Patowmack Farm
$$$$ FOOD: 9 AMBIANCE: 9 SERVICE: 8.8
42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville; 540-822-9017; www.patowmackfarm.com
Open for dinner, Thursday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Patowmack Farm’s hay-smoked gnocchi bask in Yukon Gold broth.
Patowmack Farm’s hay-smoked gnocchi bask in Yukon Gold broth.

There’s a new hand behind the burners at Patowmack Farm (executive chef Christopher Edwards came aboard just after New Year’s).

But the seasons still call the shots when it comes to what appears on your plate.

Farm-to-table enthusiasts of all ages—it’s not uncommon to find giddy kids (pagodas, fields and the adjoining vegetable plots are fertile ground for curious youngsters) or newcomer adults exploring the surrounding environs—seem to appreciate reconnecting with nature, if only for a few hours.

Repeat guests can now call some shots of their own, courtesy of new a la carte options (offered in addition to the signature five-course tasting menu).

Ruby-red slices of ahi tuna and stout razor clams (made all the more poignant by a liberal dusting of smoked Spanish pepper) melt into a soothing sorrel cream sauce.

Hay-smoked potato dumplings join applewood-smoked bacon, button mushrooms and asparagus for a dip in a lavish Yukon Gold broth (heartwarming).

Fried salsify and mustard-splashed asparagus decorate a slow-roasted leg of lamb partially submerged in herby au jus.

A SECOND OPINION: PATOWMACK FARM
Lisa Gillogly: What a gem we have here in Lovettsville. Patowmack Farm is not to be missed. No detail is overlooked and I guarantee you will not be disappointed! Why traipse all the way to the Inn at Little Washington??

 


 

Bazin’s on Church
$$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 5.6
111 Church St. N.W., Vienna; 703-255-7212; www.bazinsonchurch.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.

“This is my place!” the proud local boomed, positing that he’d eaten at Bazin’s every night since opening (2006) and recommending I try the signature White Russian bearing his name.

I hope “Charlie” gets better service than the rest of us—because our most recent visits have been marred by unsettling gaffes.

Servers faltered at the tables (reported back on missing ingredients 15 minutes after we’d ordered, sloshed wines into glasses like so much dishwater) and bar (simple two-course meal spiraled into a nearly two-hour ordeal).

Good thing chef/owner Patrick Bazin still appears to be on his game.

Fried corn is piled high with shredded savoy cabbage (needed more spice) and shredded pork in a respectable pupusa knockoff.

Grilled portabellos smeared with pungent goat cheese add muscle to a delicately balanced mix of bitter greens and juicy tomatoes (fresh and vibrant).

Minced porcinis bake to a blackened crisp astride succulent rockfish escorted by parmesan risotto (enrobes the palate in silkiness) and wilted spinach.

 


 

Café Renaissance
$$$ FOOD: 6.7 AMBIANCE: 7.2 SERVICE: 6.8
163 Glyndon St., Vienna; 703-938-3311; www.caferenaissance.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

The veneration of regulars remains Café Renaissance’s most striking calling card, as evidenced by the legion of retirees who continue to soldier in for the favorite Gallic creations.

From meal to meal, very little changes. And the fast-graying guests that dot the majority of Renaissance’s tables seem to prefer things that way.

Staff fawns over well-known charges like family (“I’ll see you soon, sweet lady,” the manager cooed to one blushing octogenarian) but sometimes stumbles with us less-familiar folks (one server left us stranded for close to 15 minutes at the end of the meal even though we were the only remaining guests in the dining room).

Luckily, the kitchen doesn’t seem to play favorites.

Soft shell crabs drizzled in lemon juice and decorated with almonds certainly look grand but succumb to too much salt (pity).

Hollandaise-drenched eggs hoisted atop gripping prosciutto deliver lavish bites of savory, meaty and soft.

Spongy calves’ liver smartly soaks up its wine-shallot accompaniment (seared onion essence duly complements the mellow organ meat).

 


 

Zeffirelli
$$ FOOD: 7.1 AMBIANCE: 7.1 SERVICE: 7.3
728 Pine St., Herndon; 703-318-7000; www.zeffirelliristorante.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

Show me a restaurant that welcomes guests with open arms even when they squeeze through the door just before closing, and I’ll show you a place worth its weight in gold.

