Old Town Manassas now has a touch of old world charm with the opening of Europa three months ago.
The cozy, softly lighted interior with dark paneling is reminiscent of a dining room in a small European hotel.
Each of the three owners -- two French, one Italian -- claims to have 20 years of food and restaurant experience. The maitre d', Michel Rebeilleau, admits that it's been a challenge starting a small French-oriented restaurant in Manassas, where he and his partners are gambling on the theory that a cosmopolitan menu with reasonable prices will attract a following.
As for the food, they are clearly on the right track, even though not every dish was a success. The dinner prices are moderate by downtown Washington standards, with entrees mostly in the $9 to $12 range.
The menu is constructed to take advantage of fresh seasonal ingredients. Each night, for example, the handwritten specials outnumber the half-dozen entrees on the printed standard menu. Selections not only include such traditional French fare as vichyssoise and coq au vin, but also a delicious Swedish-style marinated fresh salmon, and various pastas. There are even a few American standbys such as steamed lobster and sirloin steak.
The soups, such as the gently sherried onion soup and the rich vichyssoise, were exceptionally good.
A superb terrine du chef made a generous appetizer. The chicken liver pate was fine-textured and light in flavor. The bread, however, was not the warm crusty French bread enjoyed on a previous visit, but a softer, all-purpose roll that did little to compliment the pate.
Some of the best entrees were meat and chicken, although seafood plays a prominent roll on the menu. For example, the thick fillet of beef sparked by crushed green peppercorns in a savory Madeira cream sauce, was both juicy and flavorful.
The tender veal cutlets were delicious in a creamy mushroom sauce and the coq au vin had a robust brown gravy.
The fettucine with mussels provencale would have been first-rate, except that Mother Nature -- and perhaps a little bad luck -- saw to it that the large sweet mussels contained gritty "pearls." Not of the valuable variety, the pearls are a summer phenomenon more common in the larger mussels and usually affecting only a small percentage of the harvest. The service staff said they customarily caution patrons regarding the pearls, but had neglected to mention them.
Two dishes using chunks of fish -- the monk fish with tarragon sauce and the seafood pasta -- suffered from overcooking.
The vegetable side dishes varied, from an acceptable ratatouille to a flavorless boiled potato, but don't miss the terrific sauteed potatoes.
Of the homemade desserts, a wonderfully dense and creamy, two-layered mousse of white and dark chocolates was my favorite. Besides a creme brulee, the house pastry one evening was a good blueberry tart.
At its best, Europa has already reached its goal of offering well-executed food at reasonable prices. The restaurant is still experiencing growing pains, however. Several dishes fall short, the wine list is limited, and the service, while unflaggingly friendly, can be a bit slow. But, given some time to mature, Europa could become a dependable outpost for good country dining.