On an unsuspecting street corner along the northern fringe of Alexandria, locals escape as mental travelers to provincial France and experience all the facets of fine-dining in a casual atmosphere without the exorbitant price tags. Bastille meets my criteria for restaurant essentials, not only for the talents represented by two award-winning chefs, Christophe and Michelle Poteaux, but for the genius behind their incitement to refresh the interior and hire a sommelier from the ranks of DC’s Old Guard. Bastille is what I look for when I file a restaurant way as a true favorite:
- Knowledgeable wait staff who orchestrate service without you even realizing it. They intercede on your behalf in a gracious, un-interruptive fashion and never gab unless you have engaged them.
- Food that’s balanced and well-portioned featured in a menu that offers light fare as well as entree selections of ample protein, fish, and vegetarian options. It’s even better if the restaurant is earth conscious and sources locally. Finally, an artisanal cheese list with compelling selections is a must.
- Comprehensive wine list that offers wine selections bridging all predominant styles, not necessarily region. The list doesn’t have to be long; it just has to complement the food menu entirely, meaning each dish on the menu has a wine to pair with it in concordance or in contrast.
- Price. Value is essential and fair pricing is truly appreciated.
How often does this town dish up amazing wine service that is masterfully and consistently paired with inspirational culinary feats for an affordable price? To my standards, Bastille boasts all the ingredients to cook up a fabulous restaurant where you can easily slip in as a regular. Now, Bastille offers a new component to its secret mix, a James Beard award-winning beverage director, Mark Slater, formerly of Citronelle in Georgetown.
Resident sommelier, Mark Slater, amplifies the thunder of husband and wife chef team with thirty plus years under his belt—an advantage that young sommeliers just can’t top regardless of how many corks they’ve popped. Mark offers yarn-spinning stories with depths of knowledge that capture the corners of your soul and leave your palate salivating. On my very first trip to Bastille, I was seriously pleased with my experience and the food journey.
I eased onto a stool at the bar during Alexandria’s restaurant week, which immediately dampened my spirits, as I don’t tend to like the frenzy surrounding this turbulent week for most restaurants. But, my hopes were catapulted when my first dish was placed before me:
Three charcuterie selections neatly aligned: pork rillette, house-made bresaola seasoned with marjoram and oregano and a goose liver pâté topped with Concord grape aspic. The first course could have sufficed as a full meal for me on a casual Monday, but it was Saturday and I anticipated the splurge. Slater made a point to ask me what my wine preferences were. I essentially replied, “I trust your judgment.” He was right on, too, with a not-so-usual pair when he presented a Côtes de Provence rosé that shimmered salmon-colored hues in the glass. Most people would raise an eye-brow when pink wine sloshes in their glass next to robust charcuterie; but, the pair couldn’t have been more spot-on to my taste buds coated in fatty decadence and then bedazzled by a caressing strawberry-tinged savory aperitif. Next up, cassoulet and pan-roasted duck breast with white bean stew, slow-baked with pork belly and duck sausage. The crispy slab of bacon was out of this world due to texture and melt-in-your-mouth flavor, but what really sent me soaring was the combination of duck, cassoulet and a serious Bordeaux red known as the “bad boy” in French slang. Slater poured Mauvais Garçon, a blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc all sourced from the right bank. The value speaks volumes of Slater’s talents to source true gems for less, as the pedigree on this regular Bordeaux AOC couldn’t be higher coming from the notorious garagiste, Jean-Luc Thunevin, who is considered by most to be the black sheep of the region.
Ending in sweetness, I enjoyed Valrohna pot de crème with orange compote and candied cranberries paired with Maydie ruby port. But, I dared to forge on and order a cheese board offering three artisanal selections of blue, triple-crème and a semi-hard paired with a white burgundy. Wow! I was in bliss, and thankfully not the driver. I departed Bastille in high spirits, cloaked in warmth from a heart-warming meal paired with the best ingredients, friendly staff, bistro-style dining, and delicious wine. Bastille, you’re an exception in a sea of mediocrity and over-priced indulgences. I’ll be back and ready to sample more of your expertise.
Editor’s Note: I would like to offer my congratulations to Will Artley, Executive Chef Pizzeria Orso, who recently visited Bastille for a special dinner to propose to his beloved. “It was a complete experience from perfectly seasoned food to well polished comfortable service…. It’s a gem for sure!” says Will. Kathleen Nixon
1201 N. Royal Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
By Claire McConnell
February 15, 2013
Special to the Falls Church Times
Hurricane Katrina occurred about a month into my second year at culinary school. Not only was it devastating to the all the people that lived in New Orleans, but also equally as devastating to all the restaurants that would be affected over the coming months. In an initiative to raise money for the city of New Orleans, my school held a mock Mardi Gras in the town of Montpelier. The students were urged to cook their Creole and Cajun favorites, with the incentive of major bragging rights if our dish was the best. My mom use to make this Jambalaya for us growing up and although some have told me it is not traditional, it still tastes awesome. My dish was up against 3 other students, one of which was raised in the ‘Big Easy’. I knew my competition was tough and that wining wasn’t going to be easy… pun intended. Long story-short my dish won and helped prove that you don’t have to be from NOLA to cook a great Jambalaya.
Three of the ingredients for this dish are from the Falls Church farmers market. The pesticide-free, ecorganic potatoes and onions are from Potomac Vegetable Farm. The farm has two locations: in Vienna, Va., and Purceville, Va. www.potomacvegetablefarms.com. And the Texas Red Hot Beef Frankfurters are from Stachowski Brand Charcuterie in Arlington, Va. www.stachowskibrand.com.
2 ounces butter (1/2 stick) — $0.35
1 medium onion – small dice — $0.43
3 garlic cloves – minced — $0.10
1 cup long-grain white rice (such as basmati or jasmine) — $0.45
¾- pound sausage, such as Texas Red Hot Beef Frankfurters – cut into 1/2 inch, half moons — $5.00
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes – peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes — $0.75
2 ¼- cup chicken stock — $1.00
½- cup dry white wine — $0.49
½- cup roasted red peppers (canned) – cut into 1 inch, thin strips — $0.99
½- tsp. turmeric — $0.02
Pinch cayenne pepper — $0.01
1/2- pound wild, raw, large 18-20 count shrimp (peeled, deveined and sliced in half down the middle) — $5.49
½-cup cilantro – chopped — $0.20
Total cost = $15.28
Melt butter in the pan and add onions and garlic. Cook onions and garlic over medium heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Make sure the onions and garlic don’t cook too high, the butter will brown and the garlic will burn, so no higher than medium heat.
Add the rice to the pan and stir to coat with butter. Cook for about 1 minute to toast the rice. Add sausage and potatoes, stir. Add chicken stock, white wine, red peppers, turmeric and cayenne. Stir. Bring mixture to a boil. Once mixture comes to a boil, cover and simmer on med-low for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes add the raw shrimp to the top of the mixture (DON’T STIR!) Cook for an additional 5 minutes until shrimp have steamed and turned pink. Let mixture sit with the heat off for additional 5 minutes before serving. Stir in chopped cilantro right before serving. Enjoy!
BY CHRISTIANNA SARGENT
February 1, 2013
Special to the Falls Church Times
Oh where, oh where have all the wine dinners gone? Long time passing, but the economy has shifted the trends on how we explore and sample wine these days. For those of you who love to seek out a great wine dinner at a fabulous restaurant, or just your neighborhood joint, you might notice a trend of slim pickings. Blame it on the economy. Most restaurants may be reluctant to forge ahead with costly, time-consuming endeavors, such as the proverbial wine dinner. So, what alternatives are left to food and wine hounds looking for a bargain and the services offered at exclusive wine dinners? Educational wine classes (usually accompanied with food).
Even though a wine dinner is the perfect venue for a restaurant to strut its stuff with cool food art, inspired wine and food pairings, and perhaps a chance to meet the celebrity wine maker, trendy “small-batch” wine tastings are sprouting up in its place. More casual settings with less emphasis on “dinero” allow retail shops and restaurants more elbow room to showcase 4-8 wines in a more fast-paced setting. When you nix elaborate food courses upwards of five or more, fine cutlery, white table cloths, massive amounts of glassware, and heavy wait staff, you can become more creative with the idea “less is more.”