Zeffirelli is just such a treasure.

Staff didn’t even bat an eyelash when I slid into a chair right before they were expected to hang it up for the day. “Well, we’re still here,” a smiling server suggested as she handed over a menu (much obliged).

The homey environs are matched by a kitchen well versed in Northern Italian specialties.

A feast of zesty sausages smothered in onions, peppers and marinara turns plain crostini to mush (heave it all on a sub roll and add some crumbled tallegio and I guarantee there’ll be lines out the door).

Linguine carbonara is generous but uneven; the lightly fried bacon lacks presence (this dish needs the pronounced crunch of properly charred swine), while piquant onions cut through the heavy cream in the bowl.

The signature veal chop, soaked overnight in olive oil, paprika and wine, yields meltingly tender beef with citrus undertones.

 


 

The Dock at Lansdowne
$$ FOOD: 6.6 AMBIANCE: 7 SERVICE: 6.7
19286 Promenade Drive Suite P-101, Leesburg; 571-333-4747; www.thedockatlansdowne.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining, Thursday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.

With a name like the Dock, your seafood catalog better be above board.

Mission accomplished.

This bustling neighborhood attraction hangs its hat on fresh fish—boasting static offerings of rainbow trout, mahi mahi, swordfish, sea bass, yellow fin tuna, jumbo sea scallops, salmon and black grouper prepared to-order—but makes no bones about experimenting with land-based offerings.

Stick with what you know.

Overly hyped pork ribs—“I’m waiting for my break to try them myself,” one effervescent server preemptively gushed—were pleasant enough (fair amount of appropriately tender meat) but suffered from totally lackluster saucing (barbecue blend was downright ordinary; keen mustard-spiked slaw was too little, too late).

Lobster bisque proved much more satisfying, revealing a swirling cauldron of heavy cream, cheery sherry and heaping spoonfuls of lobster meat—and was made all the more special by fluffy popovers whose destiny was to sweep up every last savory rivulet from the bottom of the bowl.

Seared sea scallops and marinated tomatoes punch tangy-hot holes though a mass of al dente noodles matted together by delectable lobster sauce.

 


 

L’Auberge Chez Francois
$$$$ FOOD: 8.7 AMBIANCE: 8.6 SERVICE: 8.9
332 Springvale Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3800; www.laubergechezfrancois.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

The more things change (new weekday lunch), the more they stay comfortably the same at L’Auberge Chez Francois, an idyllic retreat where gentlemen still rise when a lady excuses herself from the table and customer satisfaction remains paramount.

Seasoned staff dotes on guests like family, while the kitchen spins out a slew of gourmet extras (fresh-baked breads, gruyere-filled quiches, root vegetable puree, exotic intermezzos, almond tuiles, Valrhona chocolates) that are too delicious to resist.

The mains, meanwhile, dazzle in their own right.

Poached veal tongue, the herb-spiked bath only adding to the succulence of the flavor-soaked offal, flanked by homemade remoulade (a lemon-caper blitz) is quite captivating.

Gorgeous hunks of sweet lobster meat and woody mushrooms bathed in lobster cream sauce turn an everyday omelet into a celebration of sea and spores.

The time-honored baked Alaska gets a Neapolitan makeover via a rainbow coalition of rich milk chocolate, diced strawberry-speckled strawberry sorbet and French vanilla ice cream baked beneath swirling peaks of flash-roasted meringue (singed crust, chilly interior that entertains the brain even as the spoonfuls confound the senses).

A SECOND OPINION: L’AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS
Gloria Lamothe: Reminded us of some awesome dinners we have had in Europe. The only thing that we did not like was that we assumed that they would have a qualified sommelier, but he/she never came to our table. The waitress was nice and gave us a wine list, but she could not recommend any wines.

 


 

The Liberty Tavern
$$ FOOD: 8.4 AMBIANCE: 7.7 SERVICE: 8
3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-9360; www.thelibertytavern.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, dinner daily, late-night dining, Monday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Photography by Hana Jung
Photography by Hana Jung

“Was it that bad?” the fresh-faced temptress teased as she retired the virtually licked-clean plate from before a fellow Liberty Tavern patron.

Gentle ribbing aside, you can’t really argue with happy customers.

