Even before I see a menu, I sense my first encounter with Virginia’s Darling in Old Town Alexandria is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Thank you, Nicole Jones. A graduate of the late L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md., she’s the chef and owner of the 42-seat restaurant attached to Mae’s Market & Cafe. After culinary school, Jones, 39, went on to cook at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, work as a private chef and open Stomping Ground in Alexandria (those fluffy buttermilk biscuits!) before introducing Virginia’s Darling in October.
The restaurant fills a niche in this part of Northern Virginia and was designed as a place “where I want to go to eat,” says the chef.
You’ll want to join her.
Jones’s tartare is more than just amusing. Finely chopped picanha (sirloin cap) seasoned with all sorts of sharpeners — capers, vinegar — and lush with Kewpie mayonnaise is luscious as well. The yellow veneer to the side of the blushing beef is deviled egg filling, a clever way of staging one of the tartare’s traditional garnishes. I’m also fond of crumbled sauteed lamb, feta cheese and fresh mint scattered over a smear of tahina. “Deconstructed kofta,” Jones calls the nod to the Middle East, warm with Aleppo pepper and served with toasted bread. Her rabbit and pork terrine, meanwhile, speaks to her French training; coriander in the seasoning and yuzu marmalade to the side brighten the pleasure.
The food, she says, is “what I’d do if I had friends over.” Eating here leads me to believe her friends are most fortunate.
Multiple salads check off different appetites. There’s a “winter” toss juicy with citrus and a Bibb lettuce “stack” for the steakhouse demographic. I’m most drawn to spiky greens, pickled onions and croutons zapped with gochujang.
Fried artichokes brightened with lemon aioli are tasty but would benefit from less oil in the dish.
For the most part, this is weeknight food — nothing too complicated, easy to like, quick to please. Cavatelli decked out with sauteed mushrooms and shaved parmesan is one of those pastas you might make at home, but Jones enhances it with the crackle of toasted breadcrumbs. Thick, ropy slices of short rib, draped with a sparkling, hot-with-horseradish chimichurri, eat like steak, the result of being cooked medium-rare, says the chef.
The small plates are set on round marble tables to which clips are attached, for stowing menus. No need to ask, “Can we see the list again?” The welcome outlier in the collection is sole meunière, gently sauteed fish whose sweet flavor is flattered with capers and lemon. Close your eyes and you could be eating the classic at Marcel’s or any of the new French dining destinations in the District.
The “frenchie” burger has roots in a trip Jones took to France, where she was served a beef patty between slices of English muffin. This kitchen relies on sturdy Thomas’s English muffins to cushion its thick burger, formed with a little ground lamb in addition to ground chuck, topped with cheddar and partnered with a fistful of french fries that don’t last long because they are fried, frozen and fried again just before serving — done with care.
I appreciate a worldly wine list that offers 22 selections by the glass as well as the bottle, the average of which is $56. Just as commendable, the selections name-check the work of female winemakers and estate owners; Virginia is represented by a rosé from Early Mountain Vineyards and a citrusy gruner veltliner from Blenheim Vineyards, hailed on the list as “chef’s favorite food wine.” Women also make up the front-of-the-house staff, which delivers some of the best service I’ve experienced for months.
What’s the secret, Chef?
“I tell them to treat guests like revered family members,” she says. Jones also looks for “soft skills” when hiring servers. “Can they carry on a conversation? Make a guest feel comfortable?”
Yes and yes, I’m pleased to report of the young women who have attended to my guests and me over the course of several visits. When we pointed out that the gluten-free chips accompanying the lamb appetizer were stale, they were immediately replaced with cucumber slices for scooping. A question about a little sign near the open kitchen — “Days without breaking a glass: 003,” it read — underscores the crew’s sense of humor.
The lesson: Technical skills such as opening wine are easier to teach than genuine concern for a customer. (“I’m a terrible restaurateur,” Jones says, joking about the money she poured into stemware for the business. “I like nice glass!” she defends her purchase of the Viski brand. The record for longest number of days without any cracks, by the way, is six.)
Virginia’s Darling turns out to be a “spite name” for the restaurant, says Jones, who was bothered when Stomping Ground opened and a publication wrote, “Look out for Virginia’s next darling.” No one would ever say something similar about a male chef, she figures.
Mae’s Market, a “bodega lite” named after Jones’s great-grandmother and open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., is the source of the ice cream sandwiches you want to sample after entrees have been cleared. They are made by Nightingale in Richmond, and there are sometimes as many as eight flavors, including birthday cake and cinnamon roll. (I can vouch for eating too much salted caramel ice cream between shortbread cookies.)
You find yourself leaning in to talk here, and not just because it’s date night. Virginia’s Darling has a soft heart, but hard surfaces.
Beginning in April, Jones expects to serve brunch — on Friday and Saturday as opposed to just weekend hours. The game plan acknowledges pandemic-era work schedules and allows her crew to get two days off in a row.
I like the chef’s priorities.
277 S Washington St., Alexandria. 703-664-0445. virginiasdarling.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $12 to $20, main courses $21 to $30. Sound check: 85 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access the dining room through the entrance to Mae’s; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staffers are not required to wear masks or to be vaccinated.