Find neighborly charm on the Avenue.
The chef, while bussing a table nearby, looked up and asked if everything was OK. Her hair was pulled back, and she smiled wide. I nodded, smiled back. She grabbed plates and ran upstairs to the tiny kitchen where, even as executive chef, she works the line.
At night, it’s only her, Nicole Jones, and two other cooks in a 10-by-30-foot space surrounded by a 16-inch grill, six burners, a fryer and a convection oven. With a tattooed, heavy-on-pork, light-on-greens bro culture subsuming kitchens today, the lack of machismo feels fantastically fresh at Stomping Ground.
Opened originally as a coffee and biscuit shop, “we did things backwards,” says Jones. More than half a year after opening, the space is now a full-fledged restaurant from Wednesday through Sunday nights. Most places start with dinner and add the crazy brunch crowd later, but from the beginning Stomping Ground drew daytime crowds along Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. (The kitchen staff more than doubles on Saturday mornings.)
From Georgia, Jones takes pride in her biscuits and cranked out about 15 versions in the kitchens at L’Academie de Cuisine, of which she is an alum, before settling on one, splitting the difference between fats (Crisco and butter) and distinguishing on flour (White Lily). The signature dish, crispy fried chicken with pimento cheese and housemade pickles on a biscuit, is more of a meal than its listing as a sandwich. Inviting a knife and fork to the party defeats some of the joy of a sandwich, but it’s delicious nonetheless. Jones acknowledges this. “It’s a mess,” she says of trying to eat it, but “I’m always gonna go with delicious over structure.” And that biscuit is just right: light and airy in the middle with a crisp exterior.
The nighttime menu mostly diverges from the South, finding freedom in combining flavors and continents. Usually when a restaurant serves globally diverse cuisines, it’s a sign of trouble: scattered thinking with little depth behind each dish. At Stomping Ground, the fact that there is no through line is its gift, like ditching the guidebooks and discovering a tiny beer bar in the middle of Fernet- and wine-clogged Buenos Aires. It’s surprising and rewarding. True story, but anyway.
Jones’ nod to the South at dinner appears with pimento cheese-stuffed fritters and a comforting, savory grits bowl with Brussels sprouts, pickled chilies and a poached egg that feels like a hug. The rest of the menu reads like an eclectic consideration of whims. At the moment Jones finds inspiration from Mexico and Lebanon, plus American flavors grounded in sustainable and mostly local ingredients.
The Middle East plays out in a za’atar-spiced flatbread with grated carrots and radish slices. Though the presentation is beautiful, the stingy slashing of yogurt, honey and tahini left it dry.
Served with crispy and airy house-fried chips, the nachos reveal ample amounts of pork belly (so big are the pork pieces it’s almost hard to scoop) with pickled red onions and queso fresco adding pop.
Six ounces of rosy slices of hanger steak sit atop a butternut squash mole. Though not a traditional sauce of Mexico, this version still uses chilies and tomatillos, with plenty of spices (cardamom, cinnamon, star anise) but employs a vegetable to coax it into the consistency of hummus. It’s a bit spicy, but not as awakening as a sinful coin of harissa butter. You wouldn’t think you’d need both a mole and butter for swiping into, but this works. Once (and the night I was there), a farmer Jones works with brought in peewee potatoes (ping pong ball-sized) with the rest of her order. She cooked them whole and paired it as a classic steak accompaniment. Most nights, it’s served sans side. The dish is quaint, in its most pleasing connotation. The portion is something rarely seen anymore—it’s an appropriate amount for one sitting. It makes this restaurant all the more neighborly, which is the point. Jones envisions Stomping Ground as a restaurant fit for a casual weeknight drop-in.
Pickled mustard seeds explode over pork tenderloin in a bourbon sauce with an array of dried fruits that is another example of intricately, but simply, paired compositions. Skin wasn’t crisp enough on an otherwise-juicy pan-fried haddock, but the mix of root vegetables with both romesco sauce and olive relish compensated.
Meals arrive on mismatched plates, some even chipped. Servers are helpful and sweet. Peek into the bathroom for cheeky wallpaper. It’s a delightful place, with food that is charming for its misgivings, but more so for its warmth.
2309 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and for dinner Wednesday through Sunday
( April 2016 )