Tom Sietsema on Ford's Fish Shack: At this Ashburn catch, Crab cakes and lobster rolls stand out

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 2, 2011; W26

Two stars (Good)

Ford's Fish Shack, 44260 Ice Rink Plaza, Ashburn. 571-918-4092.

Tony Stafford says he and his wife, Ana, had the name, the location, even the money to open their dream of "an American farmhouse bistro" in Cambridge, Md., two years ago. The one thing that stood in their way? Opposition from locals who held the couple to a county zoning law that prohibited any business serving alcohol from opening within 300 feet of a church.

With the recession on their minds -- and after six months of meetings where other minds didn't change -- the Staffords left the Eastern Shore and returned to Northern Virginia, where, Tony says, "we know people and have a following." Tony Stafford had been a managing partner in Bonefish Grill in Centreville and, before that, the executive chef at Artie's in Fairfax, part of the respected, family-friendly Great American Restaurant collection. In Ashburn, the couple found an empty restaurant that they gutted, strung with buoys from Maine and mounted fish from Florida, and recast using a slice of their name. Their handiwork, Ford's Fish Shack, opened in September, with Tony in the kitchen and Ana out front.

The water theme washes over diners. One wall portrays a much-photographed red fishing shack in Rockport, Mass., in a mural that also embraces whitecaps, a lighthouse and seagulls. A faux window in the rear of the dining room looks out onto the Maine coastline. The likeness of a fishhook is engraved into the wine tumblers, the chairs are ocean-blue, and the men's restroom comes with a mermaid painted on the wall.

You don't have to like seafood to eat here, but it helps. Ten of the 12 dinner entrees involve something from the deep blue.

The clam chowder will make you happy. It's packed with its signature ingredient and diced potatoes; minced chives and black pepper keep each spoonful interesting. "Real deal" whole fried clam bellies are hot and juicy, if greasy. (You'll want to brighten a batch with the lemon wedges that garnish the order.) Deviled eggs tease you on paper with "praline" bacon and spiced pecans, but the reality is a snack that cries out for more dry mustard in its filling and whose garnish of bacon strips tastes like candy.

Stafford figured he had to have a "shareable" appetizer on his menu. Because "everyone loves chips" and his hand-cut ones are particularly fine, a heap of them is served nacho-style with several twists: bites of lobster, blue cheese and basil mayonnaise along with diced tomatoes. What sounds like a poor way to treat seafood turns out to be pretty tasty: junk food with class. Four of us whittled a mountain down to a few crumbs while enjoying our drinks.

If you've eaten at Artie's, you'll experience deja vu at Ford's. Its skinny, skin-on fries, chunky herbed coleslaw and chopped salad tossed with corn and buttermilk dressing all ship you to Fairfax.

The best advice I can give boils down to two words: crab cakes. Ford's model is mostly lump crab, seemingly held together by determination. The taste buds pick up Old Bay spice, dry mustard and some heat (from cayenne), but the seasonings are grace notes rather than masks, allowing the crabmeat to shine. Neat trick: The chef adds a bit of pureed sauteed onion to the mix for texture. Coming in second is the lobster roll, pink chunks in a creamy binder on golden bread, ready for a close-up. (It's gorgeous.)

Ford's specials let the kitchen break out of the routine and allow diners to taste more of the chef's range. Grilled Arctic char was one day's highlight. Soft polenta made a nice base; apple cider vinaigrette provided sass. Mahi-mahi with basmati rice and pineapple salsa was another truly special special.

Forays out of the water include a respectable hamburger and grilled sirloin that will remind you seafood is a better bet here.

The kitchen gives you a few reasons to segue from savory to sweet before heading out. One of them is a rich nod to the season, pumpkin cheesecake. Another is a red velvet whoopie pie, its two moist layers separated by cream cheese filling, served with warm chocolate sauce. But blueberry pie squanders the fruit beneath a cover that tastes as if it belongs to a potpie.

The food isn't the only detail that conjures a Great American restaurant. The smiles of the young servers at Ford's are backed with abundant enthusiasm, and more than once, I've been greeted at the entrance by someone holding the door open for me.

Agreeable touches pop up everywhere. Fancy salt-and-pepper mills dress each table, and the kids' menu includes grilled salmon with green beans among the six choices.

The flaws at Ford's are easily fixable. Its corn muffins could use less sugar, and there's a heavy hand with some of the moisteners, including the dressings. Although there is a sameness to some of the dishes, the lack of much non-chain competition in the area makes the restaurant a popular fishing hole.

Cambridge's loss is Ashburn's catch.


OPEN: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards. Parking lot.

PRICES: Appetizers $5 to $9.50; lunch entrees $8.50 to $15, dinner entrees $14 to $17.

Sound check: 85 decibels/Extremely loud.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company