Editors' pick

Evo Bistro

Mediterranean, Tapas
$$$$ ($25-$34)
'

Editorial Review

One of the newest and snazziest places to eat in Northern Virginia is tucked behind a McLean drugstore in a space that for years housed a popular taco and hamburger joint. The orange booths have been replaced by a sleek wine-tasting bar and tapas restaurant owned and operated by the former chef and manager of the original Corner Bistro, located nearby.

Sidney Sakho and Driss Zahidi, with father-and-son partners Jacques and Michael Rebibo, are proving to be masters of the small space. Corner Bistro started out with 17 seats; their new venture, Evo Bistro, can seat almost three times that many, and already it's packed most evenings. And the conviviality that was the hallmark of their old place has been elevated almost to a party level.

Evo Bistro opened in September in a small strip of shops that fronts Dolley Madison Boulevard (Route 123) but is accessed through a bank parking lot on Chain Bridge Road. The simply etched design on the plate-glass front creates a feeling of seclusion and blocks from view the heavy traffic outside.

Inside, Evo Bistro, all dark wood and stained brown concrete floors, creates an unexpected air of sophistication. A large, curved bar, with seating for 10, dominates the space. But the crown jewel is in a niche to the right of the front door: an automatic wine dispensing machine that operates on a debit card system. The system takes up an entire wall of the restaurant, showcasing 32 wines (24 red and eight white) that are available by the ounce.

In planning the new restaurant, having a large selection of wines to pair with Zahidi's Moroccan- and French-influenced version of Spanish tapas was always part of the partners' plan. But they hadn't decided on exactly how to do that -- with single glasses or with several, called flights -- until they learned about the automatic system, Sakho said.

Offering a large variety of wines by the glass meant finding a way to keep opened bottles fresh. The automatic system is designed to keep wines fresh for as long as five weeks, although so far no open bottle has lasted nearly that long, Sakho said.

But the wine offerings are not just about mechanics. Evo Bistro's list is varied and broad, with many small producers from around the world and more stellar wines that rarely are available elsewhere by the glass, such as Penfolds legendary Grange, which isn't even offered by the glass at its own restaurant outside Adelaide in Australia. At $75 a glass, it's certainly not for everyone, but for a wine lover who's never been able to afford a full bottle, even a one-ounce tasting can be a joy.

Sakho said Evo Bistro will rotate the wines, always including a few big names, and will feature different producers each month.

To operate the machine, purchase a debit card that can be recharged, much like a Metro SmarTrip card, from the restaurant. The card remains valid for one year after its last recharging.

In addition to wines dispensed by the machine, Evo Bistro offers nearly two dozen wines by the glass and others by the bottle. All wines are available for takeout at retail wine store prices, Sakho said.

Zahidi's cooking is just as sophisticated as the wine operation, and although the dishes are described as tapas, I think "small plates" is a better term. Each dish is exquisitely presented on a dazzling array of tableware, and although most are large enough to share, you probably won't want to.

I certainly didn't want to share my plate of boquerones (marinated fresh anchovies), presented as a row of four X's on a long, narrow clear plate, formed by two of the glistening white fillets crisscrossed over one another and placed atop a segment of clementine and then drizzled with an orange marinade. The bracing vinegar taste of the anchovy was mellowed by the sweetness of the orange.

Zahidi plays with other traditional tapas dishes in much the same way. His patatas bravas, crisp cubes of fried potato, don't come with the usual spicy tomato and aioli sauces but rather a sprightly dressing with a base of Spanish Cabrales cheese, a pungent blue cheese. The chef uses jumbo shrimps, rather than the usual medium size, in his version of shrimp sauteed with garlic, only he pairs them with a more polished white wine and garlic sauce.

The most popular item on the menu is the Evo crepe, a spinach crepe with a mound of jumbo lump crabmeat dressed in a saffron vanilla sauce. It's big enough for an entree, and probably serves two as an appetizer, but I didn't see anyone sharing.

A petite filet of beef was paired with a rich piquillo pepper sauce and topped with sauteed oyster mushrooms. A simple beef turnover was encased in delicate puff pastry. The fried calamari was nearly greaseless and, oh, so tender.

The chicken and serrano ham croquettes were crisp and not greasy, but their near-golf-ball size made them too doughy and not the simple one-bite pleasure they should be.

There are also several entrees, including paella, steak and lamb shanks braised in a tagine.

In addition to the printed menu, daily specials are listed on a large blackboard over the bar. There are only a few choices for dessert, and they change, but if the pear tart is offered, don't miss it. It's just slices of pear atop a mound of wonderfully flaky puff pastry, and it's delicious.

--Nancy Lewis (Nov. 22, 2007)