★ ★ ☆ ☆
A coffee shop by day, this small spot is eclectic and cozy, and bonus, there are no TVs.
Carrots with lemon curd, pork shoulder and grits, pasta and lamb, Mediterranean margarita.
This year the Instagram aesthetic died. The beautifully brushed avocado toast, the faux-beach waves hair and painted toes backed by palm trees, the gleaming subway tile, the perky succulents, the blinding perfectionism of it all. It had to go.
For The Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz wrote, the platform’s influencers now “reject the notion of a curated feed in favor of a messier and more unfiltered vibe.”
The same motion toward a less fussy existence also appears on the plate.
Does anyone really want to sit through a seven-course meal with tiny, custom ceramic bowls decorated in edible flowers and swooshes of sauce?
No. We want a lot of sauce, two sauces, actually. We want food that feels comforting, not just in the sense of something carby and meaty (though that’s not all bad) but in a way embracing hominess.
What I mean is this: hand-cut pasta, long, soft, wide streams, nesting around braised lamb and slices of piquillo peppers. It is all tossed around in what is essentially a savory lamb jus and then a secondary sauce, a thick, pistachio pesto, crowns the entire plate. Nothing at Stomping Ground feels intimidating or overworked. There’s no, “How do I eat this?” moment. It is a dish that could come from a home kitchen, if that home kitchen were manned by someone with professional skills, of course. (The team tried 15 different pasta recipes before settling on this particular oversized kite shape with enough texture to grab sauces). It feels like a hug.
It is exactly what you’d want from a neighborhood spot. It’s exactly what I want from my neighborhood spot. I live in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, and Stomping Ground is barely more than a five-minute walk from my house. While I work anonymously as a restaurant critic, I’m still a real live person who lives in a community and Stomping Ground is a place I go for biscuits and cappuccinos and veggie-farro bowls and banana bread (get the banana bread). Owner Nicole Jones greets me with a smile, asks about my kids, treats me like any other regular. And so I come to this review with both my critic lens, but also as someone who is excited to have a place like this down the street.
Happiness is a giant portion of pork shoulder, taking 18 hours to absorb chipotles, adobo sauce, dark beer, apple cider vinaigrette and slink, smoky and fiery, into a buttery sea of grits. Fried garlic and shallots bring some texture, otherwise this is dressed up coziness on a plate. Your going-out-in-public sweats.
Jones resurrected dinner service during the quiet, tail end of August, after a few years’ hiatus. She’s since opened Stomping Ground in Tysons Galleria’s food hall and joined with Chad Breckenridge to give the perennial pop-up Bagel Uprising a permanent home, right next door to the original Stomping Ground.
Seven hundred people walk through Stomping Ground between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays, but Jones is still cultivating a nighttime crowd in the kid-dominated Del Ray. Thursdays bring regulars, Fridays fill up with families done cooking for the week (there’s a kids’ menu, of course) and Saturdays cater to the grown-ups, or at least that’s how it’s been so far, says Jones. Only open for dinner three days a week, Jones likens Stomping Ground to a “quaint supper club experience,” which she built with chef Jamie Knight (Hank’s Oyster Bar in Capitol Hill), and general manager Raquel Burbano (DC’s Kinship).
The dinner party feel is quite apparent, especially with a dish of pan-seared fish over farro and chunky, assorted mushrooms. A patchwork of undressed baby greens pile high on the plate. Squeeze some blackened lemon, and fold the lettuces into the grains, as they slowly sauce themselves and weave into the flow of the dish. Again, there’s an ease of eating here. Something very un-restaurant like. A side of carrots, however, is next level. Roasted hot and fast (500 degrees for eight minutes), the sticks are paired with a not-sweet lemon curd, tangy labneh, earthy tahini and crunchy sesame seeds. Is it dessert early or a savory dessert? It’s surprising and lovely. Brussels sprouts, of course, are not surprising.
“You have to give the people what they want, and they want deep-fried Brussels sprouts,” says Jones. “If we’re going to be the neighborhood joint where people eat every day you gotta do the home runs.” And this is a good version: cooked through and crispy, dressed in a caper-lemon vinaigrette and adorned with slats of cave-aged Gouda because this is still the vision of chefs, not fry cooks.
Not everything works here: so-called crispy cauliflower is charred, but soggy, and the peanut-mint crumble is undetectable; cheesy artichoke jalapeno dip is no better than the similar dish at bars, but here the artichokes are a little tough and stringy; and desserts still feel like an afterthought. There are salted chocolate chip cookies, banana bread pudding and a caramelized banana pudding, but all feel last-minute, rather than last indulgence.
A better ending would be to linger over cocktails, where the bartender is happy to geek out over a little-known amaro or shake one more Mediterranean margarita, a savory, but fruity spin on the classic.
What Stomping Ground has always proven is that professional cooking can succeed without the ego. Dinner here always feels like it’s for the guest, and not just want the chef thinks we want. “It’s not ultimately about us,” says Jones. “We’re here to make you happy.” // 2309 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch; dinner Thursday through Saturday; closed Monday
Starters: $4-$10; Entrees: $15-$27