Best New Restaurants 2007

Spring may be the season of rebirth, but our local dining scene has been in full bloom year round. We popped in, filled up and hung out at dozens of newcomers before settling on our 20 very favorite restaurants…

By Warren Rojas / Photography By Anastasia Chernyavsky

Spring may be the season of rebirth, but our local dining scene has been in full bloom year round.

We popped in, filled up and hung out at dozens of newcomers before settling on our 20 very favorite restaurants—a contingent including at least one successful spin-off, a few District defectors and a number of first-timers we’d like to see stick around for the long haul.

If you don’t know them, please allow us to introduce you to the Best New Restaurants of 2007 (and the chefs who make them so special).

 

BEST NEW Southern Belle
Indigo Landing
1 Marina Dr., Alexandria. 703-548-0001 | www.indigolanding.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch

Indigo’s mallard medley

Gorgeous water view: check. Attentive staff: check. Renowned chef aiming to take low-country cooking to new heights: check +. When it comes to the class of 2007, Indigo Landing is definitely making the grade as one of the finest new restaurants in the area.

Twinkling lights from the District skyline set the mood for hopeless romantics, while the rhythmic lapping of the Potomac supplies the ideal soundtrack for a lazy, afternoon lunch. Inside, an army of gracious servers buzz about announcing the arrival of chef Bryan Moscatello’s toothsome creations, retiring empty plates and providing unvarnished advice about the restaurant’s distinctly Southern tilt.

A basket of homemade breads bearing a smoked bacon stick (all the flavor, sans the grease), jalapeño muffins and flaky biscuits, is a snappy how-do-you-do. A comforting bowl of she-crab soup gets dressed up with a captivating crab-filled swizzle stick (terrific). The sultry oyster pie combines meaty oysters, chopped mushrooms and shredded herbs in a creamery soup, crowned with a round of crusty toast. Jumbo shrimp stand proudly atop milky cheddar grits bombarded with bits of country bacon, diced peppers and streaks of buttery cream. The so-called “duck bog” proves a worthwhile trek, delivering a weighty mass of roast duck breast (good), duck liver (better) and chopped duck sausage (best) entrenched in a soupy blend of wild grain rice, rendered duck fat and tomato sauce. Elsewhere, a nutty round of sugary pecans scooped into a graham cracker crust and topped with a boozy ball of mint julep ice cream, will have you whistlin’ Dixie the whole way home.

 


 

Best New Country Bistro
The French Hound
101 Madison St., Middleburg | 540-687-3018
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Friday and Saturday, and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

Dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend. While no specific breed is ever mentioned, local gourmands looking for something with a Provençal pedigree crossed with a streak of Southern hospitality may want to swear their allegiance to Middleburg’s French Hound.

Since taking over the quaint manor that last housed the much haughtier Aster, Chef John-Gustin Birkitt and his wife/hostess, Marny, have set about to sway patrons with their splashy but never stuffy cuisine. Given that tables are often packed with everyone from spandex-clad bicycling enthusiasts to gregarious dinner groups, their plan seems to be working.

The menu changes seasonally but typically trumpets about a half dozen “snacks” (aged chorizo and cheese or salted radishes), starters, entrées and homemade desserts. One waiter notes that the menu has deliberately been kept short because “the chefs really wanted each dish to speak for the restaurant.”

Message received.

A chilled mash of white beans flanked by anchovies and baked baguette crisps is startlingly sublime. A tangle of frisee gets loaded up with homemade bacon lardons, pickled onions and a poached egg that spreads its yolky payload throughout. A marvelously juicy flat iron steak shares the spotlight with crunchy, herb-laden frites (totally addictive). The mixed paella—served tableside in a gleaming copper pot—sinks aged chorizo (terrific), shrimp (tender), chicken (good) and fresh peas in a rich tomato broth. And life doesn’t get much sweeter than a fan of spongy, sugar-dusted Madelines escorted by a decadent dulce de leche dipping sauce.

 


 

BEST NEW Indian Lounge
Tandoori Nights
2800 Clarendon Blvd., #900, Arlington | 703-248-8333 | www.tandoorinights.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$) Open for lunch and dinner daily

From the spacey murals to the earthy cuisine, there’s plenty of ground to cover at Tandoori Nights, Clarendon’s clubby Indian neighbor.

The look here is sleek, uncluttered elegance. Wall-length murals provide a colorful backdrop to each of the modern dining areas, while cushioned bar stools and plush sofas give comfort to the young and pretty who come to get down and dirty during happy hour.

Co-owner and executive chef Shivani Miglani prepares a number of Indian standards—Tandoori-style clay pot offerings, yogurt-laced stews, homemade flat breads like naan and roti—that should be familiar to most ethnic dining enthusiasts. Better yet are signature creations that take traditional Indian cooking in exciting new directions.

An innovative twist on garlic shrimp dunks several hefty prawns in an engaging white wine and honey glaze. A Goani-style fish entrée delivers whopping filets of flavorful salmon smothered in a thrilling red curry sauce accentuated by some terrific dried chilies (great dish). A portion of dim aloo summons hollowed out potatoes stuffed with homemade cheese and then simmered in a soothing yogurt sauce decorated with sliced almonds. The house lamb kabobs produce tender cubes of seasoned lamb brought to a blistering finish on the grill. The Tandoori chicken is respectable; the Tandoori shrimp emerges just slightly spicier. And if another mango lassi just won’t do, try one of the bar’s frosty fruit beverages, like a homemade chiller of mangoes and strawberries twirled about with crushed ice.

 


 

BEST NEW Deep-Fried Decadence
Eamonn’s-A Dublin Chipper
728 King St., Alexandria | 703-299-8384 | www.eamonnsdublinchipper.com
Average entrée: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily

Was a time when you had to visit TWO separate dining establishments to satisfy cravings for authentic fish and chips and apocalyptically sweet, county fair-style desserts. Those days are now long gone, thanks to the arrival of celebrity chef Cathal Armstrong’s latest project, Eamonn’s.

The fledgling Irish “chipper”—slang for a traditional fish and chip joint—is the playful ying to sibling Restaurant Eve’s swankier yang, offering a no-frills alternative that still manages to feel like a gourmet fish fry. Service is a mostly carry-out affair, although patrons are invited to mingle with fellow seafood lovers at the handful of communal tables.

A chalkboard menu touts lightly-fried cod filets (4- and 6-ounce portions of flavorful fish), battered ray (a delicious block of bone-in skate wing) and rotating fish of the day specials (swordfish yields a meaty mass of seafood goodness). Fried sausages (spice to spare) and salty, hand-cut “chips” hit the spot, while the battered “burgher,” sadly, flops hard (thin, lifeless patty emerges limp and overly battered). Meanwhile, virtually every flash-fried delicacy gets a boost from one of the “secret seven” dipping sauces, a cadre of mayo-based blends including a terrific hot chili aioli and the savory Chesapeake (spiked with Old Bay seasoning). Come dessert, Snickers bars get dipped in batter, deep-fried and then rolled in cinnamon sugar (absolutely debilitating), while homemade fried dough balls provide just the right balance between starch and sweet. Worthwhile liquid accompaniments include frothy Guinness pints, as well as bottles of Harp, Smithwick’s and Amstel Light.

 


 

BEST NEW Roman Refuge
Vespucci
10579 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax | 703-272-8113 | www.vespuccirestaurant.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

According to staff, the bright purple orchids that grace every dish served at Vespucci are completely edible, and in fact, heart-healthy. Seems like an awful lot of work for one little flower, considering the heft of the generous pastas and abundant seafood platters prepared by executive chef Emilio Sadaghiani.

An offshoot of owner Ray Farnood’s longstanding catering operation, Vespucci combines the pleasures of fine dining with the comfort of a neighborhood retreat. The main dining room is framed by striking hardwood rafters dotted with decorative lights shaped like grape clusters, while a nautical mural rounds out the restaurant’s unique personality.

