Depending on what you order, you can have a great meal at the sprawling, 500-seat Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling, or one that’s not worth suffering the Route 7 traffic to get there.
At the very least, it’s a terrific place to sip a glass of shiraz, munch a flatbread pizza topped with house-made spicy lamb sausage, and feel grateful to find a spot other than a big, bland national chain in this NoVa suburb.
The former Lone Star Steakhouse building had been empty for several years when Virginia restaurateurs Keith and Cheryl Early renovated the building last fall, nearly tripling its size.
The buttery yellow Bungalow Lakehouse is perched on the edge of one of those tidy little suburban lakes, far enough from the street that the traffic noise is muted. There’s a small, comfy bar off the lobby, a billiard room with televisions and its own bar in the back, a cigar bar, outside terrace seating for warmer weather, and clubby, mahogany-paneled dining areas.
The Earlys — who own two other, smaller Bungalow restaurants in the area — recruited executive chef Jason Maddens from Washington’s acclaimed French bistro Central Michel Richard to kick the food in Sterling up several notches.
If you order the right things off Maddens’s large, overly ambitious menu, you’ll come away wishing the Lakehouse was in your neighborhood. My friend Alex ordered the creamy cauliflower curry soup, the tender braised beef short ribs and, when we went for brunch, the smoky pastrami hash, and told me, “I love this place.”
I had the limp fried calamari, the walnut-crusted salmon and the arugula salad, the latter two of which were too sweet, and I thought: It’s not worth the drive.
Ignore the menu section called Snacks for the Table. We tried multiple times to find something that didn’t taste bland and dumbed-down. The eggplant tapenade was watery, the wild mushroom and foie gras rillettes didn’t taste remotely like either, and the country pâtéwas tasteless and too cold. Ditto the chicken liver mousse.
Even otherwise-happy Alex agreed he would skip that section.
Among the appetizers, the gummy brandade fritters that are supposedly made from salt cod tasted mostly of potato. The fried calamari would be improved without the accompanying fried green tomato slices, which seemed to dampen the squid’s coating.
The salads we tried needed a better balance. Smoked salmon with roasted beets, candied pistachios and sherry vinaigrette was an unappetizing clash of flavors and mushy texture. The arugula salad went overboard on sweetness. Is it really necessary to have strawberries, candied walnuts, julienned apples and a sweet balsamic dressing?
The one exception was the stellar grilled chicken and lentil salad. With spicy frisee, bits of smoky bacon, pickled pearl onions and a bracing curry vinaigrette, it’s a well-balanced winner.
In general, meat trumps fish on Maddens’s menu — except for the pan-seared Virginia rockfish with potatoes and fennel, and the seared New England sea scallops with cauliflower. (Although I’d flick away those unnecessary dried cranberries from the scallops.)
Maddens gets his lamb from Cumberland Valley Farms in Bedford, Pa., and he serves it in two satisfying ways: a roasted lamb loin entree, properly rosy in the center, with white bean puree, green and yellow squash, capers and olives; and a crispy flatbread pizza, topped with house-made, Moroccan-spiced lamb sausage, roasted red pepper, caramelized onions, olives and feta cheese.
A simple roast chicken is often underappreciated, but this one deserves attention. It was juicy, the breast came deboned (a convenient touch), and we loved the accompanying vegetables: Brussels sprouts, haricots verts and potato puree.
Maddens makes his own pastrami — it puts any typical salty deli pastrami you’ve had to shame — but the pastrami-and-egg-salad sandwich needs retooling. The meat’s flavor is obscured by way too much whole-grain mustard, and little pieces of egg white dribble out when you pick up the sandwich.
A better showcase for the pastrami is the hash on the Sunday brunch menu. Smoky, with crispy cubed potatoes, flecks of red pepper and two perfectly soft-poached eggs, it’s a standout.
Maddens and his staff also deserve kudos for the turkey burger. I was skeptical when our waiter urged us to try it, but it was juicy and spicy, thanks to the garlic and Moroccan spices, plus jalapeño mayo on the side.
The hand-cut fries here, which are served in a little metal basket, come with garlic mayo and a spicy Sriracha ketchup, although the first time we ordered them the ketchup just tasted like ketchup — I think someone left out the Thai hot sauce.
Service here can be a bit amateurish — our waiters knew little about wine recommendations, for example — but all the staff was earnest, friendly and attentive.
Speaking of the wine list, it’s small but nicely chosen, with such thoughtful pours as Four Graces Pinot Gris from Oregon, Virginia’s Breaux Cabernet Franc Lafayette and Silver Palm Cabernet Sauvignon from California.
The Earlys have big plans for their big place, including live jazz, a bloody mary bar in the lobby lounge and downstairs party rooms with a lakeside view available for catered weddings and other gatherings.
Candy Sagon is a former Food writer for The Post. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.
46116 Lake Center Plaza, Sterling. 703-430-7625. bungalowlakehouse.com.
OPEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICES: Appetizers $6 to $14; dinner entrees $16 to $26; pizzas and sandwiches $10 to $13.
SOUND CHECK: 79 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.