By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Chef Guo **No. 9
Alexandria | Chinese | $$$$
Despite its location in a nondescript Alexandria strip mall, this tiny dining room is unabashedly formal in an era when fine dining is becoming increasingly casual. Female servers wear golden headpieces dangling to their ears, floor-length formal gowns, high heels and white gloves.
Each table setting consists of multiple pieces of gorgeous yellow dishware decorated with delicate flowers and golden edges, including the dome removed as diners settle in. Its removal reveals the first course, poetically titled Pine Tree Assorted Sampler, and it turns out to be an edible tableau of a garden scene composed of shrimp, broccoli, wonderful slices of dried beef sausage that tasted like Chinese salami.
At least, that’s how the meal starts when enjoying the $98 Banquet of Eternal Bliss Hot Pot menu, the least expensive of the three prix fixe options found at Chef Guo. (We’ll have to get back to you about the $158 Banquet of Peace and Prosperity menu and the $278 Banquet Filled with Precious Gem and Jade dinner.)
The 12-course hot pot experience ranges from a simple half of an orange presented on a miniature swing to the elaborate hot pot of flavor-packed chicken broth teeming with 20 or so ingredients like abalone, meatballs, sea cucumber and mushrooms. Other favorites include flounder with mustard greens sauce, a ground pork patty filled with water chestnuts and noodles with a vegetarian black bean sauce that truly tasted meaty.
Throughout the meal, there’s an effort to delight. It makes dinner here feel very special. // 6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria
Alexandria | Modern American | $$$ & $
Though it’s been a neighborhood staple for more than two decades, Evening Star Cafe shapeshifts according to who’s in the kitchen. The Del Ray restaurant always attracts interesting talent, letting personalities sway the menu, most recently from Southern to modern American with a Hawaiian touch. This is thanks to Jonathan Till, a Hawaiian-born chef who weaves together a menu of mainland staples, like burrata with peas and carrots and housemade gnocchi with mushrooms foraged by the chef himself, and Asian-leaning dishes, like Korean barbecue fried cauliflower with miso mayo and a clever play on poke, using hot pink doppelganger watermelon instead of tuna, tossed with peanuts, shaved cucumber and watermelon rind. Many of Till’s dishes (plus a roster of casual plates) are also offered next door at Front Porch, an outdoor-only, seasonally open spot that is probably the hardest restaurant to get into on Mount Vernon Avenue: Order the mushroom bruschetta, some funky sour beer and understand the enduring appeal of Evening Star. // 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Alexandria | French & Modern American | $$$
Okra at a French wine bar? Yes, if it’s served from the kitchen at La Fromagerie, a genre-bending alcove in Old Town Alexandria where modern American seasonality influences the Lyonnaise chef and owner, Sebastien Tavel. Okra is served almost whole, save for the tips sliced off at an angle, where it mingles with spiced pecans and corn kernels in a buttery sheen. It’s a primer on how to love this oft maligned vegetable: It’s not oozy or slimy, it’s sleek and fresh. A bowl of chanterelle mushrooms transcends expectations, thanks to a heavy hand of Madeira; roast duck cuts like a steak, with a serious crust to boot; and housemade nettle pappardelle conveys lightness, even with fennel sausage and egg yolk. The restaurant doubles as a wine shop with a wall lined with worldly bottles, and ones out of this world, like a rosé from Charlotteville’s cutting-edge Lightwell Survey. But before ducking out with a bottle for another night, don’t leave without ordering the signature dark chocolate pot de creme, a rich, life-affirming ending. // 1222 King St., Alexandria
Alexandria | Ethiopian | $$
At an Ethiopian restaurant, it is of the utmost importance to find as many ways as possible to eat injera, the sour, spongy bread-like creation unique to this part of the world (count Eritrea as another injera-eating country). First up: kategna. Injera is spread with the vibrant-earthy spice blend beberbe and lots of butter, toasted and cut into triangles. It has everything going for it, with a crunchy outside and slick, buttery, slightly spicy interior. The main course arrives in little puddles on a giant sheet of injera (with extra injera rolls served in a basket): lentils, collards, string beans, cabbage, potato, with attention paid to the meatless bites as much as to the haunting, savory sauces cloaking chicken drumsticks and tibs, (diced cubes of beef). Everything here is cooked soft to the touch, best to be able to scoop up with the injera, because injera is the bread, the spoon, the knife, the fork. Did we mention injera? // 516A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria
Nasime **No. 10
Alexandria | Japanese | $$$$
At the end of your meal, a server might gently press diners to choose a favorite dish for a kitchen poll—and it’s no surprise to hear many of the nearby tables choose the outstanding sashimi course. The $12 upgrade from four-piece to eight-piece sashimi is 100% worth it and might include local fish joined by Santa Barbara uni, barracuda, shrimp, sea bass, mackerel and Japanese yellowtail, along with a few accompaniments like ponzu jelly, lime and edible flowers. A recent visit to this tiny restaurant, which serves an outstanding yuzu-scented whiskey highball, started with fried artichoke filled with summer-truffle-laced tuna tartare, which was awkward to eat but worth the juggle of trying to scoop soft tartare onto smallish, rigid artichoke leaves.
The pristine sashimi came next, followed by a rich course of New Zealand lamb chops accented by a foie gras miso sauce and disks of silky eggplant. Next up, a still-bubbling bowl of soup arrives filled with fresh udon noodles, sea bass, egg, burdock root and matsutake mushrooms from Maine. That last ingredient is considered to be the truffle of Japan, according to the friendly server who gently teased the table about how quickly we gobbled up our dinner. Perhaps we were rushing toward dessert, a fun twist on an ice cream sandwich made with fig-sesame-miso ice cream encased by melty rice crackers shaped like a hollow burger bun. It turns out to be in a tight race with the sashimi for the top spot. // 1209 King St., Alexandria
Alexandria | Indian & Nepalese | $$
Just beyond Del Ray and its concentration of restaurants (and babies and dogs) is Royal Nepal, a pint-sized restaurant with a devoted following. The menu is a mix of Nepalese and Indian dishes, the former must-gets are the country’s signature dish of momos, and here, filled with chicken, wild boar or yak, but why order anything else when there’s a chance to try tender yak enveloped in a seared package ready for dipping into a tomato-y sauce? It’s best to go in with a sharing mentality to snag tastes of lamb curry or goat curry or, who are we kidding, chicken tikka masala. Dinner ends with a doughnut hole-like treat, gulab jamun, saturated in a sweet syrup. // 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Vermilion **No. 2
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