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Fifty Best Restaurants 2011

The boom in first-timers (over 20 percent) was very refreshing—though it also reminded us of just how incestuous the hospitality biz can be.

By Warren Rojas / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

 

Notice anything different about this year’s Best Restaurants roster? We did, too. The boom in first-timers (over 20 percent) was very refreshing—though it also reminded us of just how incestuous the hospitality biz can be.


 

2941’s local beet salad
2941’s local beet salad

2941
[$$$$] Food: 9.0 / Ambience: 8.8 / Service: 9.0
2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church; 703-270-1500; www.2941.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

The times, they are a-changin’.

And the  seasoned crew behind the once revolutionary 2941—which has, particualrly as of late, proven to be astutely resilient and brazenly ambitious—appears genuinely excited about rising to the challenge of seducing a new brand of pleasure-seeking consumer.

Granted, official-looking cliques of designer suit-clad business executives continue to lord over the sunlit chamber during daylight hours. But even power lunchers now tend to handle their affairs with a wine-filled goblet in one hand and a glowing iPad in the other.

Executive chef Bertrand Chemel continues to branch out from their restaurant’s signature prix-fixe format, weaving tapas-sized snacks into a carte already abounding with international flare (anyone tried his tastes of the world menus? They’re mini-vacations, sans all the jet-lag and lost luggage.)

Housemade spanakopita summons nutmeg-laced spinach enrobed by buttery phyllo.

Acid-capped frisee cuts through a decadent duo of cereal-crusted chicken thighs (crunchy above, succulent below) and hearty lardons.

Slow-roasted, salt-studded bone marrow out butters freshly churned dairy.

 


 

Ashby Inn
[$$$$] Food: 9.2 / Ambience: 8.5 / Service: 9.7
692 Federal St., Paris; 540-592-3900; www.ashbyinn.com.
Open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.

Chef Tarver King is an incredibly talented, but unpretentious, toque; when the delivery truck rolls in, he’s right there alongside his crew, hauling sacks of King Arthur flour and crates of farm-fresh eggs to and fro, sans any attitude.

Once settled, though, he returns to the task of confounding supporters with deliberately vague menu items that only allude to the edible whimsy (toasty pretzel gougeres, zestacular curried crackers) King and his crew spin out of their bustling kitchen to the edacious guests.

King’s riff on deli standards ingenuously weaves together unctuous, house-cured pork jowl pastrami, caper-studded Thousand Island dressing and pickled Kohlrabi.

Flavorful jumbo lump crab is brightened by citrus leaves and currant mignonette.

Cheesecake is shored up by malty beer ice cream, dreamy chocolate mousse, roasted peanuts, crumbled pretzels and warm caramel sauce.

 


 

Bastille
[$$$] Food: 8.5 / Ambience: 7.9 / Service: 8.0
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria; 703-519-3776; www.bastillerestaurant.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

“Every time we come here it consistently has been very good …” I overhear a neighbor begin to inform his doting server. But before he can finish his thoughtful critique, his giddy wife blurts out, “and the award for best dessert belongs to you,” her eyes glazing over as she regresses into the memory of a cherry-chocolate revelation spun from the hands of co-owner/pastry chef Michelle Poteaux.

Sounds about right.

A mound of creamy, chilled goat cheese drizzled with charming basil oil, sea salt-studded melons (water and cantaloupe) and vinaigrette-drenched micro greens sum up summer deliciously.

Grilled whole sardines smothered in olive-caper compote, all escorted by squash-rich ratatouille is every pesce-vegetarian’s dream.

Vanilla-spiked bavarois is invaded by berry coulis, crunchy cookies and preserved peaches.

 


 

 

Bavarian Chef’s liebercasen
Bavarian Chef’s liebercasen

The Bavarian Chef
[$$$] Food: 8.4 / Ambience: 8.2 / Service: 7.9
200 Lafayette Blvd., Fredericksburg; 540-656-2101; www.thebavarianchef.com.
Open for lunch, dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

You almost need to have a drink already in hand before reading aloud the Bavarian Chef’s import-heavy draft list, lest your mouth go dry while attempting to rattle off the vowel-deficient dunkels, bocks and hefeweizens poured into oversized steins at regular intervals.

