Shake up your dinner routine with a (short) road trip
I rediscovered a chill pill this summer that doesn’t involve a prescription. It’s dinner alfresco at Girasole in The Plains. The first few moments alone compensate you for having made the trek to Virginia hunt country and the patio of the family-run restaurant, where the background music is spun by a fountain, a handsome stone chimney rises nearby, and the surrounding trees and bushes hint at the possibility of lemon, figs, kumquats and more on the Italian menu.
Let’s meet the couple responsible for the fun. Lydia Patierno is the welcoming mistress of ceremonies outside and in. Her husband and co-owner, Louis, is responsible for the brio on the plate. Scarlet folds of house-cured bresaola ring a fluff of ricotta striped with local honey, and agnolotti stuffed with spinach and ricotta are positioned just so on their pool of cream sauce. Calamari fritti capture the ideal: greaseless, crisp, garnished with fried parsley and sunny with lemon.
One reason to order chicken here is to taste how good the products are from nearby Upperville and Warrenton. Another is their preparation. Generous grinds of cracked pepper and a brick to press the chicken super-close to the heat reward the recipient with a blast of spice and an entree that crackles when you bite down.
Given the pandemic, Girasole’s long list of specials is a curiosity. “If I were to open another restaurant,” says the chef, “this would be my menu.” While Patierno feels obliged to retain crowd-pleasers, specials are a way to keep his cooks interested. Their engagement is likely to grab your attention, too. Consider veal Milanese, which the chef cuts thicker than usual so customers can taste the meat. And so we do, along with the sharp arugula and bright lemon that dress the entree. Risotto, another special, benefits from nearly 30 minutes of stirring, aged Parmesan and a flourish of sweet-smoky balsamic vinegar from Modena, which requires that the grapes be from Trebbiano and the vinegar be aged in wooden casks for no fewer than a dozen years.
The big dessert tray that used to force tough decisions when it was presented tableside is, like three-deep crowds at a bar, a thing of the past. For now, diners will have to settle for verbal descriptions. I miss the display, but the quality lives on. Olive oil cake with basil gelato is among the kitchen’s sweet send-offs. Anything with fruit — peach Melba, cherry cobbler, passion fruit anything — should be your focus.
Now and then, the outdoor fountain gets some competition. Meals are inevitably punctuated by a whistle from the trains that run less than a block from where you’re seated.
In Italian, Girasole translates to both “sunflower” and “surrounded by the sun.” Anyone who has been to the Patiernos’ restaurant might also know it as tranquil and tempting.
4244 Loudoun Ave., The Plains, Va. 540-253-5501, girasoleva.com. Open for curbside takeout, outdoor and indoor dining 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. No delivery. Accessibility: The patio is near a designated space for disabled drivers; the main area there is accessible. The front lounge can be easily accessed, although a step fronts the roomy restroom. Entrees $28.50 to $34.50.
Just a week after Frederik De Pue closed his Annapolis restaurant in March, his wife told him, “You have to get out of the house.” The chef responded by emailing 20 customers, asking if they were interested in a market selling restaurant-quality ingredients. Within an hour, he heard back from 19 of them. Could he sell produce, they asked? Cheeses? The market, based out of his restaurant, grew to embrace LeBlanc hazelnut oil, Kumato tomatoes and Creekstone steaks, as well as prepared meals (Dover sole meunière, osso bucco with green peppercorn sauce) tailored to his upscale audience.
Only in July did Flamant reopen for dining, and then with a four-course, $75 tasting menu. The switch from a la carte limits waste and “creates an experience,” says De Pue. Diners decide between a couple choices per course for all but the snacks, a trio of which are built from what the chef has on hand. (Tuna left over from a catered party might end up as a welcoming tartare.) During the first week of service, De Pue sent out bites of fried soft-shell crab cooled off with remoulade, a small bowl of mussels gathered with rich nubbins of artisanal Nueske’s bacon and — here’s something you’ll want to repeat at home — sliced cucumbers dappled with buttermilk dressing and speckled with tart and earthy sumac. Snacks? The three-part amuse-bouche could pass for a light (and elegant) supper.
My “experience” won’t be yours; Flamant’s menu changes biweekly. Chances are, you’ll like whatever De Pue and team whip up. Grilled prawns and sweet scallops were napped with two sauces — one fruity with mango and raisins, another lobster bisque enriched with sun-dried tomato — and staged with julienned snow peas that offered welcome crunch. The most striking dish of my visit arranged grilled broccolini around a cool-with-mint salad of summer peas and pickled shallots. Green on green, the wreath looked as inviting as it tasted. But every dish was an artful encounter. An upright beet was sliced and stuffed with mushrooms in a “mille-feuille” that accompanied steamed cod paved with an emerald carpet of spinach and preserved lemon. Dessert included a half-moon of apricot pastry alongside a fast-melting oval of fromage blanc gelato. The menu calls the two-bite bugnes, a specialty of Lyon, a doughnut. Divine is just as apt.
Hear the crickets? You will if you sit outside, on the crushed-stone patio out front. Another reassuring detail is the plastic shield over the cloth mask worn by whoever serves you. “Please rest assured that behind the mask, there is a big smile on our faces,” promises the restaurant’s thorough opening guidelines.
Sorry, you can’t ask for goat butter, oyster mushrooms or a lamb chop dinner to go after dinner. Flamant’s market, open from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, requires advance ordering. De Pue has too small a staff to bag groceries and meals during dinner service. On the upside, he’s been able to retain four workers to make Friday-only deliveries to customers as far away as McLean, Potomac, St. Michaels, even upper Northwest in Washington. Dover sole Chez Vous is a real, and rewarding, break from the routine.
17 Annapolis St., Annapolis. 410-267-0274. flamantmd.com. Open for market takeout 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and dinner inside and outside 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Call ahead for curbside takeout from the market. Order from the market by Thursday at 5 p.m. for Friday delivery. Accessibility: The surface of the patio is uneven. Diners with mobility issues can access the restaurant through the rear parking lot, where a ramