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Best New Restaurants

 

By Warren Rojas  / Photography by Hana Jung and Jonathan Timmes

While the rest of the economy cooled, red hot hospitality ventures (seems like entire blocks of tempting alternatives sprouted in Reston) continued making their way onto the dining rolls in 2008.

One might think simply tracking all the incoming restaurants to our ever-expanding area—never mind actually visiting, tasting, whittling down and evaluating them all over several months—could be a considered a full-time job.

But a food critic’s work, it seems, is never really done.

This year’s Best New Restaurants list does not, however, merely placate the PR-driven properties you’ve probably already seen/heard/read about in countless other local media. As we are most proud of the undiscovered gems (Authentic Iraqi comfort food in Oakton? Been there. Seasonally-inspired, tapas-like cuisine in Leesburg? Done that.) we strive to uncover right in our collective backyard.

 

BEST NEW SUSHI SHOWMANSHIP
Sakana
128 W. Maple Ave., Vienna; 703-319-1300
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

“Do you want to see them move?” the Sakana chef asks as he fishes a pair of live surf clams from their container. He then slaps the orange bivalves on his cutting board—a shocking jolt that forces the sluggish sea creatures to perform on cue.

Seconds later, the still-wriggling specimens are before me. Each clam flexes one last time as I bite down, a momentary spasm that could be mistaken for toughness, but quickly cedes chewy flesh.

Now that’s fresh nigiri.

A peek at the Sakana sushi bar—the restaurant has changed ownership since its days as Kansai, but retains its Japanese bent—reveals a rainbow of fresh ingredients, including: forest green avocados, glistening fish roes, golden mango slices and mottled quail eggs.

Daily specials favor curiosity seekers, featuring the likes of: red carpet roll (salmon, avocado, applesauce) and giant clam.

California sea urchin delivers more of a buttery-livery quality than the promised sweetness, but there’s no denying its memorable flavor.

Monkey roll summons a tuna-avocado-roe collaboration crowned with fresh banana and drizzled in kiwi sauce (a slightly creamy, mostly sweet concoction)—a dulcet sushi the chef suggests “makes a great dessert” (I can see that).

 

BEST NEW LOCAVORE RETREAT
The Wine Kitchen
7 S. King St., Leesburg; 703-777-9463; www.thewinekitchen.com
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

After years of bouncing around the Virginia countryside (Ashby Inn, Goodstone Inn), executive chef Christopher Carey seems content to let his hair down at Leesburg’s fledgling Wine Kitchen.

“It’s obviously much more laid-back and relaxed,” Carey says, suggesting that country inns are much more about decorum and tradition. “Here, I get to play a little bit.”

The shoebox-sized spot (less than a dozen tables) conveys a come-as-you-are vibe embraced by locals (think: ladies in workout gear and chunky designer watches) and curious outlet shoppers alike.

The fully approachable wine list is split into far-reaching flights (A Riesling to Be, The Hills of Italy, The Plains of Spain), including a static nod to regional superstars (Local Flavors).

The menu changes bi-monthly, but Carey expects to retain customer favorites (Parisian gnocchi, uber-Gruyere croque monsieur) in one capacity or another.

Pray he keeps the pork belly Caesar as well, otherwise you’ll miss grandiose slices of peppered pork belly—the core is buttery soft, while the outer rim sports a ruddy crust—draped atop stiff romaine ribs. A sauteed mushroom-and-poached egg pairing dazzles the salt receptors, while vinaigrette soaked-frissee cuts through the yolky richness, and fried polenta adds crunch.

 

BEST NEW DRAFT DISPENSARY
Capital Ale House
917 Caroline St., Fredericksburg; 540-371-2337; www.capitalalehouse.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Sunday.

Forget about mindlessly chomping on beer nuts and stale pretzels. Capital Ale House’s inventive dishes (Rogue-flavored wings, gouda-topped mussels) and fierce aoilis demand your full attention.