What to look for around town:
Red, White and Bleu in Falls Church launches SAVE-HOUR Monday, February 4th. This play on words for savor is all about informed wine tastings led by an official sommelier and captivating themes that vary each month. The tastings only cost $10, and the best part is the $10 is applied to your wine purchase that evening. Featured foods sold in the shop add highlights to the tastings while also adding the food pairing factor.
Arlington Cinema Draft House may not be reinventing the wheel for 2013, but you can’t beat this deal of $1 wine tastings presented by the Washington Wine Academy while you enjoy a movie and some chilled out pub food. Some people buy up to 10 tickets and still walk out remembering the flick.
Arrowines in Arlington offers top-notch classes and wine tastings that are always sponsored by experts. Here’s your chance to meet the winemaker, the dude (or gal) that actually sourced the wine, or the nerdy wine salesman that can lay on the facts till you snore. Trick is you need to sign up for their newsletter and inquire of their private tastings, which are all FREE!
Northside Social is the place for eclectic food, chef-taught classes, pig roasts, open mic nights with wine tastings, and a whole lot of funkified flavorful events. Usually $35 or less, this is a steal for those wine dinner seekers out there. A broad, diversified wine list makes this such a cozy hide out, and you can feast your eyes on locally sourced art.
Twisted Vines on Columbia Pike is still a well kept secret. Finally, someone thought to throw in an open area kids’ playground while Moms and Dads can partake of Happy Hour. Once a month, stroller mania takes over at Twisted Vines and parents can take a break from 10am-3pm for FREE while enjoying happy hour wine specials. And better yet, this joint offers private wine classes with a Certified Wine Educator and unique themes. Prices vary based on wine themes, but usually run less than $35. Call to inquire.
Screwtop Wine Bar and sister wine shop, Grateful Red, also add to the Clarendon wine scene with chocolate & wine pairings this Valentine’s and more educational wine classes usually under $50 a pop. Wendy Buckler has a knack for whipping up wine grandeur in tiny spaces with stunning cheese selections.
Hope this trot around town helps diversify your wine tasting palettes. For even more specialty listings, you should also check out David and Nycci Nellis’ The List Are You On It for event details or Capital Cooking with Lauren DeSantis. They always have the scoop on the latest food and wine gossip of the DC metro area.
Wine & Spirits Education Trust
Association of Italian Sommeliers
French Wine Scholar
January 29, 2010 (republished January 11, 2013)
After a few ho-hum experiences with Ethiopian food in high school I was ready to swear off the cuisine forever. Even though Washington D.C. — especially the “Little Ethiopia” neighborhood at 9th and U streets– reputedly has the best Ethiopian dining scene in the country, I couldn’t bring myself to shell out cash for what I perceived to be nothing more than mushy vegetables and cold, sour, spongy bread.
Then I went to Virginia Tech and everything changed.
My four years in Blacksburg, Virginia, were, for the most part, unbearable when it came to eating out. Most places were generic sports bars or pathetic attempts at Chinese, Thai, or Mexican food. One day, out of sheer desperation for something “ethnic” I tried a hole-in-the-wall, one-woman take-out Ethiopian joint called Excellent Table, which had been open a few months and seen little business.
Given what I thought of Ethiopian food and what the standards were for restaurants in Blacksburg my expectations were unbelievably low. But I was shocked at the freshness of the food, the spicy complexity of the lentils and meat stews, and even the injera, the ubiquitous flatbread that I’d only had cold and sour could apparently be pleasantly tangy and earthy when made right. I went back several times, gaining more respect and admiration for Ethiopian cooking each visit.
Now back in Northern Virginia I’ve gotten away from Ethiopian food a bit. I’ve neglected the cuisine in favor of so many others that I can’t get enough of. I’ve been pulled away by the Eden Center and great Thai, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants in the region. I’ve been on Indian kicks and Lebanese kicks and Persian kicks. And that’s a loss for me, because Ethiopian food is soulful and unique.
