TRIO Grill takes the path most traveled.
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Jonathan Timmes
The impressions start with the valet stand. Even though you’re in a strip mall off Lee Highway, with a free lot feet away, TRIO wants you to feel like you’re being taken care of. Inside the doorway, “Mr. Perspective” greets diners. The 6-and-half-foot bronze sculpture is lifelike, with a large, aristocratic nose like Mr. Carson from “Downton Abbey.” And like Carson, he is intimidating but ultimately welcoming. TRIO is similarly formal, but good-natured. Waitstaff and bartenders are buttoned-up, dressed mostly in black, with stripped ties showing the only pop of color. Tables are clothed in white. On weekends, there’s a piano player, sometimes a saxophonist. It’s part fancy steakhouse, part hotel lobby.
For $43, the 14-ounce boneless ribeye comes with a roasted shallot and one side dish (the wilted spinach is lively with lemon, Brussels sprouts were undercooked one night). A few ounces of bernaise sauce is an extra $4. It’s a gorgeous steak, seasoned only to bring out the meat, not to distract. There’s not a strong crust or char either, again: it’s about the meat. The cow is from Middle America, corn-fed stock and it tastes the way we’ve always eaten steak. Nothing dried and funky, nothing mineral or grassy. It’s a nice piece of steak, straightforward and priced to match.
In contrast, the butter is a more complex, whipped concoction, spun with grainy mustard, honey and Fat Tire beer. It’s another step above, and might remind you of Great American Restaurants’ honey and poppy seed butter. Vincent Spinoso, the director of kitchen operations and senior vice president, worked for seven years at four spots within GAR. But for this butter, he was inspired from the TRIO team’s research trip to Charleston and a stop at the Gin Joint.
Metropolitan Hospitality Group, the company behind Arlington’s Circa, staggered the debuts for TRIO Grill (October), Open Road and Italian Market & Deli (September), though the deli ceased pizza- and sandwich-making and turned into Merrifield Wine & Beer, a strictly retail space, in March. (“We were probably a little over eager,” says President Matthew Carlin about three spots competing for the same guests, at the same times of day, for the same parking spots.) The new development, one 20,000 square-foot strip unto itself, is minutes from the emerging Mosaic District. Open Road is casual-dining, cold-beer, live-music and gives off a suburban Florida feel with food that is slightly better than it has to be in a wooden space decorated unseasonably with twinkle lights. Opened for six months, Carlin is already shopping for space to duplicate Open Road and TRIO.
Spinoso often refers to TRIO, the upscale restaurant, as a project. And it’s that same corporate language—that need to appeal to the masses—that reins TRIO into merely filling a gap, but not elevating the Northern Virginia dining scene as a whole. “We offer something you can’t get outside of D.C.,” says Aaron Rentfrew, the general manager. And that is true for Merrifield, which is slowly attracting more upscale, on-trend restaurants. TRIO, though, doesn’t offer anything new. A friend looked at the menu and said: “It serves fried calamari, that’s all I need to know.” It’s a ubiquitous dish for a restaurant geared toward the upscale, safe middle.
Carlin says he will “broaden our menu and make it more dynamic as we go forward. You don’t want to scare people away with super trendy stuff.” As a business, that makes sense. He says, “you start small, you start conservative.” But in today’s climate of outrageous food (taco shells made from bacon strips), hyper-sourcing (foraged plants) and eclectic combinations (basil ice cream with scallops and coconut risotto), can a restaurant survive on steak and salmon?
Entrees hover between mid-$20s and mid-$30s and read like many menus today: Norwegian salmon (pleasantly smoky, bringing credibility back to a fish over-served at luncheons); short ribs atop polenta (an overwhelming portion, but fork-tender); and diver scallops (cooked well, but the porcini crust tricks the mouth into thinking it’s grit, something to avoid with a creviced sea creature known to be difficult to clean).
The risks in this menu are so few that ravioli paired with an egg yolk and carrot sounds edgy (and it’s actually quite good). It’s what is expected, trends that have plateaued into mainstream, but with twists, like beef carpaccio sprinkled with dried horseradish, as if it’s cracked pepper. The kitchen lets shaved horseradish (from the root, not the jarred stuff) bake in a 100-degree oven for two hours and then pulses it to dust. (I wish they’d bottle and sell it so I could keep it in my spice drawer.) A housemade burrata, a mozzarella cheese that oozes ricotta and marcapone from within, has in recent years transitioned from Italian menus to all menus. TRIO’s version is creamy, a large white ball in the center of the plate artfully decorated with arugula, red peppers, olive tapenade and basil pesto. It is decadent, a step beyond, but relatable.
Chocolate cake, with chocolate ganache topped with crunchy chocolate pearls, plays off a scoop of coconut ice cream from Arlington’s Nicecream. There’s raspberry sauce, too, but instead of feeling obligatory—why do most kitchens insist on the mandatory pairing of chocolate and berry?—the sauce balances the sweet summery coconut and the rich chocolate. It’s just a little something more, but not too much. Or as Spinoso says, “People think it’s store bought and I take that as a compliment.”
Before it’s too hot, take advantage of the elegant patio or the cigar room.
Appetizers: $9 – 16; Entrees: $22–$48
Dinner daily; brunch on Sunday.
8100 Lee Highway, Falls Church; triomerrifield.com