There are people pleasers, and there’s Jon Krinn, the chef-owner at Clarity in Vienna. With no more prodding from a guest than “What about doing ... ?” he’s broadened his modern American restaurant to include cooking classes, tasting menus, a bourbon program, trips abroad (which he leads) and extra space for private dining.
Oh, yeah. Krinn, 50, also serves lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner daily. Don’t anyone dare fall for a dish, though, because Clarity’s entire menu changes. Every. Single. Day.
The chef, who opened room-with-a-view 2941 in Falls Church in 2002, followed by the even hauter Inox in McLean — just as the economy tanked — in 2008, and followed failure with success at Clarity, says he’s in a great place on his journey right now. (An experiment to share the kitchen with Jason Maddens ended two years ago when Maddens left the nearly four-year-old Clarity to open a place of his own, Ahso, in Brambleton, Va.)
All the feedback Krinn says he has received from his current guests, a clientele he describes as “worldly, and best-in-class” in their jobs, has transformed Clarity into a one-of-a-kind dining experience in Northern Virginia. Or, as Krinn says his customers tell him, “a D.C. restaurant that’s not in D.C.”
They’ve got that right. Feathery chestnut linguine draped with a sauce coaxed from mushroom stock and aged Parmesan tastes straight out of the Centrolina playbook at CityCenterDC. Pedigreed skirt steak served in thick ruddy slices with velvety red peppers and a red wine sauce could pass for a signature at grill-happy St. Anselm near Union Market. Meanwhile, the chef’s father, Mal Krinn, continues to play the role he has since 2941, baking the breads that make for memorable first impressions, wherever his son’s restaurant happens to be. If you’re lucky, the basket will include a crusty roll with a whiff of roasted garlic or a crackle of sunflower-sesame. They’re just the right companions for, say, falling-apart braised veal cheek on a ragout of tiger’s-eye beans, tinted green with kale pesto.
Sweeter still, the polish on the plates extends to most of the dining room staff. Krinn has assembled a cast of young men and women who seem very familiar with the place. “I know most of their parents,” he says, “because they’re customers.”
But first, an explainer. Listening to Krinn talk about his culinary classes explains some of the thinking that goes into his restaurant menu. Rather than focus on cooking techniques, the chef prefers to teach his students how to season, frequently deploying words used to describe wine. Hints of “leather” on a slab of venison are created from dehydrated, smoked, pulverized shiitakes that end up as the “crust” on the lean meat. Notes of “caramel” on a piece of pompano are extracted from a reduction of fish sauce, lime juice, smoked garlic and more. Krinn refers to the tactics as “push cooking”: aggressive layering of flavors, including opposites. Why use salt when you have capers?
If the nightly vegetarian entree isn’t always as considered as most of the main courses, it’s at least interesting. The best brought together roasted butternut squash and velvety sauteed mushrooms, encircled by chopped red cabbage and a liquid whip of potato and Parmesan. It wasn’t meant to replicate a dish from the meat world, but rather, to simply taste harmonious. And so the sweet-savory-tangy concert did.
Here and there, I wish the cooks had more time to rehearse the day’s menu, to gauge the reaction of the audience to food constantly whipped up on the fly. I’m thinking now of a chicken breast dropped off in a cast-iron skillet with celery root puree, a beige main course that tasted as exciting as the color. And a salad involving ribbons of cucumber, pea shoots, tangerine and baby Swiss chard — a mess to look at, honestly, but salvaged by a sparkling ginger-lime vinaigrette.
Krinn says starting every day with a clean slate is one way to keep the attention of his mostly millennial crew — don’t shoot the boomer delivering the message — but I think Clarity would be a better restaurant if it kept even a handful of well-practiced dishes on the menu. I can’t be the only diner who would eagerly return for steamed mussels and rugged chorizo in a froth of coconut milk and red curry, or crusty wreckfish — what a name! what a wonderful, large-flaked fish! — atop creamy polenta ringed in red pepper emulsion. (If you haven’t noticed, Krinn’s sauce work is noteworthy.)
Liese Armstrong, 23, went straight from the baking and pastry arts program at Stratford University to the pastry kitchen at Clarity two years ago. Like her employer, she changes her selections every day and displays a knack for pleasant surprises. The welcome restraint in her sticky toffee pudding, for example, is explained by her use of dried apricots, which add a suggestion of tartness, rather than the traditional dates.
Armstrong’s most inspired effort is an apple that’s sliced on a mandoline, sprinkled with sugar, reassembled and perched on a pool of caramel. The apple is steamed, low and slow in an oven, until it collapses onto itself while retaining its shape. The end result smacks of a tarte Tatin, sans crust, but with a scoop of green apple sorbet, flavored with cardamom and saffron, to keep you double-dipping. If there’s a better baked apple out there, I have yet to try it.
The last time I reviewed Clarity, three years ago, the entree average at dinner was $20, favorite items made return visits, a hamburger was among the options and the effort was awarded three stars. While the prices have gone up since then — main courses average $30 now — the dishes also sport more designer labels. (Yes, that’s gold leaf winking at you from atop the tiny pitcher of brandy sabayon that accompanies Armstrong’s lovely brioche bread pudding.) As Krinn points out, Clarity’s customers appreciate the value of a restaurant that comes with sufficient (and gratis) parking, plus the reality that they don’t have to schlep to Washington for fine dining. And if you really want a hamburger for dinner, and the makings are around, Krinn says he’ll cook one. By now, you should know he listens and produces.
Pausing between courses on a recent weeknight, I looked up to see a crowd that any Washington chef might envy: Every single seat in the main dining room was taken, bar and chef’s counter included. If Clarity’s blue-and-yellow palette could use a refresh, the fillips make up for it. Case in point: The knife used to slice into the succulent skirt steak is a beauty from Japan combining a slight D-shaped handle and a blade that pays tribute to samurai swords. Cooler still, members of the military, reserves, police and fire rescue services get a 20 percent discount on dinner.
How neighborly. How lofty. How Clarity 2.0.
Clarity (Good/Excellent) 442 Maple Ave. E., Vienna. 703-539-8400. clarityvienna.com.
Open: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $12 to $24, main courses $24 to $36.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.