
Buttery cod is wrapped in dough and baked beneath a shell of tomato-fennel confit and Kalamata tapenade (pureed olives, rich confit work wonders together).
The Grille at Morrison House
$$$$ FOOD: 8.7 AMBIANCE: 8.1 SERVICE: 8.9
116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000; www.morriosnhouse.com
Open for breakfast and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
The growing roster of reoccurring faces recorded during recent visits to the Morrison House would seem to suggest that locals have finally warmed to the Grille’s unique charms.
Where once only conventioneers and travel-weary out-of-towners prowled, now roam chatty neighbors (goblet-toting ladies pored over bottles and exotic bites before skipping out for a brisk walk home) and armchair dining managers—“You tell [chef] Dennis [Marron] to call me,” a woman told a cook whose seasonal salad she hoped to make a permanent fixture—who feel just at home here as they do in their own domiciles.
Or maybe word has caught on about the food.
Snails baked in a mouthwatering basil-walnut pesto returned escargot to our culinary radar.
Heirloom tomatoes are tugged in multiple directions courtesy of sweet chili vinaigrette (draws out the sugars in the under-ripe fruits), Thai peppers (each bite ignites internal roasting), lemon verbena sorbet and fried mozzarella balls (add salty, stretchy input to the dining equation).
A mini cream pie conceived of coconut-covered custard, sugary graham cracker and liquid chocolate is a Willy Wonka-esque treat.
$$$ FOOD: 7.7 AMBIANCE: 8.2 SERVICE: 7.9
11960 Democracy Drive, Reston; 703-230-3474; www.passionfishreston.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Fresh seafood and unqualified fun appear to have found a welcome home at Reston’s PassionFish.
The striking, two-tiered dining room—awash in oceanic blues, gleaming metals and wall-to-wall glass—is a compelling lure for fine-dining aficionados. And the addition of rotating lunch specials and a bar happy hour has cleared the way for bargain hunters.
Now, I’d just like to see some consistency from chef Chris Clime’s kitchen.
“You can just close your eyes and point to one,” a barkeep said of sushi chef No Won Park’s handmade rolls. Then why was I scrambling for the soy sauce after biting into the dull emerald roll (shrimp/crab salad filling was OK, pickled cucumber fizzled)?
Chicken Paillard gets the farm-to-table treatment via a sunny side-up egg left to cook on an expertly grilled chicken breast (pepper, salt and sear marks all accounted for).
A shrimp-and-grits platter is superlative, revealing a zesty roux composed of the so-called Cajun trinity (diced bell pepper, celery and onion) plus matchsticks of Tasso ham and a generous dusting of freshly cracked black pepper (spice to spare).
A SECOND OPINION: PASSIONFISH
April Young: The best of the best paired perfectly! Imagine the transition of color in a rainbow, transposed in a salad with the transition of flavors between the sweet summer watermelon + peppery arugula + salty feta cheese + spiced pecans + honey lemon basil vinaigrette. AMAZING!
$ FOOD: 6.5 AMBIANCE: 6.7 SERVICE: 6.1
8190 Strawberry Lane, Suite 1; Falls Church; 703-539-8566; www.foursistersrestaurant.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Changing postal codes—not to mention the modern design scheme and reinvigorated cooking—has provided Four Sisters with a whole new latitude.
Having previously placed the Eden Center on any serious diner’s culinary map, the Lai family has now helped turn Merrifield into a dining Mecca frequented by their fellow Vietnamese, spellbound Westerners and a new breed of curious locals.
The Lais most recently trimmed around a dozen dishes (congee, random entrees) from the original 160-plus item menu. But even seasoned vets will still find plenty to love.
Sweet-and-sour soup almost sparks complete sensory overload thanks to pungent pineapple chunks, seed-packed okra clusters (stewed pods pop with each bite), sliced tomatoes, crisp bean sprouts and freshly torn basil (aromatic bouquet, forceful flavor).
