By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Falls Church | $$$$
Pro tip for dining at this colorful dining room with soaring ceilings and larger-than-life artwork: When in season, order the Maryland soft-shell crab tempura. It might be served with tomato aioli and scallion salad one week and accented with ramp aioli and pickled pearl onions the next, but no matter. It’s a must-order because the main ingredient is so perfectly golden and delicious. Starting with a fish tartare is equally safe, whether it’s an unctuous dice of salmon with chunks of truffled fried potatoes cleverly dotting the bearnaise sauce, all garnished with pea shoots, or the tuna with Grand Marnier aioli, avocado mousse and fried shallots. These are the odds one must play with a highly seasonal, ever-changing menu—can the kitchen pull off tweaks and changes every week of the year, perhaps even changing day to day? In the case of longtime chef Bertrand Chemel, the answer is yes. // 2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church
Paris | $$$$
If sitting outside on the enchanting patio is an option, don’t even think about stepping inside for any reason other than the bathroom. Not that the dining room is lacking in any way—in fact, the modern and funky equestrian art gracing the walls manages to update the normally stuffy genre. And the coziness of the space is probably perfect on a bleak winter’s day. The garden, however, just happens to be a magical, peaceful space full of butterflies, flowers and rolling hills. It’s just the kind of place where fairies were dreamed up—or live.
Wherever you sit, a meal will likely start with an amuse-bouche, such as a chilled asparagus soup shooter accented with creme fraiche, fennel and smoked olive oil. Late-summer starters included a lovely panzanella salad, given a caprese-like treatment with basil, burrata and balsamic, and a comforting pea and ham soup made richer with an egg yolk. A medium-rare filet mignon is made more decadent with its demi-glace sauce and buttery mashed potatoes, while the crab cakes with mustard sauce benefit from lighter accompaniments like chow-chow and a fennel salad.
Servers have just the right touch for making even no-occasion dining feel special, and the sommelier knows his stuff—although, it wouldn’t hurt to add more Virginia wines by the glass to the list. And despite being served in the rural hills of Virginia, the whimsical and delicate blood orange panna cotta with granola and beet candy would not have been out of place in any trendy downtown spot. // 692 Federal St., Paris
Vienna | $$$$
It couldn’t be more clear. It was at the top of the menu with a box around it. Of course, it’s what the restaurant wants guests to order. Is touting “first of the season Alba white truffles” a gimmick? Sure, truffles and its oil passed through the trend machine (on pizza, popcorn, mac and cheese) but the real imports from Italy are a special occasion. Clarity employed the fungi over a plate of radiatore pasta, little nubs resembling radiators, and it delivers on paying $27 for an appetizer portion as soon as that pungent, intoxicating scent floats through the air.
A last-of-the-summer soup is thick with peppers, corn and okra, and a little spice cuts through the creamy texture. Softened beef cheeks sink into a soupy polenta that is all the better for the beef’s drippings. Dessert feeds the chocolate monster in us all with a luxe, elegant and large-portioned plate filled with chocolate in various forms, most importantly as a huge disk of pot de creme. // 442 Maple Ave. E., Vienna
Middleburg | $$$$*
The magic starts here as soon as diners exit their cars and do a quick 180 to take in the lovely forest and the precious inn painted sage green with the front dominated by three large, glowing Palladian windows. A little fountain surrounded by yellow and pink flowers is another attention-grabber—yet these details are merely setting the stage for the main event, a stunning dinner at the newly renovated (and newly dubbed) Conservatory.
The dining room now resembles a sturdy greenhouse, with windows above and around bringing the outside in. A menu sealed with red wax is presented; open to reveal the vegetarian tasting, the chef’s tasting and the prix fixe, the latter of which gives three to four options for each course. The dish of the night was a stunningly pretty baton of king crab wrapped in paper-thin cucumber ribbons topped with uni and caviar all brightened by a citrus sorbet. Buttery pan-seared scallops with caramelized sweet corn and a bowl of Icelandic cod bathing in beurre blanc with creamy mashed potatoes and mushrooms were decadent. A coconut-pineapple pavlova featured a pouf of meringue, plenty of fruit and a colorful garnish of burnt-red chile threads. // 36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg
Alexandria | $$$$
Though it’s been a neighborhood staple for more than two decades, Evening Star Cafe shapeshifts according to who’s in the kitchen. The Del Ray restaurant always attracts interesting talent, letting personalities sway the menu, most recently from Southern to modern American with a Hawaiian touch. This is thanks to Jonathan Till, a Hawaiian-born chef who weaves together a menu of mainland staples, like burrata with peas and carrots and housemade gnocchi with mushrooms foraged by the chef himself, and Asian-leaning dishes, like Korean barbecue fried cauliflower with miso mayo and a clever play on poke, using hot pink doppelganger watermelon instead of tuna, tossed with peanuts, shaved cucumber and watermelon rind.
