When did you fall in love with food? Chances are it wasn’t on a school field trip. But that’s exactly where chef Tomas Chavarria remembers the moment that catalyzed his obsession with the edible.
At 9 years old, the Costa Rica native’s class traveled to the canton of Talamanca to learn about the tiny country’s many Indigenous peoples. At lunchtime, the natives doled out smoked and cured chicken and wild boar in banana leaves with annatto seeds. “It was when I first had that flash of an idea that I wanted to be a chef,” Chavarria recalls of the long-since-digested meal.
At The Study at Morrison House in Old Town Alexandria, Chavarria prepares riffs on meals from his Mesoamerican childhood, informed by years of a peripatetic chef’s life, with gigs that took him from Dubai to the Philippines. It’s all prepared with carefully curated regional ingredients, resulting in a unique fusion of Costa Rican and mid-Atlantic flavors.
Those dishes include Shenandoah Valley chicken that he smokes for 16 hours to achieve a result similar to what he tasted as a kid. On the side, salt-cured fingerling potatoes melt with the chicken fat in which they’re fried. An earthy, lightly spicy sauce coats both tender bird and petite spuds. Chavarria says that when he conceived the menu, he asked himself, “How can I take this humble piece of chicken with potatoes and make it a fine dining dish?” He does such alchemy throughout his concise menu.
The goal for The Study, he says, was to create a profitable restaurant by creating something no one else in the DMV was doing. He decided to take advantage of his Costa Rican roots, but found ways to go far beyond the cuisine’s omnipresent rice and beans.
“The idea is to be a study of different cultures once a year,” he says of the restaurant and cocktail lounge, which reopened with him at the helm in April. “Next year, there will be other types of influences — Mesoamerican culture with whatever else I decide.”
The cuisine and drinks, such as the guava, mint, and cachaca-flavored Casted Away, are close to above reproach. But neither the relatively casual aesthetic of the room, nor the uninformed service live up to the what’s on plates and in glasses.
Should that keep diners away? Absolutely not. Not when there are dishes like the steak and onions to be tried. The entrée is a tribute to a staple meal that Chavarria says he and his family would eat as many as five times a week when he was growing up. Their version was “the cheapest piece of steak” they could find, tossed with onions in a cast iron pan. In the chef’s hands, it’s a 60-day dry-aged striploin from Seven Hills Meat Company in Lynchburg, cooked to a lush medium-rare. The two halves sit atop a puree of onions that have been confited to bring out their sweetness. The velvety mash may taste creamy, but that’s all technique. It’s an emulsion that includes neither butter nor cream. It’s finished with a jus that will taste familiar to anyone who has traveled to Costa Rica. Lizano is the A1 or Heinz 57 equivalent in that country — a sweet and tangy condiment that plays best with a juicy steak.
Technique is at the center of everything that emerges from Chavarria’s kitchen. Diners may balk at paying $9 for bread service, but the Dutch oven sourdough is puffy, crusty, and legitimately puckery. The server will offer seconds, and it’s worth the caloric intake in order to scoop up every bit of the homemade aged butters. The best of these features chiles for a bite even more satisfying than the tiny elotes made with baby corn. There’s also butter mixed with onion ash and an Amish-made specimen that is simply salted.
Ceviches, tiraditos, and crudos fill the menu of apps, divided between “bar snacks” and “starters.” The raw foods include everything from a trio of pickles modeled on those of Chavarria’s grandmother, to turnips, to steak tartare. But the chef is most in his element when plying his art with smoke. That means that diners shouldn’t miss the cold-smoked hamachi.
The fish, also known as Japanese amberjack, arrives in a stack of bowls. When the server removes the top one, filled with crispy cassava chips, smoke billows in a disarming puff from the platter of fish. The manicured collection of ingredients begins with the plump seafood, but each slice is enhanced with blobs of sweet-and-sour passion fruit mayonnaise; chunks of nature’s own creamy mayo — avocado; and sacs of finger lime that pop like caviar. It is one of the most appealing raw fish dishes on any menu around NoVA.
Chavarria also uses smoke to his advantage in the expertly rendered pork belly. It’s bathed in a citrus brine for 24 hours, imbuing it with a festive tang, before smoking for another six hours over cherry and apple woods. Each bite practically vaporizes into a memory of meaty satisfaction. It’s served over silky cassava puree, a welcome foil to the crunch of pig skin.
And for dessert? Though servers were unable to identify the varieties of cacao in the chocolate sampler, it was clear that each treat on the plate uses a different one. It’s impossible to pick a favorite among the intense quenelle of ganache, fluffy mousse, and buttery lava cake. Even those who would prefer to leave the molten dessert in the ’90s, where it gained popularity, this version is irresistible. So are the hot, soft-centered churros served with viscous spiced chocolate sauce. Chavarria’s warm take on his grandmother’s tres leches is also worth a bite.
A meal at The Study is a more casual affair than the applause-worthy fare might suggest. But what’s on the plate is likely to remind you, Proust-like, of when you first went head over heels for flavor and texture. This, as the name suggests, is one for the books.
See This: A piano tinkles just outside the dining room at the sweet-smelling bar. Gold mesh chandeliers illuminate the blue-and-gray-toned dining area.
Eat This: Cold-smoked hamachi, steak and onions, The Study chocolate sampler
Open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday
116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria