By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Sterling | Indian | $$
Two Informational Technology professionals working in a stable sector (if there is one) decided to change paths and open a restaurant, an industry notorious for its fail rate. Their path included everything from leasing, and then abandoning, one space to traveling through India to meet with chefs and source ingredients (the owners are even writing a book about their restaurant adventures). Agni is better for whatever it took them to open a stylish, minimalist space in a sprawling Sterling strip mall. The South Indian food is fiery, but not just to turn on heat seekers. It’s a balance of freshness, with a rainbow of seasoning. There’s a gratis mug of soup, bright, salty and tomato-y, a little punch of what’s next. Dishes lean spicy and dramatic: A pepper cauliflower is fried, with bracing heat; mutton pepper is intoxicatingly spicy goat; and the vegetarian thali is an all-you-can-eat lunch option with rotating curries, where every bite is a new way to make the mouth find joy in the pleasure of pain. // Agni South Indian Cuisine: 46005 Regal Plaza, Suite 140, Sterling
The Conservatory at Goodstone ** No. 3
Middleburg | Modern American | $$$$*
The magic starts here as soon as diners exit their cars and do a quick 180 to take in the lovely forest and the precious inn painted sage green with the front dominated by three large, glowing Palladian windows. A little fountain surrounded by yellow and pink flowers is another attention-grabber—yet these details are merely setting the stage for the main event, a stunning dinner at the newly renovated (and newly dubbed) Conservatory. The dining room now resembles a sturdy greenhouse, with windows above and around bringing the outside in. A menu sealed with red wax is presented; open to reveal the vegetarian tasting, the chef’s tasting and the prix fixe, the latter of which gives three to four options for each course.
The dish of the night was a stunningly pretty baton of king crab wrapped in paper-thin cucumber ribbons topped with uni and caviar all brightened by a citrus sorbet. Buttery pan-seared scallops with caramelized sweet corn and a bowl of Icelandic cod bathing in beurre blanc with creamy mashed potatoes and mushrooms were decadent. A coconut-pineapple pavlova featured a pouf of meringue, plenty of fruit and a colorful garnish of burnt-red chile threads. The food, the room, the wines, the service—everything adds up to a wonderful excuse to drive into the woods. // 36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg
Lovettsville | Modern American | $$$
The menu is a little all over the place at Market Table Bistro. There are Southern influences and Asian influences and farm-to-table influences and, where to start? Does everything look good? The bistro board is a way to dive into the many veins pulsing through this charming restaurant in still-sleepy downtown Lovettsville. The board is crowded with options like gazpacho shooters and a pile of mussels and deviled eggs and housemade charcuterie. There’s bread service, too. The starter is a generous display, but keep going. A duo of pork belly steamed buns in a Thai chili glaze can complete the meal, but better yet, just go for it. A full entree of delicately cooked scallops, partnered with crispy kale, is an elegant ending in a post-pastoral setting. // 13 E. Broad Way, Lovettsville
Fairfax & Sterling | Japanese & Korean | $
Expanding to fresh digs in Sterling doesn’t mean there aren’t still several compelling reasons to visit the original in Fairfax, in what, as any ’80s kid knows, is clearly the repurposed dining room of a former Pizza Hut. The chashu floating in both the shio and shoyu ramen broths was every bit as luscious and flavorful as slurpers want it to be. The server deftly fielded questions about which broth is lighter for one diner, which might be richer and deeper for another diner. Success comes in the form of each declaring their broth is the best. Izakaya mainstays like karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) and a seafood okonomiyaki (pan-fried battered pancake) show off the kitchen’s ability to serve up all the things that go well with an evening of drinks. A three-piece order of mochi speared with toothpicks is the only acceptable way to end. // 3250 Old Pickett Road, Fairfax; 21438 Epicerie Plaza, Sterling
Mokomandy ** No. 1
Sterling | Cajun & Korean | $$
Cajun and Korean coming from the same kitchen doesn’t quite make sense—that is, until you try it. Imagine shrimp and grits plunked down next to a bowl of Korean-style dumplings filled with local bison poking through the surface of an umami-rich red broth, and the combination all starts to come together. What these regions lack in proximity, they make up for with their reputations as being flavor powerhouses.