Chef/owner Jerome Thalwitz’s portions are just as generous, and his globally-inspired carte (venison pate with cranberry-horseradish sauce, crab cakes sits astride sauerkraut, roast rockfish over hot buttered noodles) wants not for creativity.

A ginormous housemade pretzel—each salt-studded section thicker than a garden hose—is the kind you only dream of getting at the ball park.

Beer-braised veal is outstanding, only to be outshined by the beyond-buttery and totally unadvertised marrow buried within the Flintstone’s-sized shank.

Vanilla ice cream is the glue that holds together a fabulous nut ball featuring chocolate sauce, toasted coconut and crushed nuts.

 


 

Bazin’s salted caramel tarte
Bazin’s salted caramel tarte

Bazin’s on Church
[$$$] Food: 7.9 / Ambience: 7.6 / Service: 7.6
111 Church St. NW, Vienna; 703-255-7212; www.bazinsonchurch.com.
Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.

“Well, hello! You’ve been here before …” the perky hostess sing-announces when I walk through the door, my mind instantly reviewing the highlight reels from previous visits to discern how/why I’d outed myself to chef/owner Patrick Bazin’s staff.

Once I catch the rest of her greeting—“Right at this same table” (false)—do I realize the seasoned hospitality vet is just using Jedi mind tricks to fabricate an insta-rapport with me (nice try).

Not that I’d mind being a regular.

Smoked chicken gets top billing in a savory cannellini. But it’s the triple cheesing—goat cheese in the tender crepe, browned mozzarella above and a dusting of ground Parmesan available by request—that made us swoon.

Poached monkfish is inundated with butter, while sweet lobster meat and savory lobster bisque have their way with whipped potatoes.

Chilled caramel is gift wrapped in ganache, sea salt and sublime chocolate sauce.

 


 

Brabo
[$$$] Food: 8.0 / Ambience: 7.8 / Service: 6.6
1600 King St., Alexandria; 703-894-3440; www.braborestaurant.com.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

I’m not sure whether executive chef Chris Watson needs to do some disciplining or if restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier needs to call down the thunder, but somebody ought to straighten out BRABO’s disjointed service corps, pronto.

Despite having an army of servers on the floor, the restaurant seems to stumble at nearly every turn.

Dueling bread runners show up within seconds of one another, neither knowing who, exactly, has proper jurisdiction. “But you haven’t even received your entrée yet?” an oblivious server sputtered, a good 15 minutes after I’d been done with the meal (good eye, sparky). Good thing Watson still delivers.

Squid ink-soaked rapini give seared scallops a run for their money.

Grilled octopus-potato hash is stoked by zesty piquillo pepper sauce and garlicky chimichurri.

Roast salmon is romanced by a refreshing “salad” of cubed cucumbers, tangy dates and crushed walnuts bound by frothy lemon sauce.

 


 

Carlyle
[$$] Food: 7.2 / Ambience: 7.4 / Service: 7.7
4000 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-931-0777; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, late-night dining Tuesday through Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Staring out at the sea of bronzing bare shoulders and happily panting pups (giddily slobbering into complimentary bowls of cool, refreshing water) I’m tempted to believe that living the endless summer dream has less to do with surfing and everything to do with chillaxing on Carlyle’s patio.

Great American’s servers are trained to kill their patrons with kindness— standing orders that help turn out happy customers from open to close.

Fried calamari falls somewhat flat—until I discovered the piquant onion straws and zesty tomato-corn salsa hidden in plain sight.

Love crab? I prefer the sweet-and-savory marriage of shredded jumbo lump, potatoes, bacon and ripe corn in the house chowder to the monotonous chew of the bland cakes.