So this week I finally got off my rump and hit up Meaza Restaurant, one of a few Ethiopian restaurants within a reasonable grasp of the City of Falls Church. The gargantuan, tastefully decorated eatery (supposedly the biggest Ethiopian restaurant in the United States) straddles the border between Falls Church and Arlington and has garnered rave reviews by every major news outlet. Meaza is widely recognized as the best Ethiopian restaurant outside of Washington D.C. proper. Many food writers even consider it to be better than the innumerable Ethiopian award-winners in the District.
After one visit all I can say is that I will be back. Though it was just a single meal, my dining companion and I ordered a variety of dishes, easily enough to feed four people. Essentially, I crammed two trips to the restaurant into one lunch.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first, because there wasn’t much of it. In fact, the only thing we got that I wouldn’t order again were the sambusas, Ethiopia’s off-shoot of the fried Indian turnovers called samosas. They were oily, heavy, tepid, and bland, and a horrible waste of calories to start your meal with. Also, I suppose the service wasn’t fantastic. I’ve read many complaints in reviews and online about slow servers, unfilled water glasses, and missed orders. Nothing on my visit was too egregious, but there was some difficulty in placing the order because of the language barrier and the waitress was a tad pushy. If you go in expecting so-so service you’ll probably leave happy.
Food-wise, everything we got after the sambusas was either good or excellent. And all of it was greatly aided by the first-rate injera that Meaza makes on-site. The starchy staple of choice in Ethiopia, injera is a thin-as-a-pancake, fermented flatbread traditionally made from teff, an ancient grain that resembles millet. Most every Ethiopian dish is served atop of a piece of injera, which soaks up sauces and gravies beautifully. Additional injera is used to pick up whatever is on the plate, including the well-drenched injera. No utensils necessary.
Teff is expensive to get in the states (though it is grown in the Midwest now); so many Ethiopian cooks use part teff and part wheat flour to make their bread. Meaza makes both an all-teff injera and a half-and-half one, but you’ve got to ask for the all-teff to get it and pay an extra dollar. We opted to have our meal served on the half-and-half but got all-teff on the side for scooping. The “pure” bread was noticeably darker in color, and, to my taste, a little bit less sour and more pleasant to eat. For a measly buck, I’d splurge for the traditional stuff.
The dish I’d be most inclined to order again—and, actually, the one I would order every single time if I were with a big group—is the #7 special vegetarian combination meal. Ethiopian’s treat vegetables and legumes in a delicious manner, gussying them up with chilies, ginger, onions, and berbere, an indispensable spice mixture with a laundry list of ingredients.
I won’t recount every dish on our platter, which included eight dollops of veggies and lentils, but there were a few that really spoke to me. The mesir wat, an earthy, rich, brick-red mass of lentils, was excellent. Wat means stew in Ethiopian and pretty much any dish involving the word is chockfull of spice and seasoning, thickened with cooked-to-death onions, and uncommonly delicious. The jalapeno and ginger-studded collard greens, called gomen, were another standout. They were tender but not mushy and the perfect foil for the injera. They were also strikingly similar to the greens I’d had in Blacksburg, which gave them some bonus nostalgic points.
But the best part of the special veggie combo was one of the elements that separates it from the standard veggie combo; a salad of injera and tomato known as timatim fitfit. I’d never had the dish before but went gaga over it after one bite. It’s nothing more than leftover shards of injera with tomatoes, onions, and a light lemon dressing. Yet it is so refreshing and bright, and such a great counter to the heavier stews and meat dishes. Having tried it, I don’t see how anyone can justify getting the regular veggie combo.
To test out the meat options, we opted for the doro wat, a richly spiced chicken stew served with hard boiled eggs that is the nation’s national dish, and the lamb tibs with awaze sauce. Both were spooned onto our communal platter of injera, which housed all the veggies from the sampler on the perimeter.