This urban hot spot jumps from noon till night, whether they be tempting business types—laptops on, but perhaps folded over to allow for the briefest of actual social interaction—with a world of possibilities (beef stroganoff, branzino with spinach spaetzle) or treating agents of leisure to their favorite pursuits (readymade rounds of Virginia gentleman with PBR chasers for $5, discount wine deals).

Grilled squid and bulbous caper berries—pickled pods that shower the palette in a mustard-vinegar burn—reign supreme atop a gourmet pie further embellished with torn arugula and roasted garlic (adds zesty oomph).

An apple-endive collaboration bound by chilled buttermilk helps cool off a heated tug-of-war between smoked bacon and caramelized pecans (this salad’s got spunk).

Homemade gnocchi glide down the gullet astride a magic carpet of fava beans, mushrooms and chevre, the rumpled dumplings enrobed in extra virgin olive oil and concupiscent goat cheese (encore!).

A SECOND OPINION: THE LIBERTY TAVERN
Michele Caruso: Ambience? Remember, this is a bar. Laughter and drinks abound. Order the dry white wine, some of the best I have ever had, and a pizza. If you want to be adventurous, try the octopus appetizer; a little too chewy but the salad under it had a good taste!

 


 

Bastille
$$$ FOOD: 8.2 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 7.2
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria; 703-519-3776; www.bastillerestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.

Bastille

“That’s another excellent choice, because they’re both in season,” the waiter informs me as we weigh the plethora of eye-on-the-harvest options chefs/owners Christophe Poteaux and Michelle Garbee-Poteaux spin out at Bastille.

The modest bistro— the place is so small, the din of the constantly running dishwasher and clatter of in-need-of-re-rolling flatware occasionally drowns out conversations at the bar—has made choice a cornerstone of its dining operation, carving out tempting prix fixe feasts for lunch-, dinner-, brunch- and even theater-goers.

Champagne vinaigrette-splashed cucumbers, forceful gravlax, herb-spiked cheese cake and piquant capers initially shake awake the senses before lulling your pleasure centers into a dream state.

Seared chicken—a delivery vehicle laden with smoke and juice—arrives embedded in a fennel-laced couscous bolstered by the best of the Mediterranean (roasted tomatoes, nutty basil pesto and earthy Moroccan spices make for authentic eating).

A flirty hummingbird torte yields moist, honey-glazed spice cake slathered in decadent cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with candied nuts (vanished almost as quickly as its namesake).

 


 

2941
$$$$ FOOD: 9 AMBIANCE: 8.7 SERVICE: 9
2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church; 703-270-1500; www.2941.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

2941 chef Bertrand Chemel’s grilled octopus just sucks you in.
2941 chef Bertrand Chemel’s grilled octopus just sucks you in.

Though most eyes still focus on the lakeside view (guests routinely pause to snap photos by the captivating koi pond), the rest of 2941 is beginning to show its age.

The jellyfish-like centerpiece now seems terribly dated. And the growing ranks of faded/cracked/split seatbacks beg for refurbishing.

Chef Bertrand Chemel, on the other hand, has made modernization his top priority. Epic tasting menus have carved into more easily digestible alternatives (a tony, three-course bar carte comes to mind), delightful nibbles (lobster rolls, on-call profiteroles) and value-conscious daily specials.

Homemade pasta pockets stuffed with creamed kernels and surrounded by roasted niblets (a sweet corn trifecta), join sweet crab, peppers and spinach beneath a shower of mascarpone foam.

A soft shell two-fer reveals homemade brioche stacked with Bibb lettuce, ripe tomato, hearty bacon and deep-fried crab, while the other crisp crustacean basks in cherry tomatoes and pickled ramps.

Bitter notes of sauteed chard and the tangy POW! of sour cherries roll right off the back of a slow-roasted duck (the perfumed meat playing peacemaker between the potent greens and syrupy fruit).

 


 

Vermilion
$$$ FOOD: 8.8 AMBIANCE: 8.3 SERVICE: 8.5
1120 King St.; 703-684-9669; www.vermilionrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Staying red hot in the hospitality game requires daring, determination and just a little bit of luck.

Vermilion toque Anthony Chittum has the former two in spades—preferring to fuel his good fortune by firing up some of the most exciting food around.

