Restaurateuring Runs Deep at Monroe’s
by Warren Rojas, Photography by Kate Bohler
His parents turned icy cold beer and chili-covered hot dogs into community builders during their decades-long run as proprietors of the fabled Vienna Inn. His daughter co-opted the famous chili dogs and helped elevate other Southern delicacies—frickles, anyone?—during her tenure at the short-lived but much loved Del Merei Grille.
One might be tempted to believe that Mark Abaham was almost destined to open Monroe’s. But Abraham insists it was his desire to bring people together, not kismet that ultimately obliged him to pursue the personalized neighborhood trattoria celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
“Restaurants are a hands-on business,” Abraham notes. “And mom and dad, through their efforts at the Vienna Inn, made me appreciate the need to be there to make it work right.”
And make it work he does.
Monroe’s wants not for loyal customers, many of whom casually stroll into the perfectly charming establishment prominently situated in pedestrian-friendly Del Ray.
“We have folks that dine with us three, four, sometimes five nights a week,” Abraham says of the flood of familiar faces that pour into the main dining on any given night. We didn’t notice the same people during our many visits, but we certainly enjoyed getting to know the type of folks who routinely darken Abraham’s door. The early-evening crowd tends to skew toward retirees, some bonding with fellow elderly couples while others break bread with their now-grown children and rascally grandkids.
During an average dinner rush, chances are good you’ll spot at least a few of the following: 30-something girl friends squealing with delight when their very affordable bottle of red wine is swiftly uncorked and the kvetching can officially begin; 40-something couples sharing bites of food and stolen glances while hidden away at one of the rear tables; or, my personal favorite, paunchy, 50-something business men comically stuffed into the extra snug wooden booths that ring the perimeter of the dining room.
Brunch is an entirely different animal. The promotional bottles of Chianti that seem to dot every table (and available ledge) during dinner service drop from sight, their replacements: fizzy mimosas and bottomless cups of steaming coffee, both of which are sipped longingly and devotedly by their respective constituents. Soft rock pumped in by the house stereo and the tinkling of water glasses being refilled from ice-laden pitchers is the soundtrack of lazy weekend mornings.
The bar is much more of a mixed bag, and a colorful one at that. During one visit, an eagle-eyed barkeep noticed a zonked-out regular (half hypnotized by the nightly news, half asleep), scooped up his empty glass and arched a single eyebrow. “If you insist,” the easily swayed bon vivant says as his Old Grand Dad and soda was dutifully refreshed. Another evening, a young couple ducked in determined to nibble on something sweet (he opted for a draft beer and something chocolate, she made short work of a sorbet-filled, frozen fruit jobby) before officially calling it a night.
“We usually have a good mix of regulars and new faces each night, which is what you need, particularly in these tough economic times,” Abraham explains concerning the customer base that’s kept Monroe’s busy over the past decade and a half.
The menu is fairly diverse, bouncing from the commonplace (pizzas, burgers) to the Continental (calves liver sautéed in bacon-cream sauce, cod in mango salsa, Mediterranean bouillabaisse). Abraham gives chef Jesus Rodriguez full credit for constantly and creatively switching up the carte.
“He has a tremendous capacity for producing an extensive menu with many special entrees each night,” Abraham suggests, touting Rodriguez’s penchant for seafood specials as a driver of repeat business. “Our kitchen is known for having a deft touch with fish,” he notes.
Grains seemed to be the focal point of many of our meals.
An order of the eponymous house bread summoned rosemary-laced foccacia escorted by olive tapenade (righteously pungent), extra basil-y pesto and so-called eggplant caviar (tasted like plain pureed eggplant to this hired mouth). The tear-apart triangles of bread were nothing special, but they definitely came in handy when scooping up the herb-packed pesto and briny olive spread.
A garden full of roasted zucchini, summer squash, onions and bell peppers adorned the fabulous breakfast pizza. The crust (average crunch, but plenty sturdy) strictly played rhythm guitar here, while the combined vegetables and melted mozzarella put on a deliciously concerted effort.
A hybrid carbonara omelet showed some real spirit—the coarsely chopped bacon, piquant onions and crisp peppers were all solid performers—but lacked the pizzazz of its namesake pasta (the last-minute egg that cooks as you toss the al dente noodles being the dramatic flourish, there). We devoured every last bit of it the superlative sausage hash, featuring fennel seed-speckled, sweet Italian sausage crumbled and browned with diced potatoes.
Bocconcini Eleanora did not skimp on the prosciutto or the mozzarella. In fact, the thinly pounded veal cutlets looked to be swallowed whole by their dairy accompaniments, the huge slabs of milky white cheese absolutely enveloping each slice of the meltingly tender beef. A side of scalloped potatoes was delightfully crunchy, while roasted Brussels sprouts were a thing of beauty (hearty greens).
Grilled lamb lounges on peppery arugula, the meat finished with a drizzle of port reduction that was, perhaps, cooked down a tad too long (sauce is too thin, too faint).
I ordered a steak more out of laziness than actual curiosity, foolishly assuming that their New York strip would be just like the countless other meat and potatoes renditions I have absent-mindedly wolfed down throughout my professional dining career.
Not even close.
The criminally over-salted steak Florentine was the cruelest joke I’ve experienced all year, the sodium-stricken yin to an overbearing pepper steak’s yang. An olive oil marinade kept the decently marbled cut from drying out completely, but the heavy-handed rub was nothing short of disheartening.
Sweets run the gamut from big, fluffy Belgian waffles begging to be drenched in maple syrup to pistachio-spiked crème brulee, the nutty, buttery custard gorgeously caramelized.
1603 Commonwealth Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-5792; (www.monroesrestaurant.com)
Hours: Open for dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Prices: Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).
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