A glance around the dining room reveals that if anyone had misgivings about the cultural mashup, they’ve clearly gotten over it in the nearly 10 years Mokomandy has been in business. The strip-mall restaurant—warmed by friendly and helpful service—serves its staples, as wide-ranging as foie gras dumplings, Korean ssam and Cajun cassoulet.
Other hits from a menu so extensive that makes it tough to choose include stuffed mushrooms with caramelized onions and garlic (and no small amount of butter); skewers of grilled baby octopus and pork belly; and a bowl of poutine gilded with house-cured bacon that was nearly licked clean.
To take the indulgence train all the way to the end of the line, find yourself a designated driver and order any cocktail that strikes your fancy—from the Spring Awakening, a dangerously drinkable blend of gin, herbs, flowers and ginger, to a boozy and broody Sazerac enhanced with housemade coffee syrup.
The reasons for its longevity are apparent in every joyful bite, in servers that are so capable they’re nearly clairvoyant (how did she know we were planning on ordering that after-dinner coffee?), and in the happy faces of the couples and groups of friends who clearly know the value of Mokomandy. Diners leave well-fed and kindly cared for, and feeling a bit like they just caught It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. Is there any better dining experience? // 20789 Great Falls Plaza, Suite 176, Sterling
The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm ** No. 8
Lovettsville | Modern American | $$$$
Dinner at this local favorite with national recognition starts with a healthy dose of excitement blended with an immediate sense of relaxation, thanks to the tranquil gardens and mountain views. But in the case of our last meal at this literal farm-to-table spot, dinner ended with a philosophical discussion of what’s more important in a fine-dining space: risk-taking or deliciousness?
Outstanding service sets the tone for the $110 multi-course dinner, where a gorgeous (and damn tasty!) parade of tiny bites comes to the table, including a wooden box featuring Today’s Harvest, releasing smoke when opened, a perfect raw oyster dressed with housemade hot sauce aged in a whiskey barrel, and some of the best zucchini bread ever made, served with cultured butter and salt.
But, the main course, titled Beef BBQ and Beer, featured dry brisket. Soon though, came round one of dessert (a palate cleanser flavored with the Peruvian herb, huacatay) and then another (an elaborate peach melba) and, finally, take-home confections presented at the end of the meal, dubbed Candy Shoppe (macaron, truffle, marshmallow) were pure joy.
It’s hard to get everything right when menus change as often as they do here in Lovettsville, but we’re still looking forward to continuing the discussion at the next visit to Tarver King’s laboratory in the woods. // 42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville
Leesburg | Modern American | $$$
Walk into the restaurant affectionately known as Tuskie’s, and the first thing you’ll notice is a convivial bar scene. Move past the hubbub toward the back, and find a bustling white-tablecloth crowd pleaser that’s just the ticket for multigenerational groups. (Ask for table 20 if you prefer privacy.)
Crab cakes are a perennial favorite—and for good reason since they burst with luscious crabmeat. Corn soup puts the sweetest of the season to work in a buttery broth loaded with veggies and bacon, while a flank steak’s bourbon glaze lends flavor without overpowering the tender meat. Ending with the Key lime tart cupped by a graham-cracker crust or the butterscotch bread pudding is the pro move. Is Tuskie’s in any way boundary-pushing, avant garde or pioneering? No. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. // 203 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg
Leesburg | Modern American | $$$
Leesburg is where downtown and farmland touch. It’s where farm-to-table dining is not just a cliche, but where guests can catch people donned in farm name-emblazoned shirts dropping off actual, local produce. And it’s not just for show, it’s displayed throughout a menu changing with the micro-seasons: an artful splash of springy English pea ravioli with magenta-hued beet sauce; summery tomato salad stacked with marinated red peppers and torn burrata; and a good-any-time gnocchi flush with scrubbed carrots (only fresh carrots are good enough to keep the peels on) mingling with a savory bites of slow-cooked lamb infused with harissa. As it says in the name, wine is a specialty, with loads of options by the glass, plus a handful of Virginia producers. Selling local grapes, of course, is just another extension of showing off Leesburg’s link to the land. // 7 S. King St., Leesburg