A student of seasonality, Chittum has most recently pursued a dedicated vegetarian tasting menu (plucked from the finest produce of the day) and has even applied the farm-to-table philosophy to monthly cocktail specials (cheers!). And a trio of budget-minded “power lunch” deals (hover from $11 to $19 for a two-course spread; add wine or dessert for $5) gave the midday crowd something new to smile about.

Homemade boudin, replete with pork, rice and Cajun spices, and skillet-fried cornbread (pleasantly scorched on one side) arrive smothered in hot peppers and caramelized onions (lordy!).

Grated porcinis grant golden fries just the right amount of spice to stand up to a mouthwatering hanger steak bolstered by sweet-savory-smoky homemade barbecue sauce.

Charred lemons, shaved goat cheese and panko bread crumbs take Duroc pork for a crunchy, citrusy ride.

 


 

Restaurant Vero
$$ FOOD: 7.3 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 6.7
5723 Lee Highway, Arlington; 703-538-4600; www.restaurantvero.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

If the retirees who’ve claimed Restaurant Vero as their own private clubhouse are any indication of what’s to come, I’m really going to enjoy my golden years.

Nary a meal went by that I didn’t find myself engrossed in the frankness that flowed so freely from the more experienced souls in my immediate orbit—whether it was the quartet of wine-sipping silver foxes swapping stories of corporate battles won and loves lost or the scandalous ladies picking over gourmet salads while airing their husbands’ dirty laundry.

The free entertainment was much appreciated.

Getting slapped with a surprise $2.50 charge for bread and butter? Not so much.

A shiitake-and-cherry tomato quiche seemed a tad overdone (I prefer a soupier center), but followed through with sassy tomato notes and brawny mushroom bites.

Pan-seared salmon played savory straight man to a supporting cast of fresh mandarin oranges and crisp red peppers drizzled in a sugary, toasted-sesame dressing.

Jerk chicken delivered all the smoke and heat promised, but needed just a shade more tropical sweet.

 


 

Tachibana
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 6.2 SERVICE: 6.5
6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

“If you tell me this is good sushi, I’ll believe you,” I overheard a raw seafood virgin inform her guide as they pulled open the front door to Tachibana.

Not to worry. Your friend did good.

This haven of Japanese cuisine caters to a widely diverse clientele, ranging from venerable Asians (almost always basking in the steamy warmth of oversized soup bowls) to toddler-toting Westerners (yup, there’s a kid’s three-piece sushi sampler on the menu) entranced by the rainbow of surprises displayed within artfully arranged bento boxes.

The kitchen appears to be fielding more daily specials (calamari filets, blue point oysters on the half shell). Too bad they also routinely run out of core delicacies (salmon jaw).

Fresh escolar injects latent butteriness (providing a much fattier/richer mouth feel than regular tuna) to wasabi-spiked hand roll.

Deep-fried shrimp and fleshy vegetables tangle playfully with thick, satisfying udon noodles.

Soy-soaked rib eye, caramelized onions and glassy noodles (one sweeter than the next) become fast friends in a fiery wok, then gang up on mounds of unsuspecting white rice.

A SECOND OPINION: TACHIBANA
Nicole Oandasan: When we ordered shabu shabu, the waitress looked at me and said, “Do you know what that is?” Offended, I assured her I knew what it was … in the end the shabu shabu was still a bit lacking. I’m glad I got my shabu fix, but I don’t think I’ll be going back.

 


 

Bamian
$$$ FOOD: 7.6 AMBIANCE: 7.7 SERVICE: 7.1
5634 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-7880; www.bamianrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

You know times are tough when once-complimentary gift baskets of oil-brushed naan—plucked straight from the tandoor and so fresh, they warm the palms—now come with a price tag (ouch!).

Et tu, Bamian?

The Afghan stronghold still brims with natives and ethnic dining loyalists, and with good reason. Staff are generous with their time and advice—cautiously guiding newcomers through the succinct but exotic menu, while challenging repeat guests to explore untested culinary paths.

Shaved eggplant, its flesh well seasoned before frying, arrives generously anointed in olive oil, pine nuts and exotic herbs (a powerful argument for anyone who doubts the unfettered pleasures of vegetarianism).

