Chef and co-owner Yuan Tang says that he and his wife, Carey, have lofty goals for their new restaurant, Ellie Bird. His hopes are no less than raising the culinary game in Falls Church, and even NoVA at large, with the standards that earned their DC restaurant, Rooster & Owl, a Michelin star.
“As we hire people, [our high standard] spreads, and we’re able to raise the level of every employee that we hire. They can move to other kitchens and open their own restaurants and it will spread. That’s my end goal, my top-level dream goal,” says Yuan Tang.
The Tangs have reason to hope for a more delicious Falls Church. Both grew up in the city, and they are raising their family there. Ellie Bird is named for their second daughter, with a nod to the avian theme they’re carrying from Rooster & Owl. And their plans to elevate the region’s cuisine aren’t pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. They’re pasta-on-your-table reality.
Ellie Bird is, at its heart, a neighborhood restaurant. Diners arrive dressed in shorts and sandals with their young children, who order from their very own menu of naan pizza and cornflake-crusted chicken tenders. But the Tangs welcome these guests in a space created by DC design firm //3877 that feels simultaneously chic and comfortable with its birdcage-style tables and bright aesthetic. Service is friendly but with fine-dining-level care. You’d never know that restaurants are facing a staffing shortage here, where the apron-sporting team consistently fills water glasses and packs up leftovers as if it were second nature.
Despite this multitude of assets, though, the main attraction is indubitably what’s on the varied dishware. From salads to cakes, everything that exits Yuan Tang’s kitchen has ample forethought, purpose, and most importantly, flavor.
When asked how to define the cuisine at Ellie Bird, the couple hesitates to call it “New American.”
“In the last 10 years, it’s diluted. There’s a lot of global influence in New American, so the term is weakening in meaning. Some people are trying to call it N/A. When we think about the cuisine we’re doing, it’s a chef-driven approach and reflecting the backgrounds of the culinary team,” Carey Tang says.
The best way to explain this is to focus on specific dishes. Diners might, for example, order the bread basket, which combines herb-studded focaccia with sweet, fluffy Hong Kong–style pineapple buns. They should pair the bread, already served with soft grilled- scallion butter, with another allium showcase, French onion soup.
At Ellie Bird, though, classics uniformly come with a twist. In the case of the potage, it’s a blend of the crouton-and-Gruyère-topped French starter and the Vietnamese pho broth that Yuan Tang discovered when he moved from Hong Kong to Falls Church at age 10. Courtesy of a liberal helping of oxtail, the anise-and-cinnamon-scented broth takes on a collagenous richness that goes beyond the average version of either soup. Fish sauce, lime juice, and Worcestershire sauce all conspire to amplify the heart-melting flavors.
Handmade pastas are among the unmissable focal points at Ellie Bird. So much so, that I found myself ordering them alongside lighter appetizers, like the fruity salmon poke. I couldn’t get enough of the cacio e-lote, al dente spaghetti that blends cheesy cacio e pepe pasta with Mexican street corn. A corn cream sauce is the innovation diners didn’t know they needed, especially when crowned with charred kernels and crumbles of queso fresco. Fennel rigatoni is more straight-ahead Italian but sallies forth with its own brassy personality courtesy of a ragù of housemade duck sausage beneath a blob of honeyed ricotta.
One of the most appealing (and illustrative) examples of mixing the influences of the chefs on the Ellie Bird team is the grilled whole branzino. Presented bisected and headless, the fish is crispy with crisscrosses from the grill. The branzino itself is marinated in kombu for a distinctly Asian flavor that’s met with the bright foil of avocado salsa verde, a recipe from a Peruvian sous-chef. The plate is finished with jicama slaw and soy nuts, final touches that bring a resolution to the fusion.
The lamb shank graces nearly every table. Made from Pennsylvania-bred animals, the ultra-lush meat is braised in red wine, then finished with a fish sauce gastrique for an extra dose of umami. Crispy shallots on top lend a crunch, as do the onions in the green tabbouleh beneath. Peas, fava beans, edamame, and mint all leave their mark on the grain salad, creating a contrast with the rich, fatty flesh.
The only misfire I experienced at Ellie Bird was the Baked Virginia, a take on Baked Alaska from executive pastry chef Rachel Sherriffe. Though the torched meringue exterior was pleasant enough, the too-hard peanut butter ice cream beneath it was anything but. The PB&J flavor profile created by the addition of raspberry jam is a neat idea, but the result isn’t the elevated dish I hoped for.
In its place, diners should order Sherriffe’s chocolate cake. It’s labeled “Can’t miss!” on the menu for a reason. Its layers of airy devil’s food cake and black tea caramel serve as a deep, dark launchpad for the light, aromatic chai buttercream that surrounds them.
From the cocktails with names like Kids’ Choice Awards (its pandan and coconut milk, combined with Bombay Sapphire gin and mango, resembles Nickelodeon’s signature slime), to the sides such as Jenga-like sticks of “fancy tater tots,” served with garlicky toum and house hot sauce, there’s no escaping the fun at Ellie Bird. Even the restrooms are decorated with wallpaper of wisecracking birds. But for Falls Church, and perhaps NoVA as a whole, the restaurant represents a new level of credibility for our dining scene.
Rating: ★★★★ 1/2
See This: Birds of all shapes and sizes decorate nearly every surface in the restaurant, but don’t let them distract you from the action in the open kitchen.
Eat This: Vietnamese French onion soup, whole branzino, Rachel’s Chocolate Cake
Open for dinner Tuesday–Sunday; brunch Saturday and Sunday
125 Founder’s Ave., Falls Church, elliebirdva.com
Feature image by Albert Ting