Forget about mindlessly chomping on beer nuts and stale pretzels. Capital Ale House’s inventive dishes (Rogue-flavored wings, gouda-topped mussels) and fierce aoilis demand your full attention. Photography by Hana Jung

It’s fine and dandy to tempt beer lovers with the promise of dozens of rotating drafts and hundreds more bottles. The real question is: How do you keep all those delicious brews cold?

Capital Ale House simply ices down the bar.

Regulars at the always-packed brew haven have probably noticed the narrow, frost-covered rail that runs the length of the entire counter—a runway of refreshment that keeps any gourmet suds cool ad infinitum without watering down the end product (sheer genius).

Bartenders keep patrons posted on incoming brews (the Fredericksburg shop switches up its line up every Thursday) and personal favorites, pouring samples with absolute impunity  while sharing knowledge about esoteric beer styles (from gluten-free Belgian dubbles to traditional Scottish gruits).

Meanwhile, the menu celebrates traditional pub fare, but with gourmet flair.

Chicken wings reverberate with flavor—their glistening skin glazed over with spices (chili powder) and beer (Rogue Chipotle ale), while a chunky blue cheese-dill sauce works to douse the flames. Cream-soaked mussels are rained upon with bacon and gouda, the former injecting a smoky saltiness to every bite while the latter captures each glossy shell in a creamy web.

 

BEST NEW EXURBAN SMOKEHOUSE
Bluz Brother’s Bar-B-Que & Grill
43150 Broadlands Center Plaza, #194, Ashburn; 703-858-9499; www.bluzbrothersbbqandgrill.com
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

“I want you guys to run Clyde’s [Willow Creek Farm] out of town,” one Bluz Brother’s patron vents to the barkeep at this nascent Broadlands barbecue pit, arguing that the neighboring Willow Creek farm is far too “snooty” and “overpriced” for her taste.

Price and comfort are non-issues at Bluz, a come-as-you-are sanctum specializing in happy-hour drinks and made-to-order barbecue plates bordering on the absurd.

An all-in burger heaps savory pulled pork, fried onion straws and melted cheddar onto flame-broiled beef. “It’s almost unmanageable,” one companion notes as he tries to get a literal grip on the barbecue-drenched (thick with tomatoes, nominal heat) behemoth.

The Wrecker offers little relief, yielding a mountain of savory brisket (smacks of smoke and au jus) parked atop caraway-laced sausage, more fried onions and tangy barbecue sauce.

Snackers should enjoy the so-called pork wings, juicy mini pork shanks slathered in honey-barbecue sauce (appropriately sweet, but with some residual spice). Just make sure to prod staff for the by-request-only hot sauce—a pumpkin-colored concoction forged from crushed red peppers.

“It’s not just vinegar and cayenne, like every place else,” manager Jeremy Chagnon says of their homemade flame bath.

 

BEST NEW MEDLEY MENTALITY
Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food & Lucky Lounge
11927 Democracy Drive, Reston; 703-437-0800; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Tributes to Great American’s former chef, Bill Jackson, seem to inhabit every square inch of the flashy Reston property. View Jackson’s grinning mug in the Rockwell-esque mural, colorful epitaphs on a central message board or his WaPo obit hanging by the bar.

Tributes to Great American’s former chef, Bill Jackson, seem to inhabit every square inch of the flashy Reston property. View Jackson’s grinning mug in the Rockwell-esque mural, colorful epitaphs on a central message board or his WaPo obit hanging by the bar. Photography by Hana Jung

Up until now, breaking with tradition has seemed taboo within the Great American Restaurants family. But they took a gamble with the catch-all Jackson’s—and, methinks, it’s paying off in spades.