White chocolate bread pudding is bathed in a boozy caramel sauce that blows the lid off the sweetness meter.

 


 

Curry Mantra
[$$] Food: 6.8 / Ambience: 6.6 / Service: 6.2
9984 Main St., Fairfax; 703-218-8128; www.dccurrymantra.com.
Open for lunch, dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Curry Mantra founder Asad Sheikh has big plans for his modest eatery. The serial restaurateur has tasked ex-Rangoli chef and in-law, Adil Akhter, with collecting regional delicacies from across the Indostanic Peninsula.

Those culinary touchstones make up the core of Curry Mantra’s carte, which is subsequently supplemented by nightly specials that run the gamut from onion fritters soaked in sour curds to tender fish swimming in fragrant curry.

Hard-boiled eggs take shelter within deep-fried potato balls crisscrossed with competing torrents of soothing yogurt and invigorating tamarind.

Housemade biryani tosses juicy goat meat into a fiery rice blend padded with carrots, ginger, garlic and aromatics.

Tandoori chicken bellows steam and hisses with rage after being plucked from the infernal depths of its clay pot and thrust into the light of day atop a foil-wrapped skillet.

Sheikh is already eyeing expansion opportunities.

 


 

Duangrat’s
[$$] Food: 7.0 / Ambience: 6.7 / Service: 6.2
5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775; www.duangrats.com.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The festively appointed dining room is typically filled with smiling faces.  Of course, most nights you’ll now find more Westerners than tastes of home-seeking Asians filling the chairs at Duangrat’s.  Consider it a mini melting pot.

The homespun Thai food appears tableside in the blink of an eye. Yet no meal ever tastes like it’s been dulled by warming lights or tainted by a turn in a microwave-safe bowl.

Panko-crusted, wok-fried pork tenderloin wears a coat of fiery chili paste with pride. Stir-fried green beans and artichokes inject fiber into the pig party.

The drunken lobster is delicious—the sweet meat accompanied by Thai basil-topped noodles, bean sprouts and underlying hot peppers.

Dark meat chicken gets goosed by dulcet coconut-curry broth.

 


 

Eventide
[$$$] Food: 7.5 / Ambience: 7.7 / Service: 6.9
3165 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-276-3165; www.eventiderestaurant.com.
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

After suffering a spate of critical departures (kitchen, bar, management) earlier this year, Eventide finally appears to be coalescing around its newly appointed leaders.

This is not to say it hasn’t been a particularly bumpy ride.

The two main floors now seem to share about 33 percent of the menu (typically a featured fish, chicken and other mixed protein preparation), a smart decision which should help short circuit any intra-restaurant feuds/class warfare.

Executive chef Adam Burnett is proving to be more conservative than his predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Richly oiled, truffled fries were exceptionally crisp and expertly accompanied by basil aioli.

Raw bison, embedded with mustard, minced chives and pickle, holds aloft a pretty quail egg, rides shaded by lightly buttered crostinis.

Pan-roasted duck (perfectly peppered flesh) escorted by pungent turnip greens and sweet corn veloute was well balanced if not particularly ballsy.

 


 

Evo Bistro
[$$$] Food: 7.1 / Ambience: 7.3 / Service: 6.4
1313 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 703-288-4422; www.evobistro.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

Mezze is all about sharing. Which is what makes Evo Bistro the ideal place to raid your spouse’s/significant other’s/friend’s plate for “just a taste” of whatever they’ve ordered.

The main dining room is often packed with jovial groups and nuclear families dutifully working their collective way through shellfish-laden, saffron-laced paella pans, while the crescent-shaped bar remains the purview of chatty, chummy wine lovers.

Chef/owner Driss Zahidi makes Moroccan a top priority, whether it be a salad of intoxicatingly spiced tuna, crispy fried leeks, buttery avocado and cool cucumbers, or a skillet full of paprika-topped, shallot-tinged shrimp.