Doro wat was often on the menu at Excellent Table in Blacksburg, so I’m quite familiar with the dish. Meaza’s rendition was spot-on but its flavor profile overlapped too much with the mesir wat. But that was my fault because I ordered both. Also, I had forgotten that the dish is usually served with one scrawny piece of chicken and is mostly about the sauce, so don’t expect a plate full of chicken if you order it.
I’d never had lamb tibs or anything prepared with awaze sauce before, so it was a thrill to try both in one dish. Tibs are a quick-cooked Ethiopian specialty, usually consisting of stir-fried pieces of beef or lamb teeming with jalapenos, onions, and garlic. They can be eaten as is or embellished with a marinade in awaze sauce, which typically includes red wine or Ethiopian honey wine and all kinds of spices. Our tibs could have been a tad tenderer but were still perfectly delicious—spicy, assertive, and fun to pick up with the injera.
There’s still plenty on the menu I’d like to try, including the kitfo, a famously spicy minced raw beef preparation, and any number of lamb and beef tibs variations. If my meal is any indication most of it will be pretty darn tasty. This is the sort of place where you should feel comfortable exploring much of the menu. Someone in the kitchen really cares about what they are putting out.
Meaza’s also a good bargain. The portions are generous and, considering the quality, well-priced. You could get out at 15 to 20 bucks a person for dinner no problem.
So the only real hurdle for a City of Falls Church resident is getting there. But if you’re an adventurous diner with a pension for spicy foods, I think a ten or fifteen minute trek isn’t too much to ask.
Meaza Restaurant is located at 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, Virginia, 22941. (Click for map.) 703-820-2870.
(Editor’s Note: Kathleen Nixon has succumbed to the flu and will be taking a break for the next few weeks. Over the holidays she visited Meaza and concurs with Jimmy’s assessment of the restaurant.)
BY KATHLEEN NIXON
January 4, 2012
Falls Church Times Staff
While winter may have us in its icy grip, we do still have access to local seasonal vegetables such as kale, spinach, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, and a wide variety of Asian greens. Many farmers markets including our own continue to provide fresh local vegetables. But what about growing your own? Yes, it is still possible to have vegetables growing in your garden like spinach, kale and carrots like I have in mine throughout the winter, but you would have had to plant them a little earlier in the fall. But why share this with you now? If you are like me, the seed and gardening catalogs have started to arrive in your mailboxes. Out with the gift catalogs and in with fantasizing about perfect well weeded tomato, zucchini and pepper gardens.
What I have enjoyed about this year’s seed catalogs is the opportunity to learn about heirloom seed varieties that will do well in our area in the winter. As I plan my spring and summer garden, I also pick a few vegetables that I will put in at the end of summer that will continue to grow throughout the end of the year and be harvested next winter.
Many of the farms in our area practice four season farming to support various CSAs ( Community Supported Agriculture ) and restaurants. My favorite book on this is Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest which I read frequently. While many may think that we cannot grow food year round in our climate, Elliot shows how he has done this in northern Maine for several years based on techniques he learned in northern France.
Better than reading about this, you can actually see how this is done locally through the Winter Farming Lecture Series provided by the Accokeek Foundation. They are offering a four Saturday lecture series starting January 12 at local farms that support the Washington DC area with winter produce. One of the farms featured is Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Virginia who is a regular year round vendor at our local farmers market. You can go to one or all four of the lectures.
This is an opportunity to get out and see winter farms in action, pick up a few gardening tips and maybe think about growing your own vegetables next winter.
By Kathleen Nixon
December 21, 2012
Falls Church Times Staff
So it’s down to the wire and you may be looking for a few gifts for the foodie on your gift list. Don’t worry there are great “foodie” gifts you can get right here in the City of Falls Church.
First up, Brown’s Hardware is where you can get almost anything including a foodie gift. My choice this year is the Bayou Classic Seasoning Injector. What self respecting Southern, or any region, cook wouldn’t want to make sure that they had the right seasonings injected into their holiday turkey before dropping it in the deep fat frying vat?