Grilled pork marinated in garlic, soy and Sriracha (that workhorse of the Asian condiment set) begs to be plunged into scallion-topped rice noodles or enveloped in beds of lettuce, basil and pickled carrots.
Mushroom- and pork-stuffed crepes are bolstered by sizzling lemongrass beef, roasted garlic, pickled carrots, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts (glorious).
$$$ FOOD: 7.7 AMBIANCE: 7.7 SERVICE: 7.4
2300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-4440; www.me-jana.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
“Believe it or not, I have another meeting here,” a busy professional informed Me Jana staff as she settled in for what sounded like her second meal of the day at the mezze haven.
And who could blame her?
The patio provides ample afternoon distractions—attracting condo dwellers treating their well-behaved mutts to a chill evening out, as well as gangs of adventure diners seeking to broaden their culinary horizons via mix-and-match meals.
For even though the menu seems immutable, even familiar-sounding dishes seem to have a little more on them than you might find at copycat establishments.
Shiny anchovies and glistening peppers steeped in olive oil (the lemon-splashed fat going a long way toward bridging the gap between the potent fish and piquant vegetable) are most notably enhanced by a diced mint-pine nut medley (mellowing).
Grilled dates, their thick skin blistered while the interior weeps caramelized fruit, find solace in the embrace of flame-licked haloumi (grill mates extraordinaire).
Lamb and beef sausages are doused in spicy tomato sauce for an all-around heat cycle that sets the pulse racing and the taste buds aflame.
Iron Bridge Wine Company
$$ FOOD: 8.4 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 8
29 Main St., Warrenton; 540-349-9339; www.ironbridgewine.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
“We should have gotten a cheese plate or something,” a neighboring guest commented as rows of wine flights began crowding his party’s table at Iron Bridge.
The wine showcase-cum-gourmet kitchen excels at presenting the epicurious with ample targets (midweek prix fixe deals, two-course steak nights, weekend sangrias).
Then again, sometimes all that choice leaves even staff at a loss for words.
“It’s so different, I can’t even describe it to you,” one tongue-tied server quipped after delivering a biodynamic pinot noir for inspection.
The food is much more approachable.
A signature wiener shrouds a Kobe-style dog in spicy pineapple relish (sweet-hot medley made the meal).
A brawny rib eye bleeds flavor, whether it be from the font of au jus that spews forth from every incision or the trickle of liquid fire precipitated by its sauteed jalapeno garnish.
Staff say locals rallied to make the mac n’ cheese special a static offering (well done). The deep-fried chicken is crackling on top and moist throughout, while coiled noodles and nuggets of delectably tender lobster arrive mottled with bronzed Gruyere.
$$$ FOOD: 7.6 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 7.4
112 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-1124; www.danieloconnells.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
“Would you like a beer?”
“Yes, I would,” replied the just-arrived guest.
“Then you’re in the right place,” teased the silver-tongued barkeep at the devilishly fun Daniel O’Connell’s.
This place is first and foremost a pub.
Smokers continue to exercise their soon-to-evaporate right to cloud the air at the front bar, while rabid soccer devotees cheer/agonize/rage over global sports contests (TVs stay glued to Setanta sports) in back.
But seasonally-inspired chef Colin Abernethy has made it his mission to send out dishes that would be right at home in any of the white tablecloth establishments that share the same postal code.
An open-faced arrangement of toasted honey-oat bread, salt-packed rashers, extra sharp cheddar and whiskey-tinged whole grain mustard provides a tour of the old country in every bite.
Savory lamb, hearty potatoes and an army of resplendent peas bob in a wholesome stew that girds the loins no matter what the weather.
A marriage of roasted-till-unbelievably-tender carrots and parsnips (root vegetables at their finest) escorts lemon-stuffed chicken, the handsomely trussed game hen sporting golden skin and boasts citrus-spiked meat, for a harvest feast.