The parade of Roman delights begins with a bread basket that sidesteps plain butter in favor of a roast garlic bulb steeped in olive oil (stunning). Roast eggplant envelops a purse of melted ricotta and mozzarella, all smothered in plum tomato sauce. Tortellini mimosa reveals cheese-stuffed ringlets surrounded by a creamy mascarpone sauce propped up by fresh peas and chopped pancetta. Pounded chicken filets are wrapped around a prosciutto-asparagus core, then smothered in melted mozzarella and set afloat in a sultry port wine reduction. Elsewhere, a lemony veal filet turbocharges a salad of torn arugula, sliced red onions and fresh tomatoes. Traditional desserts are tempting, but the hands-down favorite remains the frozen “bomba”—a multi-splendored mound of mango, lemon and raspberry sorbets encased within a white chocolate shell bolstered by bands of chocolate fudge (irresistible).

 


 

BEST NEW Elegant Thai
Cee Fine Thai Dining
9901 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax | 703-293-9898 | www.ceefinethaidining.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

East trests West at Cee

Seems everywhere you turn these days, a new Thai place crops up overnight. But while many of these fly-by-night operations offer little more than Americanized take-out or deliberately bland buffet offerings, the traditionalists at Cee have accessorized their authentic cuisine with stylish surroundings and unreserved hospitality.

Waitresses in prim khaki tops and long black skirts see to your every need, offering suggestions for those who might founder when faced with the nearly 100 dining options.

For a tidy but tasteful treat, try the delicious “golden sacks,” crispy fried dim sum filled with minced pork and shrimp. A plate of sun-dried beef summons a cluster of crunchy, shredded beef. Marinated chicken wings are grilled instead of drowning to death in a deep-fryer. Strips of barbecue pork absolutely sizzle when introduced to the spicy lime-scallion sauce at their side (excellent). A signature catfish delivers swaths of tender fish with creeper heat (love those piquant chili pods) hidden beneath a seductive honey glaze. Elsewhere, the dichotomous lamb in two seasons yields succulent lamb chops drenched in contrasting pools of scorching red chili sauce with just a touch of coconut milk, and a fragrant garlic base; the combative yet complementary flavors are sectioned off by a wall of steamed broccoli and fresh asparagus.

 


 

BEST NEW Sibling Tag-Team
Restaurant Vero
5723 Lee Hwy., Arlington | 703-538-4600 | www.restaurantvero.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

A star is born at Restaurant Vero

If you have to peek down to the bottom of this review to learn where Restaurant Vero is, it may already be too late for you to get a good table. Particularly since locals have already lain claim to this serene neighborhood charmer.

Inside, tea lights keep things low-key, while wine and mustard walls project a quiet calm. Co-owner Joy Reinhardt keeps a close eye on the front of the house, while her twin brother and the executive chef, Jay, keeps things humming in the kitchen. Meanwhile, co-owner Veronica Kunkel has cobbled together a thoughtful wine list designed to complement their worldly cuisine.

Seared polenta gets smothered beneath a mound of fiery, pulled duck (gloriously mercurial mallard). A slice of well-balanced quiche delivers smoky bacon and fluffy cheese in every bite. A hearty crab cake sandwich reveals a mustardy mound of shredded crab that’s easy on the breading and heavy on genuine, seafood flavor. Tuscan pork ribs exude tomato zest and Italian spices; take your time prying the slow-roasted meat from the bone and even more time savoring the robust flavors from each bite. For sweets, look to a homemade casserole of warm peaches covered in ginger-spiked granola (the real showstopper, here) and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

 


 

BEST NEW Suburban Sophisticate
Bazin’s on Church
111 Church St., Vienna | 703-255-7212 | www.bazinsonchurch.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and Sunday brunch; closed Monday

Bazin’s oh-so-good oysters

Dining at Bazin’s may not yet qualify as a religious experience. But the thoughtful selections and artful execution at this culinary temple does provide patrons plenty to be thankful for.