In true GAR fashion, the Reston outpost features a little something for everyone, including: indoor/outdoor bars (exterior heaters keep smokers toasty; snazzy purple halo projects an aura of cool inside), posthumous tributes to GAR toque Bill Jackson (that’s him peeking back at you from the Little Rascal-esque mural, while his many strengths—and shortcomings—are laundry-listed on an opposing pegboard) and even some experimental cuisines: Macadamia nut sushi, anyone?

Deviled eggs were fast favorites, revealing mustardy oeufs sprinkled with spiced pecans and flanked by sugar-cured bacon (woody-sweet stunners). An Asian-themed burger—automatically cooked to medium-well “because that’s how they have the best texture, flavor,” according to one server—summons succulent duck bolstered by zesty shiitake ketchup (molasses-tinged mushrooms), all parked atop a brioche bun. A funkified marshmallow-meringue pie pours face-puckering lemon tart into a graham-cracker crust, then reaches skyward with briskly whisked meringue artfully blowtorched into waves of caramelized splendor (a pool of raspberry coulis helps short circuit any citrus overload).

 

BEST NEW SURREPTITIOUS CHARCUTERIE
Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar & Grill
2163 N. Glebe Road, Arlington; 703-248-9300; www.thirstybernie.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for dinner daily, brunch weekends.

Thirtsy Bernie takes bar food up a few notches with its riesling- and golden raisin-powered pierogies.

Thirtsy Bernie takes bar food up a few notches with its riesling- and golden raisin-powered pierogies. Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Strip-mall sports bars aren’t usually known for their rilletes, saucisson sec or homemade bratwurst. Then again, most sports bars didn’t snag wandering chef-cum-charcuterie merchant Jamie Stachowski to help launch their concept.

Though Stachowski decamped last fall, general manager Lucius Polk says Thirsty Bernie continues to feature the luxuriant pates, cured meats and palate-pleasing sausages customers have come to know and love. Chef Andy Cieslowski, a Sam and Harry’s alumnus, has put his own stamp on the menu via a traditional goulash and crab cake sandwich.

Whenever available, jump on the charcuterie, as Stachowski is a whiz when it comes to kielbasa (seared bulbs of Polish sausage are sublime), country pate (herb-spiked liver sporting the faintest ring of fat possible) and everything in between. Their hot pastrami sandwich sports pickled red onions, piles of pepper-cured brisket (fantastic) and melted Swiss pressed between nutty, whole-grain pumpernickel. Plain old pierogies go gourmet via a tangy farmer’s cheese filling, and seductive riesling-brown butter sauce pleasantly goosed by golden raisins (well played).

Meanwhile, Polk says they’re putting the finishing touches on an outdoor patio and plan to expand their import beer lines.

 

BEST NEW LUNCHTIME LIBERATOR
Tigris Grill
2946-P Chain Bridge Road, Oakton; 703-255-5950
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

“Are you ready?” owner Mowafak Ashagra asks one boomer couple as they stare intently at the Tigris Grill menu board.

“Too many good things to choose from,” they respond in unison, with the husband explaining away their delayed reaction by noting, “normally we have to go a long distance to get this type of food.”

Likewise, Ashagra covered a great deal of distance to serve his native cuisine.

The Iraqi transplant has garnered a cult following amid ethnic-dining enthusiasts by serving up assorted specialty dishes (knobby lamb shanks appear most weekends) and Persian comfort foods (citrus-soaked salads, charcoal-fired kebabs).

A steal of a lunch deal makes sampling easy, offering up a four-course feast (soup, salad, fresh-baked pita and your choice of entrees) for under $6.

Traditional Iraqi soup brings lentils simmered down to near mush, yet subtly accented with chicken broth (communicates little more than the requisite amount of salt) and minced onions (savory). Salmon is escorted across flame until its pinkish hue graduates to sunrise orange, the underlying meat left pick-apart tender. Grilled steak (terrific) muscles its way into a straight-from-the-tandoor pita packed with ripe tomatoes, leafy mint, red onions and yogurt sauce.