Ground lamb, savory lentils, wholesome chick peas and soothing yogurt live in herb-entrenched harmony (mint figures prominently) until disturbed by my invasive spoon (and torn quarters of soup-grabbing naan).

Scallion dumplings smothered in yogurt-mint sauce (yogurt is invigorating; mint casts a zesty shadow) provide an excellent canvas for an Afghan ragout populated by seasoned ground beef, simmered split peas and voluptuous tomato sauce.

 


 

Hank’s Oyster Bar
$$ FOOD: 7.8 AMBIANCE: 7.1 SERVICE: 7.1
1026 Kings St., Alexandria; 703-739-4265; www.hanksdc.com
Open for lunch Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Seafood lovers continue to roll into Hank’s—washing away any trace of the fried specimens and briny goodies the quaint seafood hut strives so hard to present on a daily basis with the abandon of a retreating tide.

Chef/owner Jamie Leeds prizes function over form. Which means those turned off by bare wooden tables and cramped quarters need not apply. The rest of us, on the other hand, can enjoy the likes of $1 happy hour oysters (plucked from ocean beds the world over) and can count on greasy bottles of London Pub malt vinegar and Tabasco never being far from reach.

Near-blackened crab cakes are threaded with lemon and egg and flanked by a sassy slaw (homemade tartar sauce injects zing).

The kitchen extends some love to the garden with a grilled zucchini-and-eggplant creation fortified by lurid amounts of olive oil, sea salt and smoked provolone.

Seared scallops married to meaty shiitakes consummate their savory union beneath the cover of pureed cauliflower (marvelous).

 


 

Duangrat’s
$$ FOOD: 7.1 AMBIANCE: 7.2 SERVICE: 6.9
5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775; www.duangrats.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A value dining champion for several decades, Duangrat’s has upped the ante on affordability by rolling out smile-inducing “recession-busters” designed to keep delicious Thai within striking distance of anyone’s budget.

This longstanding favorite—the dining room continues to host extended Asian families, dim sum-seeking Westerners and spice-loving couples of all ethnicities on a regular basis—has tweaked its menu in relation to the current economic climate, instituting $10 specials (salad, vegetable spring roll and your choice of select entrees) during lunch and early-bird dinner (from 4:30-6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday) that have no doubt helped devoted customers forget about their financial worries for even just a spell.

A parting shot of fish sauce gives crackling wontons—stuffed with shrimp, winding mushrooms and a thin veil of ham—a tangy edge.

Deep-fried bird takes a star turn after a liberal tossing in that lifeblood spice, Sriracha (non-lethal dose, but still zaps the taste buds).

Stir-fried shrimp and bamboo shoots are coddled within a nest of crispy rice noodles slowly softened by seafood broth.

 

Tuscarora Mill
$$$ FOOD: 7 AMBIANCE: 7 SERVICE: 7.4
203 Harrison St. S.E., Leesburg; 703-771-9300; www.tuskies.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

Locals refer to it as “Tuskies.” Plenty of regulars appear to call it home.

But all you need to know about Tuscarora Mill is that executive chef Patrick Dinh refuses to stick to the beaten culinary path—even if that means stumbling from time to time.

Guests can count on encountering at least a half-dozen daily specials (garden fresh spinach-artichoke soup, rockfish topped with crab fondue, caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes) and lots of locally sourced ingredients.

Everything appears to be accounted for in a Thai-style creation—blistered scallops, shredded crab (mixed into the noodles), crab meatballs, lemongrass, multicolored peppers, sliced red onion, celery, a splash of coconut milk—save for any tasteful cooperation (nothing really pops).

Sweet, meaty tilefish arrives enveloped in husky cured ham (bold flavor). But the real star proves to be the chowder-like lobster sauce poured over the adjoining potatoes, chanterelles, greens and just-shucked corn.

Sticky toffee pudding straddling a rich cheesecake swims in a lake of warm toffee syrup (provides a sumptuous, bottom-up infusion).

 


 

Bangkok 54
$ FOOD: 7 AMBIANCE: 7 SERVICE: 7
2919 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-4070: www.bangkok54restaurant.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

When it comes to preparedness, few places can compare to Bangkok 54.

The Thai favorite leaves nothing to chance in terms of hospitality.