The first solo venture for ex-Occidental chef Patrick Bazin and his wife/general manager, Julie, has rapidly become a familiar destination for local gourmands who prefer to dine locally rather than trek downtown. The fairly diverse menu features about a dozen appetizers, another dozen specialty plates and almost as many tempting desserts. During a moment of pause, one waiter suggests, “Everything is very good. Don’t hesitate.”

And he’s mostly right.

Crispy oysters arrive arranged in decorative clamshells only to be topped with a dreamy creamed spinach and country ham mix. Goat cheese profiteroles pack a savory punch, while the corresponding diced beet and walnut salad offers a refreshing crunch. In a brilliant twist on traditional bar fare, jumbo shrimp that have been breaded, fried and coated in a fiery hot sauce (the main event) are lowered into a bed of blue cheese risotto (the dip) decorated with a celery salad (the side). An Iowa pork chop is as big as the Midwest but occasionally emerges as dry as the Dust Bowl. Luckily, the accompanying sweet potato mash (dosed with vanilla) always comes to the rescue. For dessert, look no further than the chocoriffic Michel’s—as in the genius over at Citronelle—chocolate hazelnut crunch bars (bathed in chocolate and caramel) or the peanut butter tart (a heavenly blend of peanut butter, chocolate and ice cream).

 


 

BEST NEW Celtic Transplant
Rí Rá Irish Pub & Restaurant
2915 Wilson Blvd., Arlington | 703-248-9888 | www.rira.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily; brunch on weekends

Not ones to wait till the middle of March to celebrate their heritage, the proud Irish expatriates at the new Rí Rá share their culture, cuisine and camaraderie with all who pass through their royal blue doors.

The one-time hardware store (the Virginia Hardware Company sign still juts out from the roof) has been reborn as an upscale pub with a sleek-looking bar heavy on imported drafts, a two-tier dining area and a jovial band of fair-skinned servers that bid you welcome in a prominent brogue. Emerald Isle staples like Colman’s mustard and the vinegary HP sauce (the British A1) are available to spice up any meal, while parched gullets can seek solace in a meticulously poured Guinness or a refreshing glass of Magners cider.

As expected, the menu is rife with Celtic standards (corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips) and pub grub like custom burgers and made-to-order sandwiches.

Meaty wings are coated in a robust Guinness barbecue sauce bolstered by crushed pepper. Fried potato cakes yield lacy patties accented with sour cream and a balsamic reduction. A thick and hearty shepherd’s pie heaps drifts of whipped potatoes atop an almost chili-like ground beef brew. Lamb stew is populated with hefty cubes of tender lamb and vegetables in a thick, cream broth. And you’ll require a lot more than luck to dispatch a gut-busting traditional breakfast stacked with jumbo sausages (bangers), grilled ham steaks (rashers), black and white pudding (rounds of homemade blood and bloodless sausage, respectively), baked beans, fried eggs and Irish soda bread.

 


 

BEST NEW Modern Mezze
100 King
100 King St., Alexandria | 703-299-0076 | www.100king.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

Some people loathe the small-plates-as-centerpieces phenomenon that has electrified the restaurant industry in recent years. But when done properly—as is the case at newcomer 100 King—a parade of pint-sized portions makes it easy to broaden your palate without necessarily thinning out your wallet.

This slick addition to the Lebanese Taverna empire may soon overshadow its homier parents, given its ability to sate fine-dining enthusiasts, wine aficionados and mezze lovers all under one roof. The classic white décor projects a minimalist cool throughout. Patrons have the choice of a bustling downstairs bar/lounge or the more reserved upstairs dining area.

Willard Room veteran Denis Soriano brings along an eye for detail and a passion for the exotic that elevates most plates, big or small, to potential crowd pleasers.

Shrimp Arak summons a gang of meaty crustaceans tossed in lemon juice and red onions. Mushroom fricassee produces a savory mass of wild mushrooms first slivered, then sautéed in garlic and olive oil. A duck confit teaser yields crispy skin and tender meat heaped atop a mound of spiced lentils. A generous pork loin chop basks in a snazzy fig sauce, bolstered by pancetta and chopped portobellos. Chilean sea bass brings a copper-colored filet that flakes with the mere flick of a tine, perched atop a nest of broccolini (a broccoli/Chinese kale hybrid that smacks of spaghetti squash). Sweets are good, but an après dinner portion of Valdeón (knockout Spanish blue cheese) or Chevrot (creamy goat’s milk cheese with honey notes) is even better.

