By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Sterling | Cajun & Korean | $$
Cajun and Korean coming from the same kitchen doesn’t quite make sense—that is, until you try it. Imagine shrimp and grits plunked down next to a bowl of Korean-style dumplings filled with local bison poking through the surface of an umami-rich red broth, and the combination all starts to come together. What these regions lack in proximity, they make up for with their reputations as being flavor powerhouses.
A glance around the dining room reveals that if anyone had misgivings about the cultural mashup, they’ve clearly gotten over it in the nearly 10 years Mokomandy has been in business. The strip-mall restaurant—warmed by friendly and helpful service—serves its staples, as wide-ranging as foie gras dumplings, Korean ssam and Cajun cassoulet.
Other hits from a menu so extensive that makes it tough to choose include stuffed mushrooms with caramelized onions and garlic (and no small amount of butter); skewers of grilled baby octopus and pork belly; and a bowl of poutine gilded with house-cured bacon that was nearly licked clean.
To take the indulgence train all the way to the end of the line, find yourself a designated driver and order any cocktail that strikes your fancy—from the Spring Awakening, a dangerously drinkable blend of gin, herbs, flowers and ginger, to a boozy and broody Sazerac enhanced with housemade coffee syrup.
The reasons for its longevity are apparent in every joyful bite, in servers that are so capable they’re nearly clairvoyant (how did she know we were planning on ordering that after-dinner coffee?), and in the happy faces of the couples and groups of friends who clearly know the value of Mokomandy. Diners leave well-fed and kindly cared for, and feeling a bit like they just caught It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. Is there any better dining experience? // 20789 Great Falls Plaza, Suite 176, Sterling
Alexandria | Modern American | $$$
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
Middleburg | Modern American | $$$$*
The magic starts here as soon as diners exit their cars and do a quick 180 to take in the lovely forest and the precious inn painted sage green with the front dominated by three large, glowing Palladian windows. A little fountain surrounded by yellow and pink flowers is another attention-grabber—yet these details are merely setting the stage for the main event, a stunning dinner at the newly renovated (and newly dubbed) Conservatory. The dining room now resembles a sturdy greenhouse, with windows above and around bringing the outside in. A menu sealed with red wax is presented; open to reveal the vegetarian tasting, the chef’s tasting and the prix fixe, the latter of which gives three to four options for each course. The dish of the night was a stunningly pretty baton of king crab wrapped in paper-thin cucumber ribbons topped with uni and caviar all brightened by a citrus sorbet. Buttery pan-seared scallops with caramelized sweet corn and a bowl of Icelandic cod bathing in beurre blanc with creamy mashed potatoes and mushrooms were decadent. A coconut-pineapple pavlova featured a pouf of meringue, plenty of fruit and a colorful garnish of burnt-red chile threads. The food, the room, the wines, the service—everything adds up to a wonderful excuse to drive into the woods. // 36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg
Clifton | Modern American | $$$
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
Fairfax | Chinese | $$$
The space is bright, open, gleaming white with light wood. This is not the low-key strip mall digs where Sichuan sensation Peter Chang usually sets up shop. This is Mama Chang, the famed chef’s latest venture and one inspired by the women in his life: his mom, Ronger Wang, his wife, Lisa Chang, and daughter, Lydia Chang. The balloon-like scallion bubble pancake is one of the few Chang signatures represented in Fairfax, and it still wows diners with its volume and fantastical deflation. Beyond that are the fiery dishes, a brutally spicy dry-fried cauliflower, a spicy, heady chili flounder and the chili-cumin bits of lamb. A rich, nutty sesame sauce coats noodles and crinkly green beans are salty and snappy. The end can go simple with a squishy pineapple bun or unexpectedly Euro with a dark chocolate sesame flourless cake, featuring a slim line of fudge, and just a touch of sweetness to squelch the burn. // 3251 Old Lee Highway, Suite 101, Fairfax
Marshall | Modern American | $$$
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
McLean | Persian | $$$
It might be a casual Tuesday afternoon lunch with a friend, but the minute a plate of incredibly moist and flavorful chimichurri lamb served with a mound of shirin polo hits the table, lunch suddenly feels like a celebration. The lamb arrives with a spicy green sauce that goes quickly, and you feel vindicated with this obsession when overhearing other tables asking for more. There are many versions of rice here, such as the crispy tahdig working great with hearty dishes like the braised lamb shank, but the shirin polo is an alluring pile of fluffy grains topped with pomegranate, pistachios, candied carrots and orange zest, lending each bite sweetness, crunch and pop. Start with a refreshing iced tea laced with rose water and saffron and end with an off-menu saffron ice cream sandwich. // 6271 Old Dominion Drive, McLean
Lovettsville | Modern American | $$$$*
Dinner at this local favorite with national recognition starts with a healthy dose of excitement blended with an immediate sense of relaxation, thanks to the tranquil gardens and mountain views. But in the case of our last meal at this literal farm-to-table spot, dinner ended with a philosophical discussion of what’s more important in a fine-dining space: risk-taking or deliciousness?