 

BEST NEW LATIN SWEETHEART
Don Churro Cafe
13905-B Metrotech Drive, Chantilly; 703-378-1211; www.donchurrocafe.com
Average entree: Under $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Savory empanadas help keep hunger at bay; Don Churro’s protein-packed saltenas cater to hearty appetities.

Savory empanadas help keep hunger at bay; Don Churro’s protein-packed saltenas cater to hearty appetities. Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Naming yourself after a sugary street food renowned the world over is a bold move. But Don Churro founder Fausto Garces and his brood (various children and at least one son-in-law have stakes in the restaurant) make good on the memorable pastry work.

Fausto loves to spin yarns about his native Ecuador, proudly displaying a striking painting of Quito, the mountain-ringed capital of his homeland, across the front of the shop.

While main dishes can be hit or miss (pique lo macho bows to aesthetics rather than beef; pollo saltado lacks personality), sugary splendor abounds.

Saltenas bearing sweet dough around a savory purse of ground beef and plump raisins moved one Bolivian compatriot to inquire if he could cart home a dozen (or so) to his family. Homemade churros piped full of manjar blanco (caramel-like filling cultivated from condensed milk) or gooey, delicious Nutella are sprinkled with powdered sugar for good measure.

Elsewhere, a thin skin of seductive passion fruit recasts ubiquitous cheesecake as an island favorite (tart fruit shakes up the dense, deli staple, sans all the syrup employed by others).

 

BEST NEW COMMUNITY CODDLER
Astor Mediterranean
2300 N. Pershing St., Arlington; 703-465-2306; www.astorfoods.com
Average entree: Under $12 ($). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Catering to clients is job No. 1 in the hospitality industry. But Arlington’s Astor takes accommodation to a whole new level.

The predominantly carryout operation mimics its Adams Morgan parent, serving up the requisite kebabs and Mediterranean staples (spicy hummus, chill tabbouleh) dished out by its many contemporaries.

But where others might scale back the menu or overreach (hookah lounge? Internet cafe?) during these trying economic times, Astor continues to build upon that which its patrons actually desire.

Pining for made-to-order steak? Half-pound (at least) rib eyes are now available daily for less than $12. Craving fresh seafood? Baked salmon and tilapia (another customer request-cum-menu standard) ride in on fragrant chickpeas and rice.

Their Greek salad is defined more by its crunchtacular core (robust beets, refreshing cucumber) than the avalanche of cured cheeses favored by less imaginative kitchens, while the option to add a skewered meat of your choice ups the protein ante. Egyptian pizza drops zesty jalapenos, tender eggplant and juicy tomatoes into a minefield of tangy feta (this flatbread is head and shoulders above your average garden pie).

Fred Flintstone-sized beef ribs are familiarly spiced (rubbed with sumac and cinnamon), but get finished with sweet barbecue sauce (dramatic change-up).

 

BEST NEW WHIMSICAL EXPOSITION
Present
6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881; www.presentcuisine.com
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Present

Photography by Hana Jung

I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school by revealing that Vietnamese restaurants are a dime a dozen in Falls Church.

Which makes Present’s foresight at investing in gorgeous environs and top-notch talent (acclaimed Vietnamese toque Luong Tran) that much more impressive.

The serene suburban newcomer immediately puts patrons at ease via a gurgling decorative waterfall, hand-cut orchids and nattily dressed servers who fawn over each guest as if they’d been visiting for years. The menu outlines just over six dozen dishes, all christened with wildly poetic titles (Resting Steer on Haystack, Sunning in the Tropics, Calling the Mountain Dewdrops).

“They’re all such beautiful names,” one first timer shares with her server.

One doubly delicious number summons a roasted duck leg (burnished with five-spice), that’s then to be self-shredded and returned to a sweet-sour soup laden with vermicelli noodles, roast pork, Chinese broccoli, mushrooms, basil, shaved mango (brings the tart) and Sriracha. Mango-covered tuna starts strong (deep-fried fish, julienned fruit play to each others’ strengths) but eventually sputters (hearty steak could use some light saucing). Lemongrass chicken spits fire courtesy of a charred garlic and crushed red pepper crust (heavenly).