 


 

BEST NEW Spice Sensation
Farrah Olivia
600 Franklin St., Alexandria | 703-778-2233 | www.farraholiviarestaurant.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch

Gourmet grits

On first blush, the Farrah Olivia menu could easily be mistaken for a mad scientist’s grocery list: berbere oil, powdered bacon, honeyed cabbage. But the seemingly exotic becomes strikingly straightforward in the hands of chef Morou Ouattara, a culinary wizard determined to broaden your tastes while simultaneously blowing your mind.

Resurfacing after a brief stint at D.C.’s scandal-plagued Signatures (good food, bad rep), Ouattara seems reinvigorated. No longer bound by an all-expense-account clientele, he is now free to tease diners with magical creations reflecting his West African heritage.

Velvety sourdough flan is flanked by grilled sardines, a hill of pulverized bacon and romaine leaves spritzed with Caesar dressing (a Cirque du Soleil-worthy balancing act). Roast pork awash in a curiously strong chocolate-merlot sauce is joined by a fatty cube of Tandoori pork belly (awesome). A savory casserole of tender eggplant, tomato confit, cheddar gratinée and tiny brioche squares nestled in a pool of Greek yogurt sends you sailing through the Mediterranean. Seared scallops atop truffled grits blow traditional brunch offerings out of the water; the creamy grains imbued with a smoky character accentuated by diced scallions and bits of country ham. Ornate chocolate and innovative fruit desserts abound, but don’t overlook the rotating slate of artisanal cheeses (often accompanied by extras like macerated grapes, squiggles of honey, toast sticks and homemade caramel brittle).

In fact, the only real complaint is that the restroom is parked in the highest traffic area possible—wedged between the servers’ station and the entrance to the kitchen.

 


 

BEST NEW Revolutionary Café
Bastille
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria | 703-519-3776 | www.bastillerestaurant.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday

There’s certainly no shortage of fancy French cooking in the Northern Virginia area. Still, it’s always a pleasure to see talented chefs cross the Potomac to practice their craft in more intimate environs—as is the case at neighborhood gem, Bastille.

Ex-Aquarelle toques Christophe Poteaux (savory) and Michelle Garbee (sweets) fled the District for the spot formerly occupied by the Cajun-themed Café Marianna. Patrons are now greeted by glossy wood tables, refinished hardwood floors and cheery paintings by local artists that leap out from walls awash in earthy brown and deep burgundy tones.

Garbee maintains a watchful eye on both sides of the house here, often pausing to personally instruct staff on potential wine and even gourmet beer pairings to accompany Poteaux’s nouveau French cuisine.

A snazzy crab and crawfish cake reveals a lemony patty of fresh seafood (no filler here) served amidst a garden of fresh greens. An all-duck charcuterie tray brings fatty prosciutto with preserves, a crackly leg confit and a buttery rillete. Atlantic cod (nicely seared) is draped across a zesty mound of citrus-soaked risotto. Even the misses are somewhat praiseworthy. Faintly sweet calamari beignets—clever seafood clusters of squid and shrimp in a deep-fried embrace—are terrific, but often get overpowered by their harissa (a traditional Tunisian hot sauce) yogurt mate. Likewise, a handsome croque monsieur is sabotaged by too much salt (salty butter on the bread butts heads with the equally salty country ham within), only to be redeemed by some grand homemade frites.

 


 

BEST NEW Traditional Tapas
Tapeo
1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington | 703.416.6432 | www.tapeovirginia.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

The owners of Tapeo should be fined for practicing medicine without a license. Considering that regular doses of their appetizing small plates, mood-lightening sangrias and spirited Flamenco shows are perhaps the best way to overcome any latent intimacy issues without subsidizing your therapist’s monthly car payment.

