Frankly, Forlano’s could probably go head-to-head with some D.C. neighborhood restaurants, assuming they include a quirky decor that includes sports trophies in the window and a blackboard that lists sandwiches and offers “free sarcasm.” There are six seats at the bar facing the open kitchen, eight tables and a wood floor that’s probably been around since Mosby’s Raiders bedeviled Union troops in the area during the Civil War.
You’d better have reservations for dinner or brunch, or you’ll spend a lot of time on the front porch, sipping wine and wondering if the place will close for the day before you get seated. “I never thought it would ever be this busy,” the chef admits.
Not that he really minds; he’s happy to have a place he can call his own. Forlano worked as a teenager for his mother’s restaurant in Wilmington, Del., and most recently was the chef at the Ashby Inn in nearby Paris.
When he decided to strike out on his own, he picked The Plains, a town of 200-plus people in Fauquier County that’s surrounded by rich farmland, horse farms and private estates. “I only have to travel two to three miles to get my vegetables, beef and lamb and only 10 miles for eggs and poultry,” he says.
He changes his menu daily, depending on what’s available, and he describes his cooking style as American “with Italian accents.” It’s not cutting edge, but it’s solid and satisfying. He also includes Pennsylvania accents — other than the Phillies cap he wears while cooking — including an intensely flavored Kennett Square mushroom soup, named for the borough considered the mushroom capital of the world.
Instead of going the more typical heavy, cream-based route, Forlano uses four kinds of mushrooms floating in a clear mushroom broth accented with shallots, celery and fresh herbs. (Vegetarians, take note.) To my taste, it’s a bit under-salted, and I would have added just a little myself — if there had been a salt shaker on our table.
That slight under-salting is probably my main quibble with Forlano’s cooking. It was most apparent when we ate dinner there on a weeknight when Forlano was off and sous-chef Lorrie Griffith was cooking. Although she doesn’t have his touch on timing — the seared snapper and roast chicken breast were a bit overcooked, the risotto a bit undercooked — we thought she seasoned the risotto and vegetables better than her boss.
Griffith also makes all the desserts for the restaurant, and each one is worth ordering — from a homey apple and cinnamon crisp made with firm chunks of tart local apples to a more elegant citrus creme brulee to what was probably my favorite, a moist, not-too-sweet lemon pound cake with blackberries.
If the crab-stuffed poblano slices with spicy sriracha sauce aren’t a regular menu item, they should be. Sip a chilled glass of Hume, Va.’s Phillip Carter Viognier, get your head snapped back with one of those spicy slices, and figure out which entree you should order.
May I suggest the rib-eye? Forlano says he always has a steak on the menu, although the cut varies. During our visits, it was a juicy, beefy, perfectly cooked dry-aged rib-eye from local rancher Martin’s Angus Beef. If you love beef, there is nothing this big steak needs other than a good appetite. Oh, wait, there were those crispy roasted potato chunks and caramelized onions alongside, but really, for carnivores, this is pure pleasure.
Pasta dishes are big sellers here, too, including enough lasagna to fill four huge pans a week, Forlano says. Some weeks it’s meat lasagna, but when we were there it was that rare breed: a vegetable lasagna (stuffed with yellow squash, mushrooms and more) that manages to taste insanely rich and creamy but not dense and overly gooey.
It’s unpretentious, but the roast chicken is juicy and flavorful (so many chickens these days aren’t), and it comes with what we used to call “Texas risotto” — spicy jalapeño and cheese grits. My father, who, at 88, has assiduously avoided eating grits his entire adult life, took one forkful and said he may have to reconsider.
If you want real risotto, order the simple sauteed fish (we had snapper; other days it could be grouper or bass), which usually comes with risotto, rich with butter, Parmesan and fresh basil. A big handful of microgreens on the side helps balance all that richness.
Food aside, here’s the other terrific thing about Forlano’s: the wait staff. They’re cheery, helpful, funny and nice. I only hope the owner/chef can find a few more to hire once word spreads about this little gem.
Tom Sietsema is on assignment.