 

BEST NEW CONTEMPORARY CREPERIE
Fontaine Caffe & Creperie
119 S. Royal St., Alexandria; 703-535-8151; www.fontainecaffe.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, brunch weekends.

The ratatouille-filled Parisienne. Photography by Hana Jung

The ratatouille-filled Parisienne. Photography by Hana Jung

Modeled after Europe’s breezy cafes, Fontaine provides sanctuary for those who favor lighter meals and curious libations.

Chef/owner Kyong Yi whips up nearly a dozen buckwheat-wrapped creations, ranging from the ordinary (steak and potatoes) to the operatic (caramelized apples, Calvados, frothy vanilla ice cream).

The Berliner delivers rounds of robust bratwurst (ghost white but plenty filling) tossed with tomatoes and onions, all buried beneath curried steak fries (doesn’t get much heartier). Blocks of potent feta and mint-spiked yogurt goose the sauteed spinach- and lentil-stuffed Moroccan (well done).

Sweets run the gamut. But sweet peaches draped in vanilla and topped with sliced almonds (inject a bit of crunch into an otherwise squishy adventure) have yet to disappoint.

Though wines and import beers abound, French ciders best complement the cuisine (pear pours skew sour, while apple sparklers can get a little musty).

Meanwhile, Yi has recently beefed up her non-crepe options by adding steak and frites and roasted chicken to the regular lineup. Other changes are less exciting. Like the fact that manager/sister Sunyi is poised to marry and relocate to Sweden this summer (hej da!).

 

BEST NEW OFFICE PARK OASIS
Panache
1753 Pinnacle Drive, McLean; 703-748-1919; www.panacherestaurant.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner and late-night dining, Monday through Saturday.

All things in moderation—except for bold flavors—could be Panache’s culinary mantra, as evidenced by their smashing short rib risotto and grilled Norwegian salmon.

All things in moderation—except for bold flavors—could be Panache’s culinary mantra, as evidenced by their smashing short rib risotto and grilled Norwegian salmon. Photography by Hana Jung

Not sure which is tougher: battling Tysons’ traffic just to get to the overly congested highways each evening or swimming through the sea of humanity that overtakes Panache’s lounge come 6 o’clock.

I can, however, tell you which is more rewarding.

This contemporary meze palace (think: white leather, bright lights) takes its cues from its downtown D.C. parent, keeping the booze and nightlife center stage and regarding the budding lunch traffic as gravy. That means shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the two bars—most nights, the bar looks like a “Sex and the City” shoot, with martini-toting ladies itching to let their hair down after another 9-to-5—but easily accessible seats in the minimalist-minded main dining room.

The menu focuses on Mediterranean flavors. And most entrees are gladly downsized for easy snacking (bravo).

Lush spinach and sweet ricotta embrace beneath fluffy crepes (decadent alfredo sauce surrounds). Parmesan- and jumbo porcini-packed risotto (potent mushrooms and salty cheese bond perfectly) is further double teamed by crisp pancetta and shred-with-your-fork short ribs. Elsewhere, spice-rubbed salmon and hand-carved artichoke hearts draw strength from a sassy pesto-cream sauce (dials back excess salt, enhances complementary spices).

 

BEST NEW SUBURBAN DAZZLER
PassionFish
11960 Democracy Drive, Reston; 703-230-3474; www.passionfishreston.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The PassionFish folks pulled out all the stops whilst

The PassionFish folks pulled out all the stops whilst assembling their nautically themed newcomer, investing in everything from fish-tailed flatware to bubbly lighting arrays. Photography by Hana Jung

There’s no arguing with PassionFish’s burgeoning success (packed to the gills, steady foot traffic).