The tapas haven is the brainchild of neighboring Ristorante Murali owner Riyad Bouizar, who has moved from Italy to Spain for his latest gastronomic endeavor. The sounds of world music keep things loose in a dining room populated by dozens of bright red chairs, compact tables and a glossy wood bar, while an outdoor patio provides al fresco dining.

The menu features about four dozen hot and cold tapas selections—including over a dozen creations that can be upgraded to full-sized entrées—plus a variety of traditional soups, various paellas (seafood, vegetarian and mixed) and a handful of salads.

The signature Tapeo pizza summons a minipie draped in an almond-infused romesco sauce and topped with a thick layer of mozzarella embedded with chunks of spicy chorizo. An order of jamon Iberico produces grilled pork loin smothered in mashed potatoes, caramelized onions and pert orange gravy (fantastico!). A soupy blend of calamari in black ink-stained rice is seductively spicy (fresh ink adds bite). Tender quail is crisp on the outside but juicy within thanks to some fatty bacon filling. Meanwhile, a mixed paella bearing jumbo shrimp, savory chorizo links, tender chicken and salty fish surrounded by saffron-laced rice would make most Madrileños proud.

 


 

BEST NEW Fusion Tapas
Tavern on the Lake
1617 Washington Plz., Reston | 703-471-0121 | www.tavernlake.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch

To some, the term “American tapas” may sound like a misnomer for miniburgers and dough-wrapped cocktail weenies. Not to Steve Jaeger, the innovative chef who has turned the table on conventional tapas with the collection of bold, international selections that crowd the menu at Tavern on the Lake.

The relaxed locale resides within one of Reston’s waterfront shopping plazas, offering patrons the choice of a breezy outdoor patio, a lively lounge set-up or a casual main dining room with floor to ceiling windows that peer out onto the tranquil lake. Once settled, guests face a new set of decisions from a menu stocked with intrepid tapas assembled from Asian, Latin American and European influences.

Chimichurri-soaked chicken brings roast poultry that snaps to attention when paired with the zesty Latin marinade. The duck carnitas (stellar starter) hoists tender, roast duck onto a tortilla capped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and a piquant tequila cream sauce. Fried plantains get covered in sea salt and a zippy jalapeño-cream sauce (very good). A spicy-sweet cassoulet of stewed figs and diced chorizo awakens the senses. Stuffed yucca summons a starchy fritter filled with chicken and golden raisins (sweet as can be), all wading in a bright peach-mango salsa (powerful). Shredded duck takes another turn as the headliner atop a nest of dark noodles dripping with tantalizing hoisin sauce. Meanwhile, a bountiful Moroccan stew brimming with chick peas, potatoes, onions and tomatoes is a meatless marvel that smacks of fresh cinnamon, clove and anise.

 


 

BEST NEW Neighborhood Secret
Crescendo Bistro
32 Main St., Warrenton | 540-347-0550 | www.thecrescendobistro.com
Average entrée: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, and dinner, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday

As the house-hunting masses continue their steady migration away from the overpriced inside-the-Beltway plots, so goes the local talent. That forced exodus has prompted some talented chefs to seek their fortunes in some of Virginia’s fastest growing rural communities. So it is that sleepy, historic Warrenton has become the beneficiary of the imaginative cuisine served by chef Rob Fleming and partner, Laura Hoffman, at Crescendo Bistro.

The two-story restaurant accomodates casual diners in an upstairs accented by blond wood, exposed brick walls and paper napkins spruced up with shiny silver napkin rings, while you get a much more romantic feel in a downstairs lair beset with linen tablecloths and a massive stone fireplace.

Assorted game and seafood selections make up the heart of the refined menu, but always pause to allow staff to tempt you with creative daily specials.

One such offering of homemade chili reveals a superlative stew of tender buffalo, onions, black beans and celery soaking in a tomato broth. All that’s missing is some shredded cheddar and a side of cornbread to make this a standalone stunner. Crackling fried shrimp are covered in Asian spices and served atop seaweed salad offset by dots of honey mustard. Flank steak rabiatta brings shaved beef tossed over angel hair punctuated by a fragrant sauce of sweet peppers, onions and chunky tomatoes (good, but the name suggests something a little spicier). Conversely, a flattened chicken breast perked up with Fontina, breadcrumbs and thinly sliced prosciutto always rises to the occasion.