Second, at the Falls Church Farmers Market you can get both wonderful breakfast items for Christmas morning as well as gifts. For Christmas morning how about Wooly Mammoth coffee from Beanetics, or just a gift bag of a selection of coffees? Treats are available for puppies from Chase Your Tail Bakery and cookies for their pets at Panche Dulce. And for that special someone who needs little help Christmas morning, how about Bloody Mary mix from Toigo Orchards?
Third, just over the border in Arlington at One More Page Books you can pick up any number of great cookbooks, but my recent favorite foodie book is Bob Spitz’s biography of Julia Child, Dearie. If anyone on your list loved Julie, Julia or My Life in France written by Julia’s nephew Alex Prud’homme, then they will love this in depth book about an American food icon.
Fourth, stop at Red, White & Bleu for Toxic Sludge, a Black IPA from Blue Point Brewery on Long Island, or the Jamaican Jerk cheese called No Woman from Beecher’s in Washington State. Or a selection of salamis including a vegetarian salami (figs, bourbon, and fleur de sol ) from Charlito’s Cocina.
Lastly, after you have dropped off the last gifts at the Post Office, walk downstairs and slip into a comfortable Italian repose at SFIZI’s for a Bellini and antipasti or espresso and a Cannoli to kick off the holiday weekend.
Buon Natale and Tante Auguri! – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
There are some restaurants that transcend being reviewed because they are such a part of the community DNA that they are considered friends and family rather than a business. Earlier this week, Aimee Suyehiro and Adam Roth of Argia’s sold their restaurant to a wonderful couple from Nepal. Aimee will stay on as chef through most of next year. Adam will spend time with his young family.
Argia’s started as an offshoot of the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington with four partners: Stephen, Adam, Aimee and Winston. Winston and Steve are gone, and Aimee and Adam continued to preside over the restaurant for the last 13 years. The staff met the new owners earlier this week and they say they plan to keep the food the same, maintain the current staff and possibly do some renovations.
In chatting with other community members, Barb Cram shares some great stories about her times at Greenscape, the landscape artistry store that used to be where Clare and Don’s is now. Barb gave Argia’s the Chef with a Barrel and chalkboard that still sits in the front entrance of Argia’s. “I am grateful for the times we shared and the memories made. Not everyone is so lucky to work at something they love doing with neighbors that are equally loved. Good times indeed,” says Barb.
My first time at Argia’s was just after they had opened and I had just moved to the City of Falls Church. It was after taking an Italian class with my husband and we wanted to have an Italian meal to complement the experience. The restaurant was dark and dingy – this was before the mural – but the food was good and the service was attentive. Over the years, my family has pretty much eaten at Argia’s at least 4 times a month. Any time we would have a new waiter, we would welcome them to the restaurant.
Anytime you are in Argia’s you will run into neighbors, friends, City Council Members, City staff, local business leaders, teachers celebrating their holiday lunch, or the first timer in for dinner before a show. You will also see the folks there for Mussels Argia’s on Wednesdays, the crossword puzzle crowd at lunchtimes, the Monday lunch crowd of local restaurant and bar staff who come to Argia’s on their days’ off or folks just wanting a comfortable place to hang out with a great glass of wine and an awesome meal.
And that is what has been at the foundation of Argia’s – great food and great wine. Adam’s knowledge and interest in wine drove him to create a wine list that is unparallel in the local community. While there may be many wine lists locally that have a superb selection of wines of varying vintages and costs, Adam knows his community and has built a wine list that is accessible and enjoyable. Over the years, I have learned about several wines due to Adam’s wine list and have since stocked those wines in my personal cellar. He has always been a resource as to which wines to have with what meal and what I should try at home.
These wines complement the food the Aimee has created and perfected over the years. I can say in 13 years of eating at Argia’s, I have only had one meal that was slightly off. Aimee’s cooking has been a standard that I have used for other restaurants that I review. There is the basic menu items which change seasonally that I can count on such as the Pork Loin Wrapped in Pancetta served with Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Or the foundation dishes like Pasta Bolognese – family size – that is the go to dish if we need some serious comfort food. While some restaurants toyed with the idea of “famiglia” style dishes, it is something that Argia’s has always done well; a portion size for your family that also reminds you of being a family while eating it.