But as a dining critic, nitpicking is still my wont.

The sleek seafood purveyor transports patrons to an underwater wonderland characterized by a wave-like bar, effervescent light fixtures and ice-covered marine delicacies. Too bad the ongoing condominiumification of Reston thrusts guests back into the real world (construction projects mar the view).

Staff are bright (cycle through specials with ease), bubbly (big smiles, infectious enthusiasm) and, at times, painfully honest.

“I don’t eat oysters, so I’m not the best person to ask,” bar manager Christopher Wells sheepishly admits when I inquire about the daily raw bar specials (though he later amends his statement to heap praise on their po’boy).

Chilled yellowtail piggybacks on fresh grapefruit, which is then doused in balsamic and crowned with raw jalapeno (citric base, fiery crunch, wriggly protein creep into every bite). The veneer of cloying soy draped across the so-called Angry Chef roll (smoked eel, avocado, sweet glaze) bumped heads with the title (maybe switch it to the Kiss-and-Make-Up roll?).

Elsewhere, big briny oysters receive a welcome jolt from a homemade blend of red wine vinegar, raw onion and minced garlic.

 

BEST NEW BURGER BABYLON
Ray’s Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-0001
Average entree: Under 12 ($). Open for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, dinner daily.

From the no-fee ATM to the complimentary fruit—juice-laden watermelon last summer, cheery orange smiles all winter—it’s clear that owner Michael Landrum has paved the road to Hell Burger with good inventions.

This neighborhood burger shop-cum-D.C.-Metro dining destination delights its devotees with jumbo burgers (10 ounces of steakhouse-quality beef) and gourmet embellishments (multiple cooking styles from plain to au poivre and artisan cheeses from around the globe) all served amid vintage horror movie posters (“Freaks,” “Mantis in Lace”) and food-handling charts detailing beef made easy and foodservice cuts.

The traditional Mack is everything a cheeseburger should be: relentlessly juicy, smothered in melted cheddar—“We use three slices of American cheese to cover our burger,” Landrum boasts of the cultured dairy deluge included in each order—and dutifully moistened with secret sauce. The Big Punisher is more about controlled burn, its chipotle-brushed patty fed more fuel by fire starters like pepperjack cheese, sliced jalapenos and homemade picanha sauce (stoplight-green herb paste that’s irrefutably red hot).

Putting out the flames simply requires a classic float composed of equal parts fizzy Old Dominion root beer and rich-as-can-be Moorenko’s ice cream.

 

BEST NEW SAMPLING SANCTUARY
The Wine House
3950 University Drive, Fairfax; 703-352-2211; www.winehouseonline.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The brainchild of New Zealand grape buff Michael Pearce, The Wine House provides ample opportunities for local oenophiles to circle the globe, one glass at a time.

The shop’s cluster of cozy tables and the coveted stools surrounding the half pentagon-shaped bar are often claimed by snack-happy girlfriends and venturesome couples out for a bite/a bottle/a pint of something a little different.

The wine stacks are overflowing with worldly gems (Spanish albariños, Italian brachetto d’acqui), while the coolers regularly house serious brews (Weihenstephaner hefeweizen, Lagunitas Censored ale). Featured pours tend to hover around $10 a glass, and often showcase stunners like the 2006 Layer Cake Primitivo (bold Zinfandel awash in ripe red fruit and spice).

“It never stays around,” one barkeep says of the unexpectedly hot seller, noting patrons carry it away by the caseload.

The a la carte menu follows a multi-course format, touting seasonal creations like rack of lamb with creamed leeks and roasted venison.

A charcuterie plate (prosciutto was best, salami a close second) escorted by toasted baguettes and crisp cornichons begs to be shared (generous slate of playful snacks). Sun-dried cherry bread pudding (caked with white chocolate and whipped cream) invites experimentation with brawny ports.