An army of servers keeps close tabs on the multiple dining rooms, swooping in as needed (refreshing drinks, providing guidance, snapping pictures) but mostly just blending into the colorful background. Tandem drinks and appetizer specials are helping to cultivate a happy hour crowd at the sleek bar. And a blossoming wine carte (now boasting over a dozen name brand sakes) suggests management knows its food deserves better than the stereotypical gewürztraminer and riesling plonk unloaded on every Asian restaurant.

Deep-frying sapped some of the natural juiciness from sliced pork belly, but its savory quotient stayed solid.

A chicken-cashew stir-fry was almost as intriguing as it was dulcet (honey-like finish stuck with me for a while).

Fried tuna is pulverized into fishy breadcrumbs (unreal) and rolled with shredded mango, raw red onions, peanuts, lime juice and chili flakes (sublime after burn).

A SECOND OPINION: BANGKOK 54
Faye Lee : So many local Thai restaurants try to please a timid palate and fall short as a result. If you go to a Thai restaurant looking for mild food, shame on you. If you want the real thing, Bangkok 54 is for you.

 


 

Villa Mozart
$$$ FOOD: 8.6 AMBIANCE: 8.2 SERVICE: 8
4009 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax; 703-691-4747; www.villamozartrestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday.

“Be careful. This might not make it to your wife,” a fellow Villa Mozart patron half-jokingly warned a generous tablemate considering passing his plate past a row of ravenous companions.

I wonder if chef/owner Andrea Pace was aware his adventurous Italian cuisine can inspire mutiny even among close friends?

A summer treat of crab gazpacho—“You made a really good choice,” an adjoining diner couldn’t help but blurt out after overhearing my food order—yields chilled fruit (sunny tomatoes aided only by olive oil and fresh black pepper) that flirts with sweet, while a central pillar of shredded crab adds protein brawn.

Delicate ricotta dumplings are encircled by a moat of pureed English peas, while planks of sauteed porcinis stand guard (delectable).

Creamy grains of carnaroli rice absorb some sweet from with port-braised onions, a hint of bubbliness from a quivering sheet of Moscato d’Asti gelee and plenty of potency from a gorgeous floret sculpted from tongue-teasing curls of shaved gorgonzola (marbled blue weaves sharpness into every bite).

A SECOND OPINION: VILLA MOZART
Lisa Cushing: The three-course lunch for $18 is the best deal in town! Amazing Italian cuisine with gracious service makes this neighborhood gem in Fairfax City a welcome place to return again and again. Most of the pastas can be ordered in half portions for half the price!

 


 

La Strada
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.1 SERVICE: 6.9
1905 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-2592; www.lastrada-ontheave.com
Open for dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

I respect the community ties La Strada chef/owner Stephen Scott has worked so hard to forge with his Del Ray neighbors.

But I’m pretty sure we could all do without the community theater sprung upon the establishment’s unsuspecting diners when a manager decided to dress down an exasperated crew member mid-dinner rush (next time, do the disciplining out of earshot, please).

When not embroiled in family-style spats, staff tends to fare just fine.

One server wisely offered a gratis sweet to smooth over a bumpy outing (much obliged). Another offered well-informed suggestions to guests looking to break free from a Chianti rut.

Rustic Italian bread provides the perfect canvas for a masterpiece of poached eggs and tomato-mushroom ragout, the spilled yolks and wine-braised ‘shrooms baptizing everything in heavenly flavors.

Forthright bacon and cracked black pepper do their best to sway juicy pork their way, but the swine still smacks of hazelnuts courtesy of a concentrated amaretto sauce (broccoli rabe adds some bitter to the complex, comfort food trio).

Cannolis stuffed with mixed berries sing of summer.

 


 

Rustico
$$ FOOD: 8.5 AMBIANCE: 8 SERVICE: 7.8
827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; 703-224-5051; www.rusticorestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Rustico toque Steve Mannino’s pork and clams parade is a crowd-pleaser.
Rustico toque Steve Mannino’s pork and clams parade is a crowd-pleaser.

According to Madison Avenue, the pinnacle of brewed bliss was last achieved when buxom blondes roamed the earth flinging sixers of Old Milwaukee.

I suspect those marketing geeks’ heads would explode if they ever got a load of the beer worship that goes on nightly at Rustico.

