Jason Maddens has a lot to say.
As the owner and chef of AhSo, he can’t always be chatting with tables, catching up with regulars from Vienna’s Clarity, where he was most recently chef and partner. He might be expediting (calling out dishes), he might be on the line cooking proteins, he might even be washing dishes, like he was one night this winter when an employee didn’t show.
Maddens communicates through the menu. In the coveted upper-left hand corner find: the WiFi password, how to bring home wine from the list, where to purchase the restaurant’s copper-plated flatware (as much as an anti-theft measure as a response to multiple queries) and a plug for brunch. On another piece of paper, he lets customers know about the hyped, but now dropped, no-tipping policy.
But Maddens is far from done experimenting. AhSo, a modern American restaurant rooted in seasonality, now hosts a Wednesday ramen pop-up featuring one style per week, Japanese whisky flights and what Maddens describes as “old-school Kung Fu” playing on the TV.
This is on the periphery, but also speaks to the core of the restaurant. Maddens is trying to have some fun and show off his years in the kitchen. Ashburn now has what may be its first chef-driven restaurant. And we should be thankful, especially for that cured yolk sitting on top of a disk of housemade brioche. Rosy-hued wagyu beef carpaccio encircles the yellow center, making for a flower that you’d actually want to eat. (Is the edible flower trend over yet?) While the beef is silky and delicate, it’s the yolk that most impresses. From a duck, it’s covered in a salt mixture, and after an hour, uncovered, washed off and living in a delightful purgatory between a solid and liquid state, where the yolk becomes more of a thick condiment than a liquid mess.
It was one of the successful appetizers, where some showed more flaws: burnt kale and speck so crisp all the fat and flavor seemed sucked out, marring an otherwise lovely display of duck confit over cushy sweet potato gnocchi and sweet parsnip puree; an off-fishiness in the yellowtail tartare; and grit surfaced in almost every scallop.
At Clarity, with a team working together for years, they could create new dishes frequently and keep the quality. But AhSo isn’t there yet. Maddens can’t change the menu weekly; he can’t expect the finesse and ease on the plate to come so naturally, not yet. And he can’t expect diners, after a lifetime of personally adding gratuity, to quickly embrace the slowly emerging hospitality-included paradigm.
That other slip of paper from the beginning of the meal explains the restaurant dropped its no-tipping policy. Major restaurant groups in New York and elsewhere in the country adopted this new way of operating, eliminating the stress of servers earning tips—which, studies show, are often impacted by sexism and racism (see Eater’s “The Case Against Tipping in America” by Vince Dixon)—and potentially alleviating pay inequities between the front-of-house workers and the non-tipped kitchen staff.
Maddens debuted with the built-in tip pricing in mid-December and gave the experiment five weeks. He says the staff appreciated the progressive program—which contributed to health insurance, 401(k) matching and padded pay checks—but the public did not.
“In the first month,” says Maddens, “I’m walking on eggshells making sure things are just so.” A new restaurant must impress diners on the first night, and if the perceived pricing doesn’t match expectations, it’s hard to justify keeping something so novel to the dining scene, especially in Loudoun County. “We didn’t feel it was working out,” he says, citing comments and emails from guests, though when asked about its return, he doesn’t rule it out once the restaurant is more established.
And Maddens isn’t going anywhere. The Sterling native is home. Now that he finally decided to stop making his life about commuting, to D.C., to Falls Church, to Vienna, he can be at his own restaurant in the 10 minutes it takes to drive from his home in Leesburg, where he lives with his wife and two little girls. He can be there all day to orchestrate what on the outside seems like a complicated dish with as many working parts as a driverless car.
The homey reinterpretation of cassoulet incorporates a sous vide pork shank. Sous vide, while still not fully infiltrated into home kitchens, is a regular technique in the hands of professionals. This is not just meat in a water bath. A few steps back, the kitchen cures and smokes pork belly (turning it into bacon) and then braises the meat in chicken stock. This now porky, smoky, salty liquid helps flavor the pork shank and the cannellini beans. The pork belly also shows up in the dish, plus housemade sausage finished on the grill at order. It’s a dish that reads as Frenchy comfort food-gone-upscale. And even after detailing the multi-step process, Maddens says, “It’s actually a simple dish.”
There are more delicate, lighter entrees too. A rotating cast of fish, depending on the day’s shipment, sits on a magenta-hued sauce filled with earthy beets and tangy blood orange segments. The fish, which one day was sheepshead from the Chesapeake Bay, keeps its crispy skin, and mustard greens bring a bitter roundness to it all. Plus, it’s gorgeous to look at.
A duo of chicken displays a sliced, roasted breast that is lovely in its simplicity and a leg that is treated first like duck confit, and then sits in a bath of buttermilk until it’s dredged in flour and fried for a killer version of fried chicken. Plated with dirty rice (chorizo, adzuki beans, chicken liver, tomato-y broth) and fried okra, this Southern-style meal is another example of the familiar elevated with expert execution.
Appropriately, brunch, launched at the end of February, plies everything with egg: duck confit carbonara with housemade noodles is crowned with a duck egg, doubling the richness of this dish; a so-called breakfast banh mi (though the inspiration from the original sandwich does not come through, as good as it is, with the lack of pickled elements and jalapenos) is topped with an over-easy egg; a poached egg sits above housemade pastrami, bringing abundant smoke but the hash doesn’t show the expected browned, crispy and charred bits; and the ubiquitous avocado toast makes an appearance with house-smoked salmon garnished with mimosa (shards of hard-boiled egg). Though the eggless grits, immensely creamy and a showcase for little scoops of crispy bacon, could be the winner.
There are touches so charming at AhSo, like the tiered timer to personalize the French press for coffee service: Three different hourglasses with increasingly browner shades of sand indicate when to push for a light, medium or dark cup of coffee.
This is what AhSo brings to Loudoun County: eclectic, beautiful details (the beaded water glass is almost too pretty for its contents, which seems the point), an experimental menu and a focus on local, even in the oft-avoided Virginia wine category. Maddens rotates the by-the-glass listing frequently and is not afraid to include grapes grown within the state, which many restaurants avoid both because of cost and lack of recognition. AhSo, after all, is named after a two-pronged wine opener used especially for older, frail corks.
Maddens is trying to turn his slice of a restaurant within a growing town center into something more than the expected. “We can do anything here,” he says.
22855 Brambleton Plaza, Brambleton
Open daily for dinner and Sunday brunch