 

BEST NEW RISK TAKER
Sea Pearl
8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church; 703-372-5161; www.seapearlrestaurant.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).Open for lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining, Thursday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Miso-glazed sea bass and baby bok choy and Szechuan peppered steak proves Sea Pearl can handle surf or turf equally adeptly.

Miso-glazed sea bass and baby bok choy and Szechuan peppered steak proves Sea Pearl can handle surf or turf equally adeptly. Photography by Hana Jung

Agreeing to anchor an entirely new retail/housing complex while the rest of the area undergoes municipally ordained radical reconstruction is daunting enough. But vying against relatives—particularly when your competition is the regionally revered Four Sisters—for hospitality traffic is truly audacious.

Confidence is high chef/owner Sly Liao and wife Ly (nee Lai) are up to the challenge.

The spacious main dining room whispers its marine theme (net-like placemats, shimmering strings of mother or pearl seashells), while the low-lying couches in the lobby-like lounge and airy bar setup speak volumes to veteran cocktail hounds.

“The menu is short, but everything on it is delicious,” one friendly young server suggests.

Sadly, an Asian-style barbecue sandwich stumbles, bearing bunk pork (over-sauced, underdeveloped) and lackluster support (gluey bun, dim relish).

The kitchen redeems itself with roasted sea bass basking in a double helping of heat via a miso-jalapeno medley (piquant rings cling to the sticky soybean shellac), while baby bok choy and jasmine rice offer moral support. Filet mignon is showered in phenomenally zesty Szechuan chilies, cracked pepper pods and lush soy sauce (silky texture, volatile spice), and arrives flanked by a savory hash of shiitake mushrooms and steamed vegetables.

 

BEST NEW LOW-KEY PIE-SLINGER
Pizzaiolo Café & Bar
3112 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-837-0666; www.cafepizzaiolo.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Pizzaiolo’s plain-sounding white pizza

Pizzaiolo’s plain-sounding white pizza. Photography by Jonathan Timmes

There are those who might argue that we’re reaching the saturation point for artisan pizzas in this area.

But while they’re busy flapping their gums, I’ll be wrapping my lips around the cracker-thin crusts laden with an embarrassment of fresh toppings proudly turned out at Del Ray’s Pizzaiolo Café.

This offshoot of Crystal City’s original Café Pizzaiolo seems to have settled in quite comfortably as both quirky neighborhood watering hole and de facto gourmet pizza paradise (does it get any better than 2-for-1 pizza Tuesdays?).

The horseshoe-shaped bar is rarely vacant, and staff keeps the crowd guessing with scattershot playlists that ricochet from Flight of the Conchords to Tha Alkaholis to Bob Marley.

Musical tastes might vary. But these well-assembled pies are proven consensus-builders.

Their basic white is a vision of bubbling ricotta, torn spinach and unblemished dough, while each bite reveals flashes of garlic, salty parmesan and smoked mozzarella goodness. The Liese displays a fabulous crust (scorched back, audible crunch) decorated with righteous toppings (forceful sun-dried tomato bits, tender chicken). The Diavolo piles on the heat with crumbled Italian sausage, zesty cheese and roasted red peppers (hurts so good).

 

BEST NEW FAR EAST FUSION
Yaku
1900 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-0844; www.latinconcepts.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily.

Though it’s morphed from a chifa concept into more of owner Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld’s prototypical cocktail lounges in mere months, executive chef Ismael Otarola V remains committed to keeping Yaku’s cooking as interesting as possible.

For those who’ve never been chifa-hopping in Lima (some of my fondest memories of Peru include nights crowded round lazy Susans with extended family), the experience melds Chinese preparations (fried rice, assorted noodles, soy sauce) with indigenous Peruvian ingredients.

Yaku trades glass and steel for the hanging lanterns and paper screens of yore, but does nod to the Andean culture via the Warhol-esque prints of rural Peruvians scattered around the restaurant.