Outstanding service sets the tone for the $110 multi-course dinner, where a gorgeous (and damn tasty!) parade of tiny bites comes to the table, including a wooden box featuring Today’s Harvest, releasing smoke when opened, a perfect raw oyster dressed with housemade hot sauce aged in a whiskey barrel, and some of the best zucchini bread ever made, served with cultured butter and salt. But, the main course, titled Beef BBQ and Beer, featured dry brisket. Soon though, came round one of dessert (a palate cleanser flavored with the Peruvian herb, huacatay) and then another (an elaborate peach melba) and, finally, take-home confections presented at the end of the meal, dubbed Candy Shoppe (macaron, truffle, marshmallow) were pure joy. It’s hard to get everything right when menus change as often as they do here in Lovettsville, but we’re still looking forward to continuing the discussion at the next visit to Tarver King’s laboratory in the woods. // 42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville
Alexandria | Chinese | $$$$*
Despite its location in a nondescript Alexandria strip mall, this tiny dining room is unabashedly formal in an era when fine dining is becoming increasingly casual. Female servers wear golden headpieces dangling to their ears, floor-length formal gowns, high heels and white gloves. Each table setting consists of multiple pieces of gorgeous yellow dishware decorated with delicate flowers and golden edges, including the dome removed as diners settle in. Its removal reveals the first course, poetically titled Pine Tree Assorted Sampler, and it turns out to be an edible tableau of a garden scene composed of shrimp, broccoli, wonderful slices of dried beef sausage that tasted like Chinese salami.
At least, that’s how the meal starts when enjoying the $98 Banquet of Eternal Bliss Hot Pot menu, the least expensive of the three prix fixe options found at Chef Guo. (We’ll have to get back to you about the $158 Banquet of Peace and Prosperity menu and the $278 Banquet Filled with Precious Gem and Jade dinner.)
The 12-course hot pot experience ranges from a simple half of an orange presented on a miniature swing to the elaborate hot pot of flavor-packed chicken broth teeming with 20 or so ingredients like abalone, meatballs, sea cucumber and mushrooms. Other favorites include flounder with mustard greens sauce, a ground pork patty filled with water chestnuts and noodles with a vegetarian black bean sauce that truly tasted meaty. Throughout the meal, there’s an effort to delight. It makes dinner here feel very special. // 6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria
Alexandria | Japanese | $$$$*
At the end of your meal, a server might gently press diners to choose a favorite dish for a kitchen poll—and it’s no surprise to hear many of the nearby tables choose the outstanding sashimi course. The $12 upgrade from four-piece to eight-piece sashimi is 100% worth it and might include local fish joined by Santa Barbara uni, barracuda, shrimp, sea bass, mackerel and Japanese yellowtail, along with a few accompaniments like ponzu jelly, lime and edible flowers. A recent visit to this tiny restaurant, which serves an outstanding yuzu-scented whiskey highball, started with fried artichoke filled with summer-truffle-laced tuna tartare, which was awkward to eat but worth the juggle of trying to scoop soft tartare onto smallish, rigid artichoke leaves. The pristine sashimi came next, followed by a rich course of New Zealand lamb chops accented by a foie gras miso sauce and disks of silky eggplant. Next up, a still-bubbling bowl of soup arrives filled with fresh udon noodles, sea bass, egg, burdock root and matsutake mushrooms from Maine. That last ingredient is considered to be the truffle of Japan, according to the friendly server who gently teased the table about how quickly we gobbled up our dinner. Perhaps we were rushing toward dessert, a fun twist on an ice cream sandwich made with fig-sesame-miso ice cream encased by melty rice crackers shaped like a hollow burger bun. It turns out to be in a tight race with the sashimi for the top spot. // 1209 King St., Alexandria