Want to feel really old? Sit at the bar at WHINO. Want to forget your troubles? Order a cocktail, then a meal, a ritual that will make you feel at one with the almost unbearably hip setting.
Yes, it’s mostly a youthful crowd that braves the loud gallery atmosphere, but a Can I Speak to Your Manager?, a drink that combines elderflower liqueur, cucumber juice, and ginger syrup, helps a guest relax into the evening. And you’re not alone. On a recent Saturday night, WHINO hosted a 52nd birthday party, a sure sign that the young-at-heart are welcome, too.
Owner Shane Pomajambo told me in June, the same month that WHINO opened, that his goal was to create an immersive experience, combining visual art and the artistry of the rest of his team. “Chef, mixologist, sommelier, they’re all creatives. We house these creators in one space,” he said. And he’s succeeded. While not every dish that comes out of Eleftherios “Terry” Natas’s kitchen wows, the cuisine is both more interesting and better prepared than it needs to be in such a setting. It is indeed possible that a customer base will develop as much (or more) for the food than the atmosphere.
“There’s a little bit on our menu for everybody,” Natas told me, and for once, that is not just marketing talk. Whether your crew is in it for oyster shooters flavored with spicy mango, pickled Fresno chile, and tequila, or the chef’s take on a crispy seafood paella, variety is definitely a hallmark of the menu. Items are divided into “charcuterie,” “crudos,” “small plates,” and “shareables” sections, but really, all are best if shared with a friend or two.
The charcuterie is cured in-house, and it’s more exotic than the salumi you’ll see at most other restaurants in the region. The standout for me is the wagyu beef bresaola, a heavily marbled take on the air-dried beef that benefits from a touch of funk. There’s also 18-month-cured jamon Serrano, smoked duck breast, and lonza made with wild boar. I paired my meats with a slice of Truffle Tremor, an earthy goat cheese from California’s Cypress Grove Chevre that recalls Brie in texture. Whether you choose one meat or cheese, or a platter full of them, the wooden board on which your selections arrive is filled with rounds of toasted cranberry-walnut baguette, pickled veggies, mixed nuts, truffle honey, and sweet date mostarda.
In an age when charcuterie boards are often considered the centerpiece of a meal, WHINO is worthy of a visit for its standout version alone. But that’s far from the only reason to plan a meal there. For example, there is the tuna-and-charred-avocado crudo. A large portion of chopped tuna glistens with a soy-based marinade that crunches with alliums. It’s sunk into a layer of mashed avocado that contributes its creaminess to the mix as a diner scoops it up with freshly fried wonton crisps.
The small-plates section contains a mix of sandwiches and smaller bites, all highly shareable. But chances are that you won’t want to. Not in the case of the feather-light Cheesy Polenta Temper Tots. The cubes of polenta are fried crisp, but the interior melts into a corn-flavored dream. The queso on the side, made with Oaxaca cheese and chiles, with an option to add chorizo, is worthy of a taste, but I found that the tots were plenty compelling on their own.
Telly’s Gyro, named for Natas’s mother’s nickname for him, might use more sophisticated components like wagyu beef and whipped feta-and-leek yogurt, but the overall impression is of a very flavorful gyro you’d get at Natas’s mother’s house, just a little better. And this is the goal. “We don’t necessarily want to say anything is the most traditional way to do things,” explained Natas. “We want to say it’s a take on the most traditional.”
Another example of this is the porchetta, served both on sliders and as a platter. As per tradition, the hulking piece of pork is composed of a shoulder, rubbed with fennel and rosemary, then wrapped in a skin-on belly. That skin is ultra-crisp, shattering as a diner bites in, just as the slow-roasted center falls apart. It’s served over chile-flecked broccoli rabe and potatoes roasted to a blister.
Part of the appeal of dining at WHINO is the prices. That porchetta, big enough for a meal, is only $16. The Secret Spiced Fried Chicken, which combines a spice mix created by Pomajambo with Natas’s innovations, is $14 for three expertly fried boneless chicken thighs. The sharp-cheddar grits are enough to make the dish worth ordering, but a fluffy, crisp-edged buttermilk-cheddar biscuit adds appeal. The final ingredient to success is hot honey that wakes up every bite of the already juicy, well-flavored thighs.
Another steal? A plate of ricotta gnocchi is $12. Unfortunately, that dish is not as successful as many others. The problem is the gnocchi themselves, which may look picture-perfect but are disappointingly dense. It’s particularly a bummer because the attractive plate is also well-flavored with its saffron-scented vegetable broth, toasted hazelnuts, and flurry of shaved grana padano cheese.
Desserts look better than they taste as well. Currently, there are just two. A crème brûlée, which the server said was whipped, had apparently sagged to a point that it was little more than a superficial puddle of custard topped with a layer of nicely crisped sugar. A pile of warm doughnuts dressed in honey and nuts is attractive, but lacks the light touch that would urge a diner to break their diet.
Servers are as youthful as one might imagine, but are well-trained on the menu. It’s a credit to them and to Pomajambo and Natas that I left no longer feeling past my expiration date. WHINO won’t make you young again, but it will give you a new outlook on what a restaurant can be.
4238 Wilson Blvd., Second Floor, Arlington
See this: Murals by artists like Dragon76 and Woes make nearly every surface an opportunity for an Instagram pic. That’s not including the store at the front of the space, where you can purchase your own pieces to take home.
Eat this: Charcuterie board, Telly’s Gyro, Secret Spiced Fried Chicken
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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