 


 

BEST NEW Gourmet Playground
Bebo Trattoria
2250-B Crystal Dr., Alexandria | 703-412-5076 | www.bebotrattoria.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch

High flash for little cash at Bebo

Let’s hear it for asbestos! That’s right—I’m pro-shoddy construction materials. Otherwise, Roberto Donna might never have shuttered D.C.’s award-winning Galileo (under renovations until late 2007) or crossed the river to pursue his latest pet project, Bebo Trattoria.

Granted, the service could still use some fine-tuning. But that doesn’t seem to deter the parade of harried government workers who scarf down imaginative small plates at the bar or the longstanding acolytes who gladly come for an audience with the master.

A custom lardo plate delivers chewy homemade bacon, beef tartar (zapped with lemon and olive oil and dusted with fresh pepper and sea salt) and fresh veal sausage (a fatty delight). The piatti unico brings a four-course feast of milky mozzarella propped atop a plump tomato slice, a jumbo meatball steeped in marinara, a noodle roll stuffed with a ricotta-ham-pork ragu (delicious) and an alcohol-soaked shot of creamy chocolate surrounded by crème anglaise (perfect bookend to this Hungry-Man-esque meal). Croquettes of battered bunny are mixed with deep-fried artichokes and scallions (imagine a savory funnel cake) and are accompanied by a pungent citrus mayo. Meanwhile, a dinosaur egg of a meringue envelops dark chocolate ice cream and crystalline mascarpone within a whipped sugar shell afloat in a lake of hazelnut cream (brilliant closer).

 


 

BEST NEW Greek Homecoming
Vaso’s Kitchen
1225 Powhatan St., Alexandria | 703-548-2747
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday; breakfast on weekends

Vaso’s mountainous moussaka

Nothing is more humbling to a food critic than being told to clean your plate by a watchful restaurant owner. Not that much goading is required to polish off the tasty morsels prepared at Vaso’s Kitchen.

Owner Vasiliki “Vaso” Volioti often greets customers at the door—unless she’s off chasing her cherubic granddaughter, Maria, through the homey restaurant. When she’s not occupied with grandmotherly duties, Volioti splits her time between cooking, serving and chastising customers for neglecting their salads or the fresh vegetables of the day. The playful cajoling works both ways, as evidenced by one lunch patron who pops his head into the kitchen and affectionately shouts, “thanks, mom” before departing.

Although hidden deep in Del Ray, those who have stumbled in quickly find their way back for more home-style Mediterranean favorites.

Red peppers, tomatoes and feta are ground into a marvelously zesty hummus. The house gyro—which Volioti proudly proclaims “the best in the area”—is chock full of savory lamb, crumbled feta and diced tomatoes (top notch). The “Athenian” chicken brings an herb-rubbed bird that is juicy to the core (buttery chicken slides off the bone). A plate of baked moussaka summons a bulging square of seasoned beef, julienne potatoes and roasted eggplant covered with an inch-thick fluff of baked béchamel cream (outstanding).

 


 

BEST NEW Afghani Charmer
Bamian
5634 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church | 703-820-7880
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

Forget Armani. Meet dressy Afghani at Bamian

Cultural adaptation is one of the things that make covering the restaurant industry so very interesting. Hence the reason I’m so smitten with Bamian, a new addition to the Bailey’s Crossroads corridor that takes Persian favorites like char-grilled kabobs and homemade yogurt dishes and adds white-tablecloth treatment.

An otherwise plain-Jane exterior betrays luxe touches like a fashionable antechamber adorned with plush chairs and a display of traditional Afghani jewelry. The upscale dining room boasts plenty of space and modern amenities (minichandeliers illuminate from all around, while a bank of semi-private booths provides insta-intimacy). Open tables are not hard to find, but solo diners or small parties may wish they could join the larger groups of Middle Eastern diners that frequently gather to commune, share plates and while away the evening.

