Clarendon: It’s the province of the young, the recent grads with disposable income to burn, seeking a place to get a meal and a drink or three. What if you’re a Millennial or older? That may be the time for Maison Cheryl. Since opening last summer, chef-owner Robert Maher says, “We get a lot of people in their thirties plus. I really like that.”
Despite opening during a pandemic, the restaurant has carved out a niche for itself with a more mature crowd thanks to its sleek, New York-influenced interior; a carefully curated wine list; and an increasingly ambitious menu. Maison Cheryl is named for Maher’s deceased mother-in-law (his co-owner is his father-in-law), but the French inflection is very intentional. Maher is a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute, and though the food isn’t exactly Gallic, the techniques are.
The bill of fare changes seasonally and includes some standouts for which I can see myself craving a return visit. But many things about the experience at Maison Cheryl are still too inconsistent for me to wholeheartedly recommend it yet. On one visit, my dining companion had to call over a server every time we needed to order, and the salad came out after our entrees. Nonetheless, the meal, consisting of said salad, two entrees, and one dessert, cost more than $100. If this price equals a special occasion for you, it might be best to still exercise caution. Or to start with dessert.
Though Maher says that he’s a savory cook at heart, his sweets won my heart and taste buds. It’s little wonder that a neon sign at the back of the restaurant urges diners to order dessert.
I will need no such prodding when it comes to the baked-to-order madeleines. “They’re a completely different thing right out of the oven,” says Maher. He’s right. Presented in a porcelain berry container, his tiny madeleines are like sweet bursts of hot air. They’re served atop a collection of sliced strawberries and orange supremes in a citrusy Chantilly cream. The shareable portion goes down almost too easily.
The same can be said for the pair of croissant doughnuts, modeled on baker Dominique Ansel’s famed “cronut.” Each week, Maher and his team prepare a different flavor, which have included everything from blueberry to a version filled with apple cider curd. I was lucky enough to be there for honey-cinnamon week, which the chef calls his favorite, due to its similarity to Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The buttery laminated dough becomes slightly oily with frying, but that only makes it more irresistible. For a true dessert lover, the $9 plate of two may not be quite enough.
Among starters, the pile of truffle-butter fries is a smart companion for a drink. A side of caramelized onion aioli and a shower of freshly grated Parmesan makes the pile of creamy-tasting frites eat like a crispy take on French onion soup. The cocktail list? It varies from a $10 Dark & Stormy to the $26 Naked & Famous, which combines Del Maguey Vida mezcal with yellow chartreuse, Aperol, and lemon. I was less won over by the “crispy cauliflower.” Though I enjoyed its bath in Buffalo sauce and four-cheese Mornay, I can’t help but think that this combination is what robbed it of what should have been a crunchy exterior.
Another misfire for me was the truffle burger. One of two eight-ounce wagyu burgers on the menu, the patty arrived overcooked and devoid of truffle flavor. I believe there was truffle aioli on the burger, but a swipe of piquant Dijon overwhelmed the more delicate condiment. At $29 (plus an additional $5 for bacon), I was expecting a life-changing burger, and on that day, at least, it simply didn’t deliver.
So which entrees should you have before ordering dessert? My favorite is the grilled Chilean sea bass. Gorgeously balancing flavors sweet, sour, and salty, the buttery, grill-marked fish compelled me to finish my portion, even though I knew sweets were beckoning. A puckery lime ponzu makes everything it touches utterly delectable, from crunchy broccolini to sticky cilantro rice. Oranges and jalapeños on top contribute a sweet-and-spicy foil to the tart sauce.
Those in search of a visual impact as much as a palatable plate of food should look no further than Maher’s latest take on the duck breast. Though my poultry was cooked a touch above my desired medium, there isn’t much else to fault in the sweet-skewing dish. The fat is rendered admirably between the meat and the crackling skin. The breast sits atop a puree of purple sweet potatoes that’s a tad more starchy than its orange cousin. A raspberry gastrique demi-glace and pomegranate arils lend the dish a sweet-and-sour appeal, while nutty Brussels sprouts bring it down to earth.
Dishes like this, as well as sometimes-stellar service (Maher just appointed a new general manager, Austin Combes, so my hope is that the inconsistency will die down) show that ample promise lies beyond the misadventures I experienced. Even if you don’t consider yourself part of the typical Clarendon Crowd, Maison Cheryl could be the attraction you need to visit the neighborhood.
2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
See this: Whites and blues give this long, skinny restaurant a streamlined appeal. The sign reminding diners that “Life is short, get the dessert” sets the convivial tone.
Eat this: Honey lavender duck breast, grilled Chilean sea bass, baked-to-order Madeleines
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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