Bi-Polar Dining

Why Global Restaurants Don’t Work

Why Global Restaurants Don’t Work

By Stefanie Gans / Photography by Kate Bohler


Thin slices of zucchini  mingle with fried calamari.
Thin slices of zucchini mingle with fried calamari.

The saying “there are too many chefs in the kitchen” must refer to more than keeping dad and grandmother on opposite sides of the family stove. It surely also acts as a global warning: Northern Virgina, please rebuke the around-the-world approach to menu design.

Too many area restaurants let population diversity turn into edible destiny.

Northern Virginia is beautiful. It’s America. It’s Koreans and Ethiopians, Salvadorans and Vietnamese. It is the world compacted into a few counties. This makes for a compelling place to live, but not always for a wonderful place to eat.

A restaurant often works best when dishes find a common home. Curries from India and curries from Thailand are different. They need different ingredients and different approaches, and they each need concentration. How many chefs would be needed to successfully create food from Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Subcontinent? How much trust would you put into a menu that promised authentic food from our entire world?

Creamy fetuccine
Creamy fetuccine

Herndon’s A Taste of the World tested this theory with almost 80 different menu items from New Orleans, Afghanistan and the Caribbean. Three unfortunate appetizers—an Indian samosa with filling reminiscent of store-bought apple pie, a soggy Filipino lumpia,
and a dull Vietnamese crepe with rubbery shrimp—say enough. A trio of apps a review does not make, but it’s a warning sign of too many continents in the kitchen.

From bibimbap to udon, Mirak surely woke up with jetlag. The Chantilly spot presents dishes of noodles, rice, meats and fish from China, Japan, Thailand and Korea. After one visit and four selections from the menu, Mirak couldn’t even impress with the simplicity of a pickled radish, which arrived soggy instead of crisp.

The pan-Asian, pan-everything is a common trend that plagues the region. And Cristobal Guerrero is caught in the mess.

Guerrero started cooking at Nuovo, a “New Asian and Mediterranean Bistro” this March. Originally from El Salvador, he’s lived in the United States since 1990 and has primarily worked in Italian restaurants in Washington, D.C., including the famed Café Milano in Georgetown, before being recruited to run the kitchen in Centreville.

The word homemade peppered the Mediterranean menu section. But around those few dishes: noise. Ramblings of yakisoba with the non-offensive flavor of a similarly titled Lean Cuisine and a tame sandwich, “Mykonos,” of deli meats and cheese not living up to its party-happy name.

Wallpaper fitting for Nuovo’s around-the-world concept.

With strip malls lined with dining options crisscrossing this highwayed sprawl, a restaurant only gets one opportunity to impress customers; and with a crowded, scattered menu a wrong choice ruins a second chance.

When Guerrero spends time on a long strand of fettuccine things change; The clutter starts to disappear.

Juicy prawns seep into a sauce of cream and Parmesan, as the noodles absorb a faint seafood vibe. The pasta gently bends to the teeth; it’s not tough or soft, a true giveaway to its freshness.

Chili and garlic punctuate a barely there tomato sauce, as plump clams snuggle between slick noodles. Grit took over a few clams, and we spied a broken piece of shell, but the kind heat was a pleasure.

Unfortunately, Guerrero cannot fully concentrate on Italian fare.

When Nuovo owner Inbum Kim signed the lease in the Old Centreville Crossing Shopping Center, neighbor Little Italian Deli was granted by a previous landlord an “exclusive use” clause for an Italian menu. This meant Kim’s restaurant could not serve Italian food as originally planned.

The shopping center also hosts a Korean BBQ restaurant, which crossed that option off the list. Kim submitted multiple menus to the management firm Deoudes-Magafan Reality Inc., ensuring menu items didn’t crossover. The process, according to Angelo Magafan, a principal in the company, took a few months to settle. This lead Kim to a menu of Mediterranean (re: not Italian) and Asian (Japanese, Korean, Thai) dishes.

Guerrero never cooked Asian cuisine before, but was briefly trained by another Nuovo chef, before the Asian-expert left for another project. The one-month practice period prior to Nuovo‘s opening satisfied Guerrero, though. If “someone has experience, you learn very fast,” the chef says. “You don’t need that much [training].” Although even Brittany Murphy’s (RIP) turn as a noodle soup maker in the Tokyo-based “The Ramen Girl” showed her broth apprenticeship lasting many more moons. What would a properly trained Japanese chef say to a one-month-is-enough paradigm?

While most of the dishes stay true to its country of origin, Guerrero started fusion experimentation, with promising effect.

A silky cream sauce for fettuccine screams with heat, complements of a fiery Korean paste. “Not often I say things are spicy,” my friend said after a bite, slanting her head for additional truth-telling. “And this is spicy.”

And good.


A Taste of the World
283 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon; 703-471-2017;
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner Saturday, closed Sunday.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

4090-G Airline Parkway, Chantilly; 703-956-6644;
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $13-20 ($$)

13840-F Braddock Road, Centreville; 703-988-0053;
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $13-20 ($$)


(August 2012)