An order of lamb shank stumbles, the big, knobby bone alternately yielding slivers of zesty-sweet meat then distressingly plain, but still succulent, lamb. Caramelized cippolinis, however, were like islands of sweet in a sea of uncertainty.

 


 

Farrah Olivia
[$$$$] Food: 8.8 / Ambience: 8.2 / Service: 8.1
2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-445-6571; www.farraholiviarestaurant.com.
Open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday.

“I have foie butter on my plate. If anybody wants to try some, it’s (expletive) delicious,” one young man giddily announced to his table mates after indulging in the fruit of chef/owner Morou Ouattara’s restaurant-resurrecting experiment.

At the first Farrah Olivia, Ouattara knocked critics out with fantastic foams, curious powders and exotic proteins prepared with epicurean wanderlust.

He’s back at it—but in somewhat less attractive environs (chatter from Kora tends to flood the semi-private space).

“The chef has a bit of a sweet tooth,” a server shares with the table.

No kidding.

Honey-cured quail offers up smoky-sweet meat complemented by blocks of tangy feta, colorful beet chips and grilled peaches.

Flash-seared tuna sports bundles of olive-filled pearls and demands to be dredged through savory sardine powder.

Mushroom sausage, prepared from pureed portabellos, hen of the woods and shiitakes, pals around with fabulously crunchy, ginger-spiked couscous.

 


 

Fire Works Pizza
[$$] Food: 7.1 / Ambience: 7.1 / Service: 7.1
Multiple NoVA locations; www.fireworkspizza.com.
Open for lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining Friday and Saturday.

As expected, open flames figure prominently at this burgeoning chain of gourmet pizzerias, whether it be the crackling logs in the wood-burning ovens or the eternally flaming fire pit that ties together Arlington’s outdoor patio.

Though artisan pies and Italian fare have always been their thing, the newish Arlington location also co-opted the “square plate special” from sibling property, Tuscarora Mill.

The Barcelona roll marries zesty chorizo, extra chunky black olive salad and molten mozzarella in oven-baked bliss.

Marinated artichokes strong arm all the other contributing ingredients—including roast eggplant and whole leaf spinach—in a very vegetarian pizza.

“I think ALL cookies should have to be made in a pizza oven,” a companion gleefully proclaimed, her eyes twinkling with delight as the still-bubbling mass of flour-free, ice cream-melting dough was placed before us.

 


 

Foti’s
[$$$] Food: 8.4 / Ambience: 7.9 / Service: 8.1
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper; 540-829-8400; www.fotisrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch, dinner Wednesday through Sunday.

Chef/owner Frank Maragos continues
adapting to small town living and the still-sputtering economy.

He has shed a short-lived chophouse program in favor of simple lunch fare—think: housemade gyros and Greek salads embellished with pan-seared feta—but still trots out little extras (chocolate egg- and marshmallow peep-studded gelato at Easter, imported organic beans for coffee drinkers) when the mood strikes.

Daily specials run the gamut from baked brie with black olive-roasted red pepper spread to sweet-and-sour shrimp married to tamarind pork belly.

Grilled roulade parks beef-, lamb- and pork-laden sausage patties atop roasted vegetables then ups the ante with tantalizing tzatziki.

Pan-seared scallops join crushed carrots, savory crayfish tails and tender potatoes in tarragon-infused beurre blanc.

Dark chocolate, housemade peanut butter (from local nuts) and peanut brittle collaborate beautifully in a very Reese’s-like pots du crème.

 


 

Goodstone Inn & Estate
[$$$$] Food: 8.6 / Ambience: 8.4 / Service: 8.4
36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg; 540-687-4645; www.goodstone.com.
Open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday and Monday, dinner Wednesday through Saturday and Monday, brunch Sunday.

“Have you dined with us before?” Goodstone’s  hostess probed a soft-spoken couple as they slowly took their seats.

“We were actually here last year … on the exact same day!” the ready-to-celebrate (wife’s birthday) husband replied.