The menu includes nearly a dozen kabob standards (beef, lamb, chicken, salmon), but its true strength lies in the more high-brow offerings. A plate of sambosay goshti yields crispy triangles filled with ground beef and herbs (reminiscent of Middle Eastern empanadas). The more polished mantu platter summons homemade dumplings smothered in yogurt, meat sauce and snippets of fresh mint. The bountiful chef carrayee produces the Afghani answer to stir-fry, delivering a stew of sautéed chicken, spinach, onions, peppers and tomatoes accompanied by a zesty herb sauce and a basket of warm flat bread. The more subtle but no less pleasing palau buries tender lamb cubes beneath a mountain of saffron rice crowned with a robust meat stew.

 


 

BEST NEW Artful Asian
Hoang’s Grill & Sushi Bar
502 W. Broad St., #5, Falls Church | 703-536-7777 | www.hoangcuisine.com
Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily

Well-made sushi is supposed to be at least as aesthetically pleasing as it is appetizing. Sadly, some slapdash sushi operations roll out suspect combinations of inferior ingredients in the hopes that uninitiated Westerners will be none the wiser. Pray that they are never visited by those privy to the culinary stylings of Hoang’s talented chefs, lest the fakers be forced to consider falling on their decorative samurai swords.

A family-run enterprise that previously prospered in both Florida and Baltimore, the Hoang clan is hoping their nascent Falls Church outpost will be as well received as the earlier ventures. To that end, you can often find the elder Hoang behind the attractive sushi bar hand-rolling individual orders while his dedicated progeny tend to the everyday business operations of the restaurant.

The L-shaped dining room packs plenty of flash, showcasing multi-colored stones along one wall, flowing bamboo ornaments overhead, vibrant silk kimonos prominently displayed in the main dining room and painted soy sauce dispensers placed at every table. Of course, the real fireworks come courtesy of the kitchen.

Tuna tataki summons an eye-catching collection of raw tuna rolled in black and white sesame seeds, topped with spicy mayonnaise and salmon roe, bundled together with shaved cucumber and then surrounded by a soy-based sauce (a grandiose dish).  An octopus sashimi produces a thick slice of coppery cephalopod, while a selection of fresh conch is a chewy delight. Likewise, the aptly named “rock ‘n roll” yields terrific rounds of salmon, eel and avocado carefully wrapped in crunch-inducing breadcrumbs.

 


 

BEST NEW Vegetarian Surplus
Saravana Palace
11725 Lee Highway, #A15, Fairfax | 703-218-4182 | www.saravanapalaceva.com
Average entrée: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily

Adhering to a strict vegetarian regimen may sound like a death sentence to those who treasure dining variety. Good thing the creative forces behind the meatless stronghold that is Saravana Palace are always at the ready with a tasteful reprieve.

Parked right in the middle of a budding Fairfax shopping strip, this Indian powerhouse has garnered a dedicated following among the local Indian community—probably about 90 percent of the regular clientele—and curious Westerners alike. The meager décor (just a few tapestries featuring traditional Hindu icons on the walls) would likely benefit from an aesthetic makeover, but it’s still easy enough to get comfortable in the roomy booths and large circular tables in the main dining room.

But don’t let the austere layout fool you. The options are many and the flavors free-flowing on the voluminous menu.

A vibrant tomato sauce turns regular rice into pumpkin-colored grains spiked with fragrant herbs and just the right amount of heat. Curry-soaked squash patties, better known as long squash kafta, come stewed in sweat-inducing spices. The simple yet savory beet porial summons a tart salad of diced beets and shredded peppers. A fork-bending mass of sautéed potatoes and green beans makes you forget that you are actually eating healthy. Gargantuan dosas (traditional rice crêpes) envelope everything from a spiced potato and onion paste to searing homemade chutneys. Those in search of more filling fare should make sure to try the chili paneer, a fabulous blend of tomatoes, onions and fried cheese, sautéed in rich curry.

 

(March 2007)

X