Seats are scant everywhere you look—the raucous bar (300-plus beers), quaint roadside patio (provides a breezy escape from workweek hassles), mod dining room (occupied by silver-haired suds connoisseurs down to starry-eyed teens) or inviting chef’s counter (THE place for a crash course in the fundamentals of beer cooking).

And although he only came aboard this summer, executive chef Steve Mannino has managed to place his stamp on many a menu item.

Shredded duck and uber crispy cracklins bore decadence into the very heart of charred dough accentuated by molten brie and aged balsamic (absolutely magical).

An inspired grilled pork-and-manila clam combination glows even brighter courtesy of an electrifying mustard-beer reduction.

Homemade s’mores (gooey marshmallows, melted chocolate and crunchy graham crackers) get shaken up by a fizzy fountain glass full of vanilla-infused cream soda and rich, chocolaty ice cream (epic sweet tooth indulgence).

 


 

Meaza
$ FOOD: 7 AMBIANCE: 6.6 Service: 6.9
5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-2870; www.meazaethiopiancuisine.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

“You ever tried Ethiopian food?” Meaza general manager Eshetwa Gebreysus asks when she finds me studying the menu perhaps a little too intently.

A sheepish nod later, Gebreysus swings boldly into action—extracting my likes and dislikes with surgical precision before constructing a pain-free introduction to her native cuisine.

She swings back by before the first dish arrives to drop off a sample of creamy lentils stirred with awaze (potent Ethiopian hot sauce) to further my “education” of Meaza’s Ethopian cuisine.

Wild thing, I think I love you.

Weighty strips of golden beef tripe are simmered down to fork-winding pliancy alongside tomatoes, onions and carrots (excellent residual sweetness) in an aromatic white wine brew.

Bone-in lamb nuggets steeped in garlic, turmeric and butter transmit requisite blasts of heat (riveting) even through the protective shield of spongiform injera.

The spice assault is quickly quelled by lemon-like custard baked into a cookie-like crust, all topped with chopped almonds and powdered sugar—a palate-cooling closer regarded affectionately as “grandma cake.”

 


 

Serbian Crown
$$$ FOOD: 7.7 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 7.3
1141 Walker Road, Great Falls; 703-759-4150; www.serbiancrown.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

Where others might waver, Serbian Crown remains firmly planted in tradition—keeping its clients content with ample servings of the time-honored cuisine that once thrilled European kings and Russian czars.

The kitchen respectfully abides by the constructs of Continental dining (mixed proteins are dutifully flanked by starches and steamed vegetables, wild game trumps sustainable sources every day of the week), but does so with enduring passion and carefully honed skill.

A purse of pungent salmon roe is masterfully folded into onion-and herb-spike eggs, producing a high-test omelet with briny pizzazz (the breakfast of champions).

Boneless medallions of sour cream-soaked rabbit provide maximum enjoyment of the fleet-footed, forest dweller (my favorite game, played to perfection).

The garlic butter packed into the center of a generously proportioned chicken breast yields intensely perfumed meat awash in fat and unparalleled flavor (a hallmark of Gallic cooking).

And if the meal happens to dawdle longer than expected—the waits continue to be an issue, as staff continues to dwindle—just order up a Moscow mule and sip the tangy-tart refresher (a happy marriage of lime vodka and ginger beer) until the food arrives.

 


 

Ray’s the Steaks
$$$ FOOD: 8 AMBIANCE: 7.7 SERVICE: 7.4
2300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297.
Open for dinner daily.

During an early trip to the throughly revamped Ray’s the Steaks, a well-meaning server did his best to play up all the new features—including daily specials and a new prix fixe option ($24 for soup/salad, select steaks and dessert)—but didn’t mince words when pressed for a recommendation.

“I don’t mess around with any of that. I just get the cowboy steak and call it a day,” he stated.

Spoken like a true steak lover.

The more spacious layout (two dining rooms; one accepts reservations, the other remains walk-in friendly) means there’s more room for commingling of the carnivorous masses, whether they be gourmet beer-draining businessmen or mohawked youths studiously examining sommelier Mark Slater’s burgeoning wine collection (100-plus well-traveled bottles, most very easy on the wallet).

Deviled eggs heaped with steak tartare and hollandaise provide a clever play on picnic fare.