Deep-fried yucca fritters drizzled in traditional huancaina sauce (a spicy homemade cheese sauce) have become so popular, one fellow diner instructed her table mates to double up on the appetizer before anyone had a chance to crack their menus. Aji de gallina wontons reveal crispy pastries populated by zesty shredded chicken. Five-spice-caked short ribs dissolve with each pass of the fork, the resulting mass of meat being bound solely by a compelling soy barbecue sauce.

 

BEST NEW POULTRY PARADE
Bernie’s Delicatessen
4328 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax; 703-691-1269; www.berniesonline.com
Average entree: Under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday.

My sandwich is better than your sandwich. At least, that’s how the Superior makes me feel. Bernie’s beer-can chicken is clearly drunk on its own power—and with good reason.

My sandwich is better than your sandwich. At least, that’s how the Superior makes me feel. Bernie’s beer-can chicken is clearly drunk on its own power—and with good reason. Photography by Jonathan Timmes

I think Fairfax should seriously consider dismantling its entire fire-fighting structure.

Not because of any budget deficits or a spike in civilian preparedness. I just didn’t appreciate getting stuck behind an entire fire brigade the last time I popped into Bernie’s for my fix of beer-can chicken.

Owners Bernard and Leah Socha have parlayed Bernard’s previous career as co-owner of D.C.’s Wagshal’s deli into an eatery and retail operation of their own.

The deli side focuses on custom sandwiches and hot meals the likes of shepherd’s pies, homemade knishes and daily specials, while retail draws include cold drinks (everything from Dr. Brown’s sodas to cold beers and bubbly) to classic impulse buys (dill pickles, gourmet salami).

The aforementioned roast chicken bears bits of brown sugar, paprika and herbs smeared across its bronzed yet juicy skin (three cheers for vaporized beer!), while the aromatic meat remains succulent throughout.

The Superior sandwich beats expectations, heaping corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, sharp cheddar, chicken liver (buttery richness was almost like a second dressing), coleslaw and Russian dressing atop rye bread (breathtaking). Spicy chicken salad yields shredded white meat, diced celery and tart red grapes slathered in yellow curry.

 

BEST NEW GREGARIOUS GRILL
GoolDaeGee
7220 Columbia Pike, Annandale; 703-256-5133; www.koreanbbq.com
Average entree: Under $13 to $20 ($$). Open 24 hours.

Call me sentimental, but I enjoy watching Korean matriarchs swigging Cass while their grandchildren huddle round the butane-fueled hearths at Annandale’s always buzzing Gooldaegee.

The straight-from-Seoul import—one manager says this is their first stateside store, but notes they’re already looking around Maryland for another potential location—attracts extended Asian families, gangs of chain-smoking young adults and adventurous Westerners looking to eat outside their comfort zone.

Once seated, upbeat servers attack your protein of choice with tongs and kitchen shears, parading each delicacy across the sizzling griddle/open flame/searing pan required to finish each dish.

Safety items like chicken and bul gogi seem to sate timid eaters, while native diners indulge in steaming bean curd “hangover soups” or seasoned beef tripe.

“That’s real pork belly,” one worldly American points out to her wide-eyed daughter as the fatty foodstuff flies by on a tray.

It’s real and it’s fantastic, the thick slabs of marinated swine shrinking down to zesty strips of hot sauced- and thoroughly grilled hog. Juicy pork ribs share the company of hot peppers, caramelized onions and roast garlic before being wrapped in crisp lettuce. Plain chicken is baptized in liquid fire and grilled to perfection alongside homemade kimchi.

 

(May 2009)

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3 Responses

tracy gilliam Says:


Hi there! I saw Icons featured in the print version of the Jan issue, but didn’t see it on your website. Can you tell me where I can find the great write-up Warren created in the “New To the Neighborhood” section?

Thanks!

Belle Kray Says:


I really like how you capture the substance of the message, truly great writting manner, I enojoyed it!

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