Del Ray Cafe

French
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

Kid friendly, with some growing pains
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The owner of Del Ray Cafe knows that kids rule when it comes to families deciding where to eat. Laurent Janowsky also understands that parents want their kids to eat well. Hoping to appease both constituencies, the Alexandria restaurateur offers an impressive 10 dishes designed for the junior league. They include the expected hamburger but also organic turkey meatballs, crepes with ham and cheese, and sweet potato and marshmallow gratin.

“Eighty percent of my customers are with kids or pregnant,” says Janowsky, who also co-owns La Bergerie in Alexandria with his wife, Margaret. The couple opened Del Ray Cafe, a modern American concept, in May, investing $2 million in a 1925 building that reminded them of a farmhouse (dig the porch).

The neat, two-story restaurant could have been whipped up by Martha Stewart. The many window boxes provide chef Sylvain Tonello with thyme, rosemary and sage for his bouquet garni. Home to a former studio, the interior is a dashing ode to repurposing. The table bases started life as engine blocks, the chairs are made from Vietnamese rubber wood and the carpet is spun from recycled fiber. “We did everything from scratch,” says Janowsky.

Tonello was the head chef at La Bergerie for seven years, which explains the depth of flavor in his French onion soup, a model made with caramelized onions and beef broth, and sputtering snails lavished with parsley, garlic and butter. Working from a semi-open kitchen near the entrance, the chef slips fresh herbs under the skin of his pleasing roast chicken, which he pairs with wrinkly roasted potatoes and string beans. Its equal among the main courses is a brined pork chop served with charred Brussels sprouts tossed with lardons.

There’s a sweet restaurant beating within Del Ray Cafe, but the service makes it less of a destination. I’ve never dropped by that an air of confusion doesn’t cloud a meal. Water fails to appear, even after we ask for it. Servers forget orders. When I call to make a reservation, a cheerful receptionist tells me only parties of six or more can book a table, but if I call ahead as I’m leaving home, I can put my name on a wait list.

“I don’t know who told you that,” a terse manager later tells me when I attempt to sign in from the road.