Many of Till’s dishes (plus a roster of casual plates) are also offered next door at Front Porch, an outdoor-only, seasonally open spot that is probably the hardest restaurant to get into on Mount Vernon Avenue: Order the mushroom bruschetta, some funky sour beer and understand the enduring appeal of Evening Star. // 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Marshall | $$$
The best part and the worst part about Field & Main is there’s only one.
The problem is Marshall and Paris and The Plains, towns ripe for welcoming diners after a day of tasting and touring Fauquier’s wine country, should have more options that match the good work coming from the land of vines. So it’s Field & Main’s win that it has a captive audience, and it’s just such a lovely time there. Neal and Star Wavra, cheerleaders for the local food and drink scene, built a restaurant that is both neighborly and friendly, but also knows how to work a live fire and throw down an eight-course, family-style feast complete with whole fish roasted over the embers, beef tenderloin, pork belly, corn on the cob, tomato-and-peach salad and crispy potatoes—and do get a side order of bread and housemade lardo.
And, wow, the real marshmallow with a chocolate chip cookie is insane. Ask good questions about beer and maybe someone will bring up a large-format bottle of Pen Druid (an avant garde brewery in Sperryville) from the cellar that’s not even on the beer list. Because here, you’re family. // Field & Main: 8369 W. Main St., Marshall
Alexandria | $$$
Okra at a French wine bar? Yes, if it’s served from the kitchen at La Fromagerie, a genre-bending alcove in Old Town Alexandria where modern American seasonality influences the Lyonnaise chef and owner, Sebastien Tavel. Okra is served almost whole, save for the tips sliced off at an angle, where it mingles with spiced pecans and corn kernels in a buttery sheen. It’s a primer on how to love this oft maligned vegetable: It’s not oozy or slimy, it’s sleek and fresh. A bowl of chanterelle mushrooms transcends expectations, thanks to a heavy hand of Madeira; roast duck cuts like a steak, with a serious crust to boot; and housemade nettle pappardelle conveys lightness, even with fennel sausage and egg yolk. The restaurant doubles as a wine shop with a wall lined with worldly bottles, and ones out of this world, like a rosé from Charlotteville’s cutting-edge Lightwell Survey. But before ducking out with a bottle for another night, don’t leave without ordering the signature dark chocolate pot de creme, a rich, life-affirming ending. // 1222 King St., Alexandria
Lovettsville | $$$
The menu is a little all over the place at Market Table Bistro. There are Southern influences and Asian influences and farm-to-table influences and, where to start? Does everything look good?
The bistro board is a way to dive into the many veins pulsing through this charming restaurant in still-sleepy downtown Lovettsville. The board is crowded with options like gazpacho shooters and a pile of mussels and deviled eggs and housemade charcuterie. There’s bread service, too.
The starter is a generous display, but keep going. A duo of pork belly steamed buns in a Thai chili glaze can complete the meal, but better yet, just go for it. A full entree of delicately cooked scallops, partnered with crispy kale, is an elegant ending in a post-pastoral setting. // 13 E. Broad Way, Lovettsville
Lovettsville | $$$$
Dinner at this local favorite with national recognition starts with a healthy dose of excitement blended with an immediate sense of relaxation, thanks to the tranquil gardens and mountain views. But in the case of our last meal at this literal farm-to-table spot, dinner ended with a philosophical discussion of what’s more important in a fine-dining space: risk-taking or deliciousness?
Outstanding service sets the tone for the $110 multi-course dinner, where a gorgeous (and damn tasty!) parade of tiny bites comes to the table, including a wooden box featuring Today’s Harvest, releasing smoke when opened, a perfect raw oyster dressed with housemade hot sauce aged in a whiskey barrel, and some of the best zucchini bread ever made, served with cultured butter and salt. But, the main course, titled Beef BBQ and Beer, featured dry brisket. Soon though, came round one of dessert (a palate cleanser flavored with the Peruvian herb, huacatay) and then another (an elaborate peach melba) and, finally, take-home confections presented at the end of the meal, dubbed Candy Shoppe (macaron, truffle, marshmallow) were pure joy.