Roasted peppers and caramelized onions raise the heat index of blackened scallops.

A generous scoop of roasted bone marrow (surreally fatty intro, livery finish) and garlicky persillade propel regular steak into another dimension.

A SECOND OPINION: RAY’S THE STEAKS
Amy Truong: The simple, no-frills anti-corporate atmosphere can get pretty noisy as echoes of conversation bounce off the bare walls. However, the food is what people are here for. Each spoonful of the crab bisque is filled with huge morsels of the crustacean … the steaks are superlative in portion and price.

 


 

Nizam’s
$$ FOOD: 7.6 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 7.5
523 Maple Ave. W., Vienna; 703-938-8948
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

I don’t typically subscribe to the sappy logic regarding good things and small packages.

But I can attest to the fact that the grandiose flavors pouring forth from Nizam’s postage stamp-sized kitchen irrefutably prove that substance is no slave to square footage.

A few things everyone should know before they step foot in the Vienna nook: 1) owner Nizam Ozgur will be there to greet you no matter what the hour (I swear that man lives in the main dining room), and 2) the fresh-roasted Turkish coffee (a gritty-foamy wonder) will ruin commercial java for you for at least a week.

Creamed lentils cut with red pepper oil radiate through my system like liquid heat (reaction is immediate, the pleasure long-lasting).

Rivers of béchamel wash over seasoned ground beef, minced peppers and oil-spewing lengths of eggplant, all double-baked (once in a conventional oven, and then flash-baked a second time in a toaster oven to an eye-catching bronze) beneath a canopy of bubbling mozzarella.

A parternship of blistered hot peppers and shaved beef scorch the taste buds (impact is softened by splatters of yogurt) but satisfy the belly.

 


 

Ristorante Bonaroti
$$$ FOOD: 7.8 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 7.9
428 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-281-7550; www.ristorantebonaroti.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday.

“Any guy who introduces me to a great new place to eat is a-OK in my book,” a pleasantly stuffed exec informed his host during what appeared to be a highly productive powwow at Ristorante Bonaroti.

Another deal closed—courtesy of ever-vigilent owner Sergio Domestici.

Whether he lets the never-short-on-specials kitchen do the wooing or steps in to do some subtle stroking himself—“Placere de verla vista,” the consummate charmer cooed to a female patron as she gathered her things to leave after what appeared to be a satisfying meal—Domestici ensures that every patron is treated like a VIP throughout the course of every visit.

As such, on-the-fly requests are always entertained. But the menu wants not for variety.

Garlic-infused olive oil lightly binds a mound of broad egg noodles intertwined with butter flied shrimp and jaw-exercising crowns of steamed broccoli (well cooked, but still resolutely crunchy).

Wiggly pasta purses of seasoned lamb arrive blanketed in a tomato-onion-basil ragout bolstered by ribbons of biting Parmesan.

Seared grouper is brightened by a soak in Grand Marnier, the orange liqueur contrasting against the salty flesh.

 


 

Sette Bello
$$ FOOD: 7.2 AMBIANCE: 7.2 SERVICE: 6.7
3101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-351-1004; www.settebellorestaurant.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Sunday.

“Serious” is not a term I would use to describe any aspect of the Sette Bello experience.

Well, maybe seriously delicious.

This place is no culinary temple; it’s more like a gastronomic fun park.

Prismatic colors grab your gaze at every turn (stained glass entryway, yellow checkered tables).

The serpentine-like bar weaves throughout making way for plenty of room for all types to intermingle, including cigar-chomping gentlemen (enjoy the smokey indulgence while you can), Peroni-swigging co-workers or Italian “tapas”- and gourmet pizza-sharing youths well versed in the pleasures of quivering crudo, toasted bruschetta and pungent formaggio.

A snack-sized portion of polpette reveals a cluster of mini meatballs rolled in breadcrumbs, a spicy tomato sauce at their feet.

Coils of shaved fennel and leafy tufts of arugula partner up for a bitter-fresh promenade across the palate, while a sheet of shaved Parmesan ensures salt receptors don’t feel left out.

Freshly torn basil, pearls of smoked mozzarella (a little goes a long way), diced tomatoes and a confident tomato ragout drive a bowl of herb-laced fettuccine.

 

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