It’s easy to grasp how chef William Walden’s meticulously sourced cooking—many ingredients are plucked directly from the surrounding landscape— could become habit forming. Add in the gracious service and burgeoning wine program, and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for repeat business.

Lasagna sports layers of savory wild mushrooms, sweet peppers, carrots, zucchini and herb-laced mozzarella, all surrounded by robust, San Marzano tomato sauce.

Roast salmon, its skin cooked till crackling while its belly soaks in butter and lemon, arrives nestled in a bed of wild mushrooms, tender root vegetables and prismatic flowers.

Raisin-studded brioche pudding bleeds whiskey and laps up buttery ice cream.

 


 

 

Morrison House’s signature burger
Morrison House’s signature burger

The Grille at Morrison House
[$$$] Food: 8.6 / Ambience: 8.4 / Service: 8.5
116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000; www.morrisonhouse.com.
Open for breakfast Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the army of aspiring/established/gainfully employed vocalists who swarm the Morrison House lounge with alarming regularity, their semi-professional song books faithfully tucked beneath their arms, suddenly started singing the blues.

The catalyst for the caterwauling: Executive chef Dennis Marron recently decamped for another Kimpton kitchen—the coveted Poste post—a D.C. get that leaves the Grille and neighboring Jackson 20 in culinary limbo (at least for the time being).

It was fun while it lasted.

A locally inspired burger incorporated roasted shallots, sharp cheddar and decisively salty Virginia ham into a handheld feast of juice-dribbling beef and garlic-swabbed brioche.

Roast salmon flanked by charred potatoes, tangy red onion gelee, mustard-spiked aioli, divinely zesty horseradish and tempura broccoli kept our taste buds constantly guessing.

Grilled sardines were wisely complemented by pickled carrots and prickly sauce gribiche (stellar).

 


 

Hank’s Oyster Bar
[$$] Food: 7.9 / Ambience: 7.5 / Service: 7.0
1026 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-4265; www.hanksdc.com.
Open for lunch Friday through Sunday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, late-night dining Friday and Saturday.

Server 1: “I just saw your name on the waiting list.”

Patron: “It’s been 24 hours. What can I tell you?”

Server 2: “You’re here more than I am.”

If perpetually popping into Hank’s is a crime, go ahead and lock me up.

Chef/owner Jamie Leeds continues to challenge the seafood status quo, interweaving wide ranging and typically substantive specials—luxurious
lobster risotto and robust monkfish coupled with fennel immediately come to mind; did we mention
all the mouthwatering meats and three combinations?—with a repectable host of non-marine marvels.

Sadly, she’s still holding out on us Northern Virginians (Dupont staples we wish would trickle down to Alexandria: house-smoked trout dip, bacon-pecan brittle, chorizo platter).

A bulbous, bright red New Jersey tomato is baked to juice-spilling perfection beneath a hail of herb-spiked bread crumbs.

Meltingly tender veal—unabashedly scraped every last bit of seductive meat from the bone AND fished out the transcendent marrow—is bordered by tomato ragout and aromatic saffron risotto.

Housemade Panna cotta is perked up by sticky-sweet plum.

 


 

Härth
[$$$] Food: 7.8 / Ambience: 8.1 / Service: 7.5
7920 Jones Branch Drive, McLean; 703-761-5131; www.harthrestaurant.com.
Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

“What was THAT?” a nosy neighbor begged my departing server, having just watched the staffer dramatically uncover a glass-encased ration of fennel-topped, smoked Chincoteague oysters and fan the wafting smoke toward my waiting nostrils.

A hotel restaurant that wholly embraces over-the-top, expense-account dining—massive, unabashedly flashy lobby bar? Check. Ridiculously oversized, outrageously overpriced giant cupcake? You know it.—härth also does its part to advance the understanding of and appreication for seasonally inspired, sustainable dining.

Executive chef Thomas Elder packs a garden’s worth of vegetables—including savory squash, roasted red peppers, mushrooms and spinach—into an egg-filled, pastry-bound quiche.

