12050-A North Shore Dr. (in Tall Oaks
Shopping Center), Reston. 703-742-6466
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 3 to 8 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.95 to $8.95, entrees $7.95 to $14.95; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $9.95, entrees $12.95 to $22.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $65 per person.
The demise of a good restaurant inevitably leaves me with mixed emotions. Part of me is grateful for having had the chance to know the place, even as I mourn its closing. And part of me is curious: What will replace it, and will I like it as much?
Reston can't afford to lose too many restaurants, particularly those that aren't part of chains with matching venues in Cleveland and Dallas. So I was sad to hear the news that Saint Basil, a family-run business known for its brick-oven pizzas and delicious seafood, was vacating its location last October, to make way for El Manantial and a more Continental menu.
The Spanish name means "oasis" or "spring water," a waiter explained not long ago. And a welcome sight the place is. Wisely, the new owners kept many of the best aspects of Saint Basil, including the big and airy dining room, with its open kitchen area and an entire wall painted to resemble an Italian vista. Actually, it would have been hard to improve on the interior. The lights dangling from on high, introduced by Saint Basil, could pass for falling stars, while the massive hearth to one side warms up the room (and continues to issue pizzas of note).
Better still, El Manantial remains a family venture. No fewer than eight members of the Fuentes family, headed by maitre d' Humberto Fuentes, work here. Their combined experience reads like a little tour of area restaurants: Brother Enrique, the chef, hails from La Cote d'Or in Falls Church. Sister Emilia Marquez comes from Cafe La Ruche in Georgetown, where she made desserts for 20-odd years. And one of the better waiters I've had in recent memory is Mario Fuentes, a veteran of the Lebanese Taverna restaurant chain; with very little prompting, he eagerly shares the story of how his family came together under one roof. He also watches his tables like a new parent anxious to see that only good things happen to his charges.
The same efficiency and hospitality characterize the rest of the staff, which includes sister Sonia Fuentes at the host stand, sister Marina Romero in the kitchen, nephew Edwin Fuentes in the dining room and 67-year-old matriarch Juana Fuentes, who seems always to be helping out where she's needed, be it chopping vegetables before lunch or setting tables prior to dinner. "We always wanted to do something [together] for our future," Humberto says.
In the hands of this team, "Continental" cooking translates as slightly French, a little Italian. To begin, there are meaty and tender snails in a garlicky bath of butter, as well as shrimp poised on a rectangular plate with tangy sauteed tomatoes and garlic. Two or more of you might opt for one of those pizzas as a shared appetizer. Offered at both lunch and dinner, they feature pillowy crusts that crackle from their cornmeal dustings, and toppings as classic as margherita (just mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh basil) or as eclectic as "chicken Santa Fe," with red onions, jalapenos and sour cream. Fried calamari gets accented with pickled red onions, a nice foil, but its seasoning is harsh with salt.
Will it be meat, fish or fowl for an entree? The chef does each justice. His roast veal chop is a simple pleasure: plump and succulent meat bolstered with a creamy Parmesan sauce, brightened with buttery vegetables -- and, alas, over-accessorized with croquettes that taste like profiteroles gone wrong. Baked Arctic char, as pink as salmon, gets a lively pulse from a sauce of chopped tomato, basil and olive oil; like all the dishes here, it's arranged on the plate with care.
A list of daily specials runs to about six appetizers and seven entrees, all helpfully printed on a sheet of paper and inserted into the standing menu. These have made for some of my best memories of El Manantial. Sweetbreads cooked to retain a soft center, a first course, came scattered with green olives, bits of ham and mushrooms. The soups -- tomato shot through with fresh ginger, or lentil with dark greens, cubed potatoes and carrots -- were blue-ribbon winners. Veal shanks moistened with tomato sauce reclined on linguine that soaked up the juices, while dorade was cooked whole (and gently) and accompanied by roasted peppers and a garlic sauce that wasn't shy but didn't hog the conversation, either. Of the specials, only the seafood paella failed to keep up; its saffron-colored rice proved both dry and dull.
The waiters are proud to show off Emilia Fuentes' handiwork of custards, mousses, tarts and more, which arrive on a big silver tray for close inspection. The desserts are all big and colorful; some of them are good. Having tried most, I'm partial to the fruit tarts, presented on delicate cushions of puff pastry, and anything soft, such as the not too sweet flan. Even simpler are raspberries with warm caramel sauce; they are quietly satisfying, just like the restaurant they're served in.
Sakura Emerine and her husband recently had dinner at San Marco, a casual Italian restaurant in Adams Morgan, and were interrupted six times by a patron whose cell phone kept ringing throughout the evening. "People did turn and looked at her, but she kept it on!" the Washington reader writes. When Emerine asked co-owner Roberto Massarin if the restaurant had a policy against cell phones, she reports, "he had this weary look on his face and started leaving our table." Called for his side of the story, Massarin told me he was short one waiter on a busy night and was pouring wine when Emerine attempted to talk to him. The cell phone problem is "one of those situations I don't know how to deal with," he said. "My feeling is this: We are not a fancy downtown restaurant. We are a neighborhood restaurant. It gets noisy." While he sympathizes with Emerine, he said hers is the first such complaint he's heard. Once again, restaurant-goers: Turn off your cell phone, set it on vibrate, or take the technology outside if you absolutely, positively have to take that call.
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