That has been the magic of Argia’s that Adam and Aimee created by knowing the key ingredients for a neighborhood family trattoria. Like any good partnership, they have complemented each other well by bringing their food and wine talents to bear. It has been artistry in motion to watch this food and wine partnership develop over the years.
It was Aimee who was the first chef for the Falls Church Farmers Market Chef. After receiving approval from the City, it was Adam and Aimee that I had to convince about program and get their buy in. It was their encouragement and participation that helped launch the program and I will be forever grateful to them.
I know we all wish Aimee and Adam luck in their new adventures and thank them for creating a restaurant where we can all be family.
BY Kathleen Nixon
November 30, 2012
Falls Church Times Staff
There is comfort food and then there is comfort food. Macaroni and cheese with tomato soup is hands down my all time favorite. I grew up on Kraft Mac & Cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup, and not Hostess Twinkies. Of course, now I wouldn’t touch canned soup or box pasta dishes preferring to make my own, but I still swoon anytime I see either or both of these items on a restaurant menu. So in the spirit of finding the best “mac & cheese” or “M&C” in the area, I went on a quest.
My standards for M&C are simple: The noodles I am not so particular about but elbow macaroni seems to be a favorite but I also lean toward the medium size pasta shells. The sauce should be creamy, and very cheesy without clumps and preferably more than one cheese. Additional ingredients are okay such as mushrooms, lobster, or truffle oil.
The best M&C I have ever had? This would hands down have to be Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak House at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. Yes, I know it is a bit far, but this was an unexpected surprise and did raise the bar on M&C for me and my family. The dish had a velvety white cheddar sauce that was accented with white truffle oil on elbow macaroni. I was in nirvana and my husband said it was a life altering event. That is high standard. The bottom of the barrel has to be the Adult M&C at Open Kitchen in Falls Church. No cheese, specks of speck ham and breadcrumbs burnt on top.
So with the scale established, we were set on finding M&C to accommodate any palate. Not every restaurant advertises that they have M&C, so this was truly a hunt with finding unexpected offerings at area restaurants. There are a few that advertise that they feature M&C while others just simply have it on the menu.
Harth in the McLean Hilton: The M&C had nice tender elbow macaroni that was supposed to have multiple cheeses but we could only taste one that was sharp cheddar. The sauce, or roux, had flour clumps in the bottom. It was okay but not something to order again.
Noodles and Company in Falls Church: I was very excited when this chain restaurant advertised that that they would have two different types of M&C: Wisconsin Cheddar and Signature White Truffle Oil with Portobello mushrooms and bread crumbs. Both dishes were only slightly above the worst on the scale. The ziti was cooked and then cheese sauce poured over. There were no redeeming qualities other than the calorie count to tell you how much you are wasting.
Green Pig Bistro in Arlington: This side dish offered at the tail to snout bistro was cheesey and creamy but very salty with something chunky in it that my guests and I didn’t know what it was. We would not order it again.
Panera Bread in Falls Church – This was an unexpected surprise as I stopped in one cold rainy afternoon and I had not eaten all day. M&C was on the menu and thought I would take a chance. I was pleasantly surprised. While not the best M&C, definitely something that hit the spot and filled the bill of “comfort food”.
Bayou Bakery in Arlington: The menu states that there is a different flavor of M&C for every day of the month and I didn’t get there every day to try all of the tastes. The days I did get there the sauce was watery, and the additional flavorings tended to drown out the “cheese” aspect of M&C.
Bastille in Alexandria– possibly the best- Gratin of Macaroni and Cheese – three different cheeses, a nice variety of mushrooms, black truffle oil and a thick crust on top. Each made separately so, there was some variance from one visit to the next. This is only offered as part of the Prixe Fixe lunch menu, but combined with a charcuterie plate, followed by a Caramel Apple Tatin with a glass of Cabernet Franc, there is no better way to spend a winter afternoon.
And I am sure I have not exhausted all of the offerings in our area, but this is a start. Have you found good M&C?