One deconstructed seafood stunner tucks succulent Maine lobster meat, both sweet, juicy claw and buttery tail, beneath sheets of house-rolled pasta moistened by fetching saffron-cream sauce dotted with meaty morels, tart cherry tomatoes and salty Parmesan.

Fondue fans and do-it-yourselfers should get a real kick ouf of the fairly elaborate butterscotch pudding; the warm, tantalizing pudding is cut with flash boiled Scotch, stirred until both namesake elements are fully incorporated, and then liberally spread across pre-cut pound cake cubes (tasty vehicles, but they tend to disappear much too quickly) and dredged through whipped cream.

 


 

Hooked
[$$$] Food: 7.1 / Ambience: 7.8 / Service: 6.7
46240 Potomac Run Plaza, Sterling; 703-421-0404; www.hookedonseafood.com.
Open for lunch Saturday, dinner daily, late-night dining Friday and Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Hanging out at Hooked, particularly when the sun is shining and the imported beers are flowing, is every LoCo resident’s God-given right.

Being waited on in a timely fashion, however, can prove challenging—especially during painfully slow nights that drag out even further when inconsiderate barkeeps turn their backs on paying customers to flirt with visiting acquaintances (get a room—AFTER YOUR SHIFT IS OVER).

The kitchen, now helmed by Johnson and Wales grad Jeremy Waybright, treats patrons with more respect.

Myriad sushi rolls—expertly packed with pickled vegetables, tempura shrimp, broiled eel and tangy roe—continue to thrill.

Cioppino layers slippery, slurpy pappardelle with roast rockfish (terrific), littleneck clams and broth-charged mussels.

Beef lovers should skip the filet-shrimp skewers (great tomatoes, ho-hum proteins) and go right for the carnivore jugular: cooked-to-order NY strip buried beneath boulders of ravishing blue cheese.

 


 

Iron Bridge Wine Company
[$$] Food: 7.6 / Ambience: 7.4 / Service: 7.5
29 Main St., Warrenton; 540-349-9339; www.ironbridgewine.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

You never quite know who you’ll meet—book-toting, wine-sipping gents lounging the day away; 30-something couples determined to work their way through the litany of small plates; groups of retirees hovering around the automated wine dispensers—once you walk through Iron Bridge’s door.

But if history is any indicator, you are highly unlikely to be alone.

The kitchen continues to mix things up, playing, obviously, to its wine-centric strengths while also keeping things simple enough for even a casual observer to enjoy.

The house burger bucks the toppings trend,
electing to instead grind its core ingredients, including hickory smoked bacon and onions, directly into the beef. The resulting patty is very hefty and plenty expressive.

Fluffy, cigar-sized crepes are split in half, revealing mouthwatering bites of vanilla-spiked lobster.

Jumbo shrimp arrive nestled in a bed of saffron-laced couscous embellished with onions, sweet peppers and tomatoes.

 


 

Jaleo
[$$] Food: 7.9 / Ambience: 7.2 / Service: 7.0
2250-A Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-413-8181; www.jaleo.com.
Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, late-night dining Friday and Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Confidence is low cheflebrity Jose Andres will ever again step foot in the NoVA version of his pioneering tapas concept.

And he probably needn’t worry about it, either.

The well-established enterprise is usually crawling with people, be they variety-seeking government contractors (easily identified by their dangling security badges) or monument-fatigued tourists (cameras, maps, fanny packs).

Unlike the attention-hogging, occasionally over-chilled gazpacho, a bowl of Salmoreja rewards soup lovers with creamy tomato stock, wickedly salty Serrano ham, a shimmering, submersible egg and a splash of bracing vinegar.

Salt-crusted hanger steak rides a magic carpet of smoky, roasted sweet piquillo peppers.

Rossejat summons a paella stand-in predicated upon fried pasta—twisty, crispy and exceptionally oily, ramen-style noodles—and tender shrimp, all bolstered by an eyebrow-raising side of creamy mayonnaise.

 

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