Northern Virginia Magazine’s first cover story featured the best in romantic dining and of the 36 restaurants featured, more than half no longer exist. Of the still standing, the magazine’s original critic, Warren Rojas, revisits a few of the restaurants he reviewed 10 years ago.
Owner Alice Pires has streamlined things at her family-owned establishment, sticking with the singly named Carmello’s (ciao, Little Portugal). Way back when, patrons were obliged to pledge allegiance to one style of cooking (Italian cuisine) or another (Portuguese dishes). Today gourmet offerings—a universe of options ranging from oysters Rockefeller to saltimbocca bathed in Madeira cream sauce—live side-by-side sans obstruction. Craft brew-lovers and brick-oven pizza hounds tend to make themselves at home in the sibling lounge, Monza, whereas seasoned sybarites tend to gravitate toward the leather-wrapped booths and glass-enclosed cellar housed within the restaurant’s tony showplace. Homey pastas (think ricotta-stuffed agnolotti and ragu-drenched gnocchi) draw smiles. But the paelha Valenciana—featuring tender mussels, meaty scallops and zesty chorizo all swimming in an intoxicating seafood broth—absolutely blows people away.
Notes on Carmello’s
Scoop: Mini beef Wellingtons are a throwback treat worth getting reacquainted with.
Dishes: Appetizers: $10-$18; Entrees: $20-$35
Open: Dinner daily
Contact: 9108 Center St., Manassas
Shisha sessions are what it’s all about at Guarapo. The throwback lounge caters to connoisseurs of club music (it thumps throughout the dimly lit space on most nights) and communal water pipes, boasting nearly 20 fruit-flavored tobaccos with which to fill the hazy, sweetly tinged air. Adult beverages run the gamut from time-honored tipples (smoky Old Fashioneds, refreshing Moscow Mules) to frou-frou creations (strawberry-basil martini, anyone?). Bargain hunters are rewarded with the likes of $1 tacos (Mondays) and $1 wings (Thursdays). The menu embraces dishes native to Central and South America. A portion of stir-fried chicken and wontons is bogged down by cloying sweet-and-sour sauce. Marinated steak and cheese-sauced potatoes work like a charm. Savory ropa vieja and steamy corn cakes are excellent starting points for DIY sandwich artists.
Notes on Guarapo
Scoop: Half-price bottles of wine make karaoke night (Tuesdays) a little easier to take.
Dishes: Appetizers: $6-$17; Entrees: $12-$18
Open: Dinner and late-night dining daily
Contact: 2039 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; guarapolounge.com
This neighborhood trattoria remains wedded to the build-your-own pasta conceit that first got me in the door. The premise is simple enough: Guests choose a favored noodle (gluten-free spaghetti and artichoke-filled ravioli are single-serving only; everything else is all-you-can-eat), then customize each order with sumptuous sauces (gorgonzola cream is a personal favorite) and specialty proteins (meatballs, roasted salmon). Or one can have the kitchen sweat the details by taking advantage of signature dishes such as extra cheesy lasagna or lobster ravioli lavished in sherry cream sauce. Skip the bread basket and dive instead into mouthwatering bruschettas: Chilled mozzarella and raw tomato drizzled with tangy balsamic were good; their garlic-studded, truffled mushroom-topped counterparts are better. Juicy chicken and crinkly kale can’t save a bowl of tortellini drowning in distressingly salty broth.
Notes on Il Radicchio
Scoop : Gorgonzola polenta is your friend.
Dishes: Appetizers: $5-$11; Entrees: $15-$26
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Contact: 1801 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington
It looks like there’s some interesting choices here. Local, comfy foods,” comments a woman at a neighboring table upon perusing The Majestic’s Southern-style offerings. Founding Farmers vet Lisa Marie Frantz fields a menu that takes locally sourced ingredients—featured producers include Fields of Athenry Farm in Purcellville and Papa Weaver’s Pork in Orange—for trips down memory lane. Cold-smoked pork chops and braised beef short ribs smack of Coca-Cola and Cheerwine, respectively. Succulent shrimp join coarsely ground grits in a flavorful salute to low country cooking. Buttery pork belly drizzled with Carolina Reaper-fueled “hot honey” (a fiery delight) and sprinkled with peanuts is meat candy of the highest order. The same honey is woven into herb-flecked pieces of fried chicken. Sadly, the underlying meat is sabotaged by an overly aggressive brine.
Notes on The Majestic Cafe
Scoop: Pate slathered in boozy cherries and escorted by Devils Backbone-spiked ground mustard is mixology that eats like a meal.
Dishes: Appetizers: $5-$11; Entrees: $16-$28
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday
Contact: 911 King St., Alexandria
The restaurant may not be in the spot it was a decade ago, but Neisha Thai founder Rick Kitchrayotin continues making the rounds as if nothing changed. He circulates amongst visiting guests nightly, checking on regulars and newcomers alike in the hopes that everyone will come back to see him time and time again. Having an elegantly appointed dining room—the floor-to-ceiling fountain is a thing of beauty—certainly works in his favor, as does an array of dishes featuring something for everyone. Tempura duck swabbed with plucky hoisin sauce proves pedestrian. Plunging grilled steak into a corresponding medley of raw red onion, fresh lime juice and crushed black pepper bolsters each gloriously beefy bite. Luscious pineapple, crunchy cashews and zesty scallions transform fried rice into something ethereal.
Notes on Neisha Thai
Scoop: Traditional hot sauce tilts toward the garlicky, while marinated chilies are maddeningly delicious.
Dishes: Appetizers: $5.75-$8.95 Entrees: $9.95-$17.95
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Contact: 8027 Leesburg Pike, Suite 110, Vienna
On a shelf high above this modest eatery hidden in a McLean office park sits a football autographed by some Redskins player. Right beside it is an ornately decorated replica sword. Such are the two worlds straddled by Shamshiry, a gathering place for both homesick Persians and kebab enthusiasts of varying nationalities. Very little has changed within the oddly shaped dining hall; silverware is available but purely optional, hot teas and yogurt drinks flow like water year-round, and guests can watch assorted meats dangle just inches from encroaching flames through the picture window that peers into the kitchen. Grilled lamb is delectable. Tandoori chicken melts in the mouth. Many doctor the fragrant jasmine rice with butter and ground sumac; try mixing in the blistered tomato (you won’t regret it).
Notes on Shamshiry
Scoop: Rice enthusiasts can feast on sour cherry-topped or candied orange-spiked productions.
Dishes: Appetizers: $3.95-$4.99 Entrees: $10.37-$17.99
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Contact: 8607 Westwood Center Drive, Vienna
( January 2016 )