For R.J. Cooper, the big surprise around his dramatic new dining destination is not how much the city boy has embraced the suburbs, or how diverse a crowd — senior citizens, tech nerds, Real Housewives of Fairfax — the emerging Mosaic District attracts.
The major takeaway for the chef, who preceded his Virginia restaurant with the modernist Rogue 24 in Washington, boils down to two words: “Chicken skins,” he says. “We go through 50 pounds a week. It’s incredible.”
Go, skins! Order a stack and taste for yourself. The “cracklins,” amped up with cayenne, paprika and garlic, sound off in more ways than one when they hit your tongue. The introduction also primes diners for a meal that will be anything but ordinary. On the food horizon are categories with names such as “leaves and liquids” and animal parts that extend beyond the usual tongue and ears. Cooper, 46, even infuses some poetry into the mix.
The name Gypsy Soul makes sense once you learn that Cooper has major wanderlust and a serious motorcycle habit, logging as many as 12,000 miles a summer on his Harley. His time on the road is where he says he either ate or dreamed up the food he’s now serving in Northern Virginia.
Cooper rose to acclaim at Vidalia, the venerable Southern lair in downtown Washington, a biographical detail that explains the many trips his menu takes below the Mason-Dixon line. The $6 bread basket, actually a loaf pan, finds warm cornbread and tough biscuits along with challah and focaccia. Pimento cheese can be found (and should be tasted) among the “pantry snacks.” If there’s a better oyster stew around, please introduce us. For now, the distinction goes to the deep white bowl filled with plump oysters, warm cream, earthy artichokes and minced chives at Gypsy Soul.
Cooper makes convincing arguments in support of lesser parts of a beast. Direct your attention to pig tails as they’re served here: smoked, braised and shaped into a galette with creamy tiger beans. A designer araucana egg on top becomes dressing when sliced open. Lamb neck merits your attention, too. The cured, shredded red meat, dolloped with yogurt and dressed with baby squash, is scrapple by way of a Greek festival.
The dish that captures the most food trends on a single plate is a marrow-lined beef bone that shares its ivory hollow with bright orange sea urchin and a tuft of mustard greens; surf and turf for 2014. What looks like a piece of bread that overstayed its welcome in the toaster is — altogether now, chowhounds — “ink toast.” The colorist, of course, is squid.
Cooper’s fondness for Popeyes chicken explains the crunchy golden coat on his chicken-fried quail. His guilty pleasure is mine. I’d get the entree again just for its cayenne-spiked cover and the resulting crumbs that spray the plate, filled out with overlapping lakes of grits, gravy and greens.
Speaking of fast food, the kitchen does a nice hamburger. Cooper is a son of Detroit who grew up on sliders, doesn’t like gargantuan patties but appreciates a sturdy bun that can sponge juices without falling apart. The kitchen reaches out to diners who might not care about fashion but have standards. Enter the short loin arranged on potatoes whipped with as much butter as vegetable and finished with a tangy mushroom sauce, rich with beef stock.
Dinner is not a continuous winning streak. The choicest part of rabbit rillettes are the accents of pickled okra; the confit itself is bland. Beef tartare is similarly rich but lackluster. And while most of the drinks are top-notch, tequila with green chartreuse and soda is not in that league. Spiced popcorn and a blistered shishito pepper on the rim don’t do the cocktail any flavors.
If there’s a complaint here, it’s the richness of the food. I’ve never left Gypsy Soul without feeling as if I had just finished Thanksgiving. The kitchen doesn’t skimp on the dairy in the creamed corn or the smoke and bacon in the smothered greens. In fairness, however, no one is forcing me to drain, say, the frogmore stew from its bowl. I have only myself to blame for erasing any sign that shrimp, corn and rouille-slathered croutons had been dropped off in a stainless-steel pot.
Like the savories, the sweets at Gypsy Soul draw inspiration from all over. Cucumber sorbet with gin gel sounds like a confection sent over from Rogue 24; chocolate pudding with roasted peanuts and caramelized banana proves more family-friendly. Two or more of you can share (or not) the fruit crisp. Over summer, it was baked with peaches that smacked of having fallen into their pan, ripe and juicy, directly from a tree.
Flights of fancy aren’t relegated to the cooking. Gypsy Soul deviates, big-time, from the blueprint of many new restaurants. It does not have exposed brick walls or wood from long-gone factories. Nor does it look like a steakhouse. Diners enter Gypsy Soul through castle-size doors to find a landscape of slate-colored booths and rectangular brown lights. Streams of light pour through epic windows set off with filigree. As with Rogue 24, Cooper puts his kitchen center stage, the better for his audience to see their meals being made. Indeed, some of the best seats in the house are the leather stools at the bar, situated in front of the kitchen. The chef had the perches designed after his motorcycle seat.
Cooper or members of his staff pegged me every time I walked through the door. So did the chef’s wife, whom I happened to meet one night as she and her twin daughters passed by my table. “My mommy’s been taking pictures of you!” one of the 8-year-olds squealed.
The anecdote is a long way of telling you that my spies report vigilant service in the absence of a restaurant reviewer. Also, some of us don’t photograph well with our mouths full.
Location: 8296 Glass Alley, Fairfax. 703-992-0933. www.gypsysoul-va.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $6 to $12, sandwiches and main courses $12 to $19; dinner appetizers $6 to $16, main courses $20 to $80 (aged rib-eye for two)
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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