Plenty of places continue to offer crab cakes and steak during the pandemic.
Dinner can begin with a wedge salad — or a foie gras doughnut. Entrees include 75-day aged New York strip, but also ricotta gnocchi infused with the smoke of a live fire.
Ada’s on the River is the 10th, and largest, dining establishment from Alexandria Restaurant Partners, whose brands include the Majestic, Mia’s Italian Kitchen and Vola’s Dockside Grill. Weighing in with nearly 300 seats, patio included, Ada’s is named not for one of the principal’s cherished relations, but for the respected 19th-century English mathematician Ada Lovelace. “We love to name restaurants after women,” says Dave Nicholas, managing partner for the company. The name also acknowledges Northern Virginia’s role as a tech center. Lovelace is regarded as one of the first computer programmers; close readers might catch the lines of code woven into the newcomer’s menu.
Matthews figures 90 percent of his work touches some part of his grill before it leaves his open kitchen — salads included. The singed ruffles on the gem lettuce are thanks to their pass over burning apple wood and mesquite in a mesh wire pan. The bread is black because it’s made with active charcoal; a small loaf comes with butter lightened with orange zest. (Fear not: The charcoal affects the color of the brioche, not its flavor.)
Doughnuts for dinner? Matthews makes a good case for the showy appetizer, which starts with a brioche doughnut gilded with smoked honey and crushed almonds. On top teeters a warm slice of foie gras. Circling the doughnut is sour cherry compote. In the hands of a lesser chef, the combination might be a food joke. Here, the tender cushion, delicate crunch, livery flourish and tart fruit make some magic in the mouth.
The beef at Ada’s is all prime and dry-aged, a process that imbues the steaks with a subtle mineral tang. The signature cut is the underutilized but flavorful tri-tip — the bottom of the top sirloin — which Matthews rubs with powders (mustard, onion and garlic) and spices (cumin and smoked paprika) before cooking sous-vide and finishing on the grill. In another mouthwatering touch, the steaks benefit from a brush with beef fat before diners slice in.
Lamb is easy to fall for as well. You could begin a meal with lamb carpaccio, shot through with harissa and cooled with celery leaves, and move onto rack of lamb, slathered with chimichurri.
You may have come for meat, but Ada’s lavishes just as much attention on seafood and vegetables. It’s personal. “I’m a pescatarian,” says the chef, who is also a partner in the business. His best salad highlights shaved Brussels sprouts and crisp apple, although a spear of the fork also brings up sharp blue cheese, roasted grapes, bitter endive and toasted pecans, every bite better for its bright green goddess dressing. There are oceans of octopi out there. The chef’s slowly braised tentacles, charred to order, rise to the top with a zesty chorizo-spiced oil and fried chickpeas. A server’s description of the lump crab cake “cooked in a cylinder to keep its shape” and wreathed in creamed leeks and pickled shallots compels us to order the tall beauty, which is basically crab sandwiched between crushed saltines that form a brown crust as the dish cooks in a cast-iron pan.
The chef is a good editor of his work. He seems to know what to add where, and in just the right amount. Familiar dishes distinguish themselves with nice pops of flavor. Consider that crab cake. A rémoulade sparked with preserved lemon keeps its richness in check.
Knowing that Matthews’s favorite way to end a shift at St. Anselm was with a bowl of spinach suggests you should order the side dish at Ada’s, where a lot of the uncut green is mixed with not too much Mornay sauce and Parmesan, meaning the spinach retains its texture and taste.
Matthews’s pillowy herbed gnocchi are draped in a brick-colored sauce, bright with tomatoes, that’s a ringer for a meaty ragu but in fact relies on crumbled vegan “sausage.” The pasta is set in embers in a firebox next to the grill, adding an overlay of smoke to the entree. (I appreciated the dish as much the next day, rewarmed in a fancy gold-and-black takeout carton, as I did the evening before, on china that looks like a throwback to Ada Lovelace’s era.)
I’m still trying to dine outside restaurants. But brief visits to Ada’s host stand, just to check in, hint at what I can look forward to when we can return indoors: sleek jewel-toned seating, 18-foot ceilings and an exhibition kitchen set off with red tile. The place crackles with energy, and from more than where meat meets heat on the grill.
Nicholas says he aimed for service incorporating aspects of fine dining but “without the pretension.” My notes regarding the staff at Ada’s are sprinkled with exclamation points and smiley faces. “I have a question,” says a diner. “I have an answer!” enthuses a server. Everyone seems well versed in the menu, if not always in who gets what dish. But you know what? I’m so pleased to be eating outside here, a mistake or two isn’t going to keep me from saluting the service. Besides, talking to live attendants is a nice change of pace from running into a restaurant to retrieve a bag of food.
Ada’s chocolate souffle takes 20 minutes to prepare. Use the time to admire the company’s expansion plans. Alexandria Restaurant Partners is doubling down on efforts to attract customers to the waterfront with Barca, a spacious Mediterranean-themed wine bar serving small plates, which was poised to launch at the end of March. The attraction, fashioned from two shipping containers, sits on its own pier, directly over the Potomac in front of Ada’s. The view takes in National Harbor in Maryland and its Ferris wheel, toy-size from where you’re eating.
The wait for the souffle concludes with a reward. Made with Valrhona chocolate, the intense confection becomes richer at the table when a server pokes a hole in its center and fills it with caramel sauce. Different but just as impressive is the lemon tart, a round of sunshine contrasted with blueberry compote and a cloud of Chantilly cream. The pop in the picture: peppercorns in a comet of blueberry sauce on the plate.
And remember the foie gras doughnuts. As a server pitched us, “people who’ve ordered them before tend to order them the next time for dessert.”
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Ada’s on the River 3 Pioneer Mill Way, Alexandria. 703-638-1400. adasontheriver.com. Open for takeout, delivery, indoor and patio dining 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $19, main courses $19 to $99 (for 26-ounce aged porterhouse steak). Delivery via Door Dash and Uber Eats. Accessibility: Ramps at the entrance and ADA-compliant restrooms make Ada’s wheelchair-friendly.