It’s hard to get everything right when menus change as often as they do here in Lovettsville, but we’re still looking forward to continuing the discussion at the next visit to Tarver King’s laboratory in the woods. // 42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville
Clifton | $$$
This longtime favorite in the heart of quaint downtown Clifton recently closed for about a month, reopening in early autumn sporting a redesigned dining room, a new bistro-style menu and even a new name, since it dropped “on Main” from its moniker. But instead of a complete overhaul, owners Victoria and Stefan Trummer managed to keep everything that worked while revamping just enough to make it feel updated and fresh.
The tropics-inspired ceiling fans still command the eye, but modern artwork, a new light fixture made with what looks like driftwood, a fun and funky mural on the stairwell wall and pops of pink and teal velvet bring the three-level restaurant into a new era. The menu, too, deftly blends old and new, thanks to chef John Cropf, who thankfully stuck around to play with the new rotisserie in his kitchen. Selections from the spit include prime rib and a whole (or half) roasted chicken, the latter served with ultra-sweet corn, smoked mushrooms and a rich black truffle sauce. Gnocchi also leans heavily on fall with the addition of local squash, sage, pears and parmesan.
Thoughtful salads can still be relied upon, such as a bowl of creamy, stringy stracciatella cheese receiving bitter from chicory, fresh crunch from apples and tartness from a balanced vinaigrette. The dark horse was a dish of spit-roasted carrots scented with vadouvan (the French version of masala spice) over a puddle of herbed yogurt and a vibrant kale sauce. Who knew a carrot could steal the show?
Desserts from the talented Meagan Tighe are still playful yet elevated, with new sweets looking awfully similar to those she’s served in the past (think crumbles, pretty blobs, gels and flower petals), but with updated flavor profiles. Her nod to owner Stefan’s Austrian heritage, the layers of chocolate cake and apricot jam known as sachertorte, is a revelation to those who have only sampled versions sold to tourists.
So, is Trummer’s new? Yes and no. But it’s still just right. // 7134 Main St., Clifton
Alexandria | $$$
There was nothing sexy or sophisticated about carrot falafel. But it was good. It was a rare meatless entree as a composed plate—with strips of roasted turnips and a citrus yogurt sauce—and not a trio of sides dumped haphazardly. In the age of fake-bleeding burgers, it’s still a shock to see a thoughtful, vegetable-forward dish. Venerable Vermilion plays the meat card too, starting with duck hearts on toast and packing on the proteins with a scallop dish given heft with braised veal cheeks. The produce was not forgotten here either, with barely wilted, bright green whole pea leaves covering much of the plate, with big, fat plumb peas scattered underneath. Cooler weather brings bitter radicchio to accompany the shellfish. As Old Town loses one of its patron saints, Cathal Armstrong, to the city, and developer Teddy Kim ushers in a new era of cool, casual dining, Vermilion remains a night out best saved for grown-ups. // 1120 King St., Alexandria
Leesburg | $$$
Walk into the restaurant affectionately known as Tuskie’s, and the first thing you’ll notice is a convivial bar scene. Move past the hubbub toward the back, and find a bustling white-tablecloth crowd pleaser that’s just the ticket for multigenerational groups. (Ask for table 20 if you prefer privacy.)
Crab cakes are a perennial favorite—and for good reason since they burst with luscious crabmeat. Corn soup puts the sweetest of the season to work in a buttery broth loaded with veggies and bacon, while a flank steak’s bourbon glaze lends flavor without overpowering the tender meat. Ending with the Key lime tart cupped by a graham-cracker crust or the butterscotch bread pudding is the pro move. Is Tuskie’s in any way boundary-pushing, avant garde or pioneering? No. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. // 203 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg
Leesburg | $$$
Leesburg is where downtown and farmland touch. It’s where farm-to-table dining is not just a cliche, but where guests can catch people donned in farm name-emblazoned shirts dropping off actual, local produce. And it’s not just for show, it’s displayed throughout a menu changing with the micro-seasons: an artful splash of springy English pea ravioli with magenta-hued beet sauce; summery tomato salad stacked with marinated red peppers and torn burrata; and a good-any-time gnocchi flush with scrubbed carrots (only fresh carrots are good enough to keep the peels on) mingling with a savory bites of slow-cooked lamb infused with harissa. As it says in the name, wine is a specialty, with loads of options by the glass, plus a handful of Virginia producers. Selling local grapes, of course, is just another extension of showing off Leesburg’s link to the land. // 7 S. King St., Leesburg