Restaurant Critic Stefanie Gans’ most memorable meals of 2017

Rolled ice cream, fufu and a steak dinner with a toddler are some of the best restaurant moments this year.

Fufu at Calabash African Cuisine & Bar / Photo by Rey Lopez
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What I give up in being a regular at a neighborhood restaurant, I make up in novelty and quantity. I eat dinner at restaurants more than at my own house. While this can mean glamorous, gorgeous meals, it also means a lot of lackluster plates with overcooked fish or undercooked fried chicken.

Though November’s 50 Best Restaurants list is the official categorization of what constitutes the best nights out in Northern Virginia, these are my personal most memorable bites and meals of 2017.

10. Calabash
I am not Tyler Cowen. I have not eaten at the source of many cuisines I try stateside. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know when something tastes good. Is the food at Calabash authentic Ghanaian? Does authenticity matter? Or is it more important that the food was fresh and lively, delicious and interesting, and the staff eagerly walked us through the rituals of handwashing at the table and showing us how to use our fingers to pull apart fufu and dip it into peanut soup? It was the feeling we left with that mattered. Full and happy.

Fava beans are the best beans.

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9. Zaaki
From the dreamy patio with tropical sea-colored cushions and twinkle lights to the sweet servers, jaw-dropping luscious labneh and unexpected Sudanese fava bean dish (boush) at a Middle Eastern restaurant, an afternoon meal at Zaaki hit it just right.

8. La Moo Creamery
Rolled ice cream, popularized in Asia, started to spread to NoVA this summer. It’s fascinating to watch a creamy base turn into this sheet of solid, but flexible, ice rolled like wrapping paper. While I’m more of a gelato fan, this icy treat is a must-try, if only for the theatrics.

A dish of pork confit steak is just one of the more unusual pairings at Maple Ave. / Photo by Rey Lopez

7. Maple Ave Restaurant
After moving from D.C. to Northern Virginia for this job in 2012, I missed the small, eclectic modern American restaurants of the city. I found it in Vienna’s Maple Ave. Then the original owners left and it felt stale, still holding on to a menu that no longer belonged. Chef and co-owner Juste Zidelyte finally emerged and though it’s a very different kitchen, this year’s meals at Maple Ave continue to reveal a funky, global perspective on how to eat today.

Ray’s the Steak / Photo by Stefanie Gans

6. Ray’s the Steaks
It’s not easy being a mother and a restaurant critic. No working parent has it easy, but most moms’ job descriptions don’t require them to work at an office by day and work-while-eating at a restaurant by night. A lot of meals include my 2-year-old daughter, who is an excellent eater, but is still a 2-year-old who would rather stay at the playground after daycare instead of being strapped into a car seat and and then strapped into a highchair for a multicourse meal. Most meals also include my husband, who takes her for walks between the stages of dinner (ordering, bread service, appetizer, entree, dessert and check). But my husband also works full time and sometimes can’t leave his own job to accompany me on mine. Those nights I either don’t go out to eat, find a friend, or wait until he comes home where we tag-team parent and as soon as he’s there, I leave (see No. 1).

Rarely, I brave a work meal with just my daughter and me. When it’s 50 Best season, I don’t have a choice and so my toddler and I went on a date to a steakhouse. Ray’s the Steaks is always good, though it’s so unassuming it can take a bad steak at another restaurant to remind me of its expertise.

This night at Ray’s went swimmingly. My daughter behaved so well I didn’t even need to take her on course-break walks. She was entertained by the snacks, bread, shrimp, steak, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream. The food kept coming, and was so good, it was easy to forget to be antsy.

Cowbell Kitchen / Photo by Rey Lopez

5. Cowbell Kitchen
I should have hated Cowbell Kitchen. I got pulled over for speeding about a mile from the Leesburg shop. I was hungry, I was angry, I was what is now referred to as hangry. But I was immediately charmed by the quaint space. It’s a little makeshift, in that adorable DIY-feel that reads so well over Pinterest. More importantly: The housemade biscuit stuffed with egg and cheddar and crispy bacon could be the most-perfect sandwich.

Fried chicken at Taiwan Cafe / Photo by Stefanie Gans

4. Taiwan Cafe
Working on the Best Asian Restaurants issue had me driving all over the region trying to find an undiscovered spot. Taiwan Cafe was it and I still think about that salty, crunchy fried chicken.

Iskender kebab at Anatolian Bistro / Photo by Stefanie Gans

3. Anatolian Bistro
Why isn’t Iskender kebab on every menu? The combination of salty, paper-thin meat over yogurt and tomato-sauced pita should be the answer to anyone’s idea of comfort food.

2. The Block 
Have you seen Munch’s charcoal-activated ice cream cones on Instagram? Because I still need to get back to The Block and try it. There’s always something new and trendy and picture-ready but I hope Balo Kitchen will keep the short rib pho french dip on the menu for a long time.

La Fromagerie / Photo by Rey Lopez

1. La Fromagerie
One of the first work meals I ate after coming back from maternity leave was at La Fromagerie. My daughter was not even 4 months old, and she was a cryer. I could barely concentrate on dinner and taking notes and I wasn’t sure how I’d survive as a restaurant critic and a new mom. I wrote the meal off because of me, not because of anything on the plate.

Returning this spring, a year and a half later, solo, let me embrace its sophisticated, delicate pleasures. I left my daughter at home with my husband and snuck in exactly one minute before the kitchen closed, ordered a funky, fizzy biodynamic French wine I’ve never heard of and sat alone. It was then I could concentrate on the housemade pastas and artful salads and dark chocolate pot de creme. And dinner that night at La Fromagerie was one of the best of the year.