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Review: Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar in McLean

Is this the start of McLean as a restaurant town?

Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Photo by Rey Lopez

We discovered a tiny, tiny pearl in one of the fried oysters. I checked it between my teeth, though I wasn’t sure what to feel for. I dreamed of stringing it on a necklace, a solo spotlight for this little sphere, the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen. Or would I start a collection of loose pearls and find the perfect mini mason jar for display? Anyway, that wasn’t even the best part of the night.

Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar is at once cozy and chic. Dark corners on one end, window seating on the other. A mere four seats at the bar, half of which is occupied by an oyster display. It’s a small operation and an even smaller space. But the ambition is big.

An early season gazpacho decorated in citrus ash
An early season gazpacho decorated in citrus ash / Photo by Rey Lopez

In the kitchen are Jeff Barillo, the executive chef, and Gift Thongpukdee, the chef de cuisine, both alums of R.J. Cooper’s kitchens, Gypsy Soul (Mosaic District) and Rouge 24 (D.C.), both now closed. The latter was a high-tech, experimental open-kitchen that endorsed foam, smoke, tweezers-as-utensil and very small, very many courses for one very expensive dinner. The former was a more straightforward, though wholly delicious, mid-Atlantic-driven endeavor.

This McLean restaurant, from the same owners as Pasa Thai and just a few storefronts down in the same hidden strip mall off Old Chain Bridge Road, is a mix of modernist temptations and modern American cuisine. And it can hopefully kickstart the restaurant scene McLean so badly needs.

While Social feels more like a classy neighborhood spot than destination dining, the tasting menu remains one of the best ways to enjoy a meal here. (Though ordering a few oysters and a cocktail or two isn’t a bad idea either.) Within eight courses, the kitchen creates an experience combining more fanciful, high-end dishes like raw scallops decked with caviar and a straightforward crab cake, heavy on the meat and packaged in a perfect sear.

Sometimes, though, the tricks feel unnecessary. Crunchy, fatty pork belly, flamboyant in its smokiness, doesn’t need a puff of teriyaki foam on top; it only distracts with its showiness. (Barillo defends the foam: “It’s a different way to put a sauce on a plate. It doesn’t drown the food, it just hints and accents.”) The chestnut espuma, also on the plate, would have worked alone. It can thank the molecular gastronomy-endorsed tool, the nitrogen-charged iSi canister, for its utter silkiness. Technically a foam, the original puree turns into something almost mousse-like after it’s forced through the device.

The a la carte menu has gems as well, and not just that pearl inside the oyster. Thanks to a combination of multiple flours and starches, the oysters’ batter is light and puffy: more cuddly hug than crisp handshake. Piled into a bowl with salty, spicy blistered shishito peppers, it works as a snacky starter.

A gazpacho jumps the gun with preseason tomatoes from an April harvest. The soup depends on its star to uphold the allure of the dish, and while it was still all too easy to sip, I suspect by summer, this dish will really be singing. A scoop of burrata surely helps. But Barillo doesn’t leave it at that.

From the zest of lemons used elsewhere in the restaurant, he takes the flakes of the rind, seasons it, bakes it until blackened and pulverizes it in a Vitamix. It looks like ash but smells bright, not burnt. This is what decorates the soup.

Fried oysters with blistered shishto peppers
Fried oysters with blistered shishto peppers / Photo by Rey Lopez

Nothing is simple. Nothing is easy. But nothing is fussy, either. Because of that, dishes with a couple dozen ingredients don’t feel complicated. Flavors tie together so well that it’s easy to miss the thought and kitchen hours behind each dusting of citrus ash.

However, a cast iron trout with a pile of lightly dressed arugula stays simple, thankfully. Slices of lamb over quinoa dominate one section of a plate spotted with specks of sauce, cubes of feta and other greenery, including fame-whore ramps for a dish carnally satisfying but also arty and delicate.

Fluffy, dreamy scallops are little rounds of Care Bear-perfect clouds. Soft bites of the sea secure to earth with a fava bean puree and a cloak of champagne cream blended—unlisted on the menu and probably more work than a diner can suspect—with oysters. Springy vegetables, like carrots, snap peas and those little ears of corn you’ve only ever seen in lo mein, not only build slashes of color but also collaborate for a delicate sweetness.

There is nothing demure about the bread pudding. Drizzled with creme anglaise and 151-infused caramel, it’s as boozy as the hours following finals week. But it is also so well done that you won’t miss the requisite chocolate end of things. Though if you need it, a dish plated with chocolate in many forms—a mousse, ice cream, dirt and tuille—will suffice.

More than suffice, really. It’s a distraction of textures. An addiction in the making.

We left, forgetting the pearl still on the table. But we weren’t even mad.

NOTES
Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar
1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean
Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner
Entrees: $22-$34

(June 2016)

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