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.5 SERVICE: 7.7
24995 Riding Plaza, #120, South Riding; 703-957-4900; www.rangolirestaurant.us
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Rangoli appears to have slipped quite comfortably into the “whatever-you-need-us-to-be” roll of the South Riding dining scene.
South Asians crowd into the colorful booths most nights, thankful for a break from their own kitchens. Meanwhile, curry-loving Westerners march in at a regular clip to haul steaming carryout containers back to theirs.
Mindful servers make excellent ambassadors, whether they’re tossing up warning flags about lackluster new dishes (“That’s not a good one,” one straight shooter counseled when I inquired about a curiosity piquing Sino-Indian creation) or brokering special orders for youthful charges (“The chef has what he needs to make that for you,” another server informed the parents of a child dead-set on an off-season request).
Acid-spiked cubes of homemade cow’s milk cheese stand out amid a sea of sweet tomato sauce (flush with red pepper and sugar).
Garam masala-caked lamb (lean chops, enormous spice) finds a welcome ally in a multilayered brew of tomatoes, peppers and coconut milk.
Juicy bird steeped in garlic and whole peppers (peek-a-boo pods beg caution but invite tremendous flavor) makes for fierce eating.
A SECOND OPINION: RANGOLI
Martin Ohanrahan: Rangoli is easily the best Indian restaurant I’ve come across in the U.S. in the 10 years I’ve lived here. Owner/manager Kumar Iyer has done a superb job of creating a comfortable, warm and welcoming atmosphere. Kumar’s staff also deserves great credit for their attentive and friendly service. I go back again and again.
$$ Food: 7.5 Ambiance: 7.8 Service: 7.9
4000 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-931-0777; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
No matter the hour, the crowds are there at Carlyle.
Weekend mornings remain the purview of sweets-seeking grown-ups (brunch is effectively handed over to the Best Buns Bakery crew, resulting in stacks of homemade sticky buns and three fingers-thick slices of French toast being paraded in front of your nose at every turn) and precocious youngsters angling for bites off everyone else’s plates.
Evenings give way to a clientele that caroms from the flip-flop-clad to the nattily pinstriped.
Teamwork keeps this hospitality giant’s engine purring like a lap cat. Servers fetch drinks, deliver plates and run checks in concert—but never before getting the high sign from guests (much appreciated).
Pepper-flecked soup is substantial (not quite gritty, but noticeably thick), sporting pleasing bits of white meat chicken and crunchy tortilla twists.
Medallions of cooked-to-order filet mignon, eggs (poached or scrambled) and hollandaise-drenched asparagus make themselves right at home atop buttery slices of sauce-slurping brioche.
Grilled pork powers through throwaway relish (weak corn) with the aid of a terrific brown butter sauce (toasty reduction clings like gravy, but tastes much lighter).
$$$ FOOD: 8 AMBIANCE: 8.4 SERVICE: 7.7
11 N. King St., Leesburg; 703-771-2233; www.lightfootrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, late-night dining, Monday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Locals continue to traipse into Lightfoot for on-the-money meals—a culinary gambit that typically pays delicious dividends thanks to chef/owner Ingrid Gustavson’s go-for-broke creations.
Though she doesn’t appear to suffer fools lightly—a server’s cheat sheet revealed an all-caps reminder from the kitchen that a Korobuta pork chop special “is a well-marbleized piece of pork—I will not take it back because someone thinks it’s fatty!!!”—Gustavson does her best to give the customer as much free reign (via evergreen cafe menu, rotating lunch/dinner fare and daily specials) as possible.
Choosing wisely requires minimal effort.
Mushroom-marsala bisque is frothy, luxuriant and altogether wonderful (displays its wine background well while hearty croutons imparted a playful crunch).
Fried oysters drenched in jalapeno-caper dressing (creamier than expected and captivating enough to get the nod from my spice-averse better half) bring the bayou to salad country. (Much like a real po’boy, this dish left me completely satisfied, pleasantly spiced and anxious for a return visit.)
Homemade bread pudding bathes the taste buds in alternating flashes of chocolaty donut, chewy coconut and fast-melting vanilla.
$$ FOOD: 7.3 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 7
Mulitple NoVA locations; www.lebanesetaverna.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
It’s been 30 years since the Abi-Najm clan carved out their piece of the local hospitality pie with the original Lebanese Taverna. And the first family of falafel slinging shows no signs of letting up.
The Tysons locale, in particular, has evolved into the latest battleground in the battle of the sexes.
Gleeful baby showerers laid siege to the dining room (the gift table bedecked with shiny presents and bulging bags from Georgetown Cupcake) one afternoon. On another, the bar area was beset by jersey-wearing fans satiating their love of soccer and mezze. (“We SHOULD bring some home to Mom,” a bear of a man sheepishly informed his son after surveying the mound of picked-clean dishes before them.)
Chicken smacks of garlic, cinnamon and lemon—a welcome change from hot sauce-soaked preparations.
Grilled swordfish swims in a sea of yogurt-feta sauce, while seared tomatoes, mushrooms, squash and zucchini bring the best of the land.
Herb-infused lamb (gloriously damp meat) is deposited into a pine nut-laden nest of basmati rice, with cucumber-spiked tzatziki waiting in the wings.
$$$ FOOD: 8.2 AMBIANCE: 8.3 SERVICE: 7.9
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper; 540-829-8400; www.fotisrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Thursday through Sunday and Tuesday.
Foti’s continues to walk a fine line between quaint exurban gem and commuter-luring dining haunt.
And methinks loyal patrons are just fine with that.
The scene can be as serene as a night in your own study, as evidenced by the solo diner who peacefully devoured her meal, a book and a bottle of wine over the course of a couple of hours. Or as lively as the evening one family coaxed owner Frank Maragos out of the kitchen to regale them with stories of Greece and his barrel-chested, meat-carving pater familias (a man Maragos fondly describes as “a humble butcher”).
The kitchen follows suit, balancing subtle flavors and flamboyant techniques with ease.
Cornmeal-crusted okra and grilled shrimp are buoyed by a seductive sweet corn-tomato-cream medley.
Sweet crab and savory shiitakes huddle under the covers of ornate ravioli, but the flavors fizzle out much too quickly (no staying power).
A veal duo of braised cheeks (juice-laden lobe) and grilled loin (pure, steak-y bliss) marries the majesty of beef to the spoils of the garden (broccoli rabe, roasted tomatoes are superb).
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.3 SERVICE: 7
2250-A Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-413-8181; www.jaleo.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, late-night dining, Friday and Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Innovative Spanish remains Jaleo’s lingua franca. And it’s a culinary conversation worth carrying on.
José Andrés’ tapas stronghold continues to turn out tempting small plates that effectively communicate big ideas.
And while the mediums (seafood, meat, fowl) may be familiar, chef Ramon Martinez’s creations often relay novel epicurean messages sparked by sheer audacity.
Flash-seared tuna crowned with bacon and sunken into pureed apples cut with aged balsamic are astounding (give of the near-raw fish, crackle of the bacon are the alpha and omega of carefully calculated deliciousness).
Spicy red oil cascades down the chin upon incising a zesty chorizo enrobed in a still-hot-from-the-fryer potato sheath (a gourmet pig-in-a-blanket par excellence).
Slow-cooked swine (the fibrous medallions part easily with a flick of the tine) encircled by fresh oranges in a citrus reduction floods the senses with its sweet-savory song.
So far, every attempt at sampling Iberico de Bellota—Spain’s preeminent ham, imported exclusively by Andrés—has been met with apologies (“We’re awaiting a shipment,” one server explained) or vacant stares. Management contends that the high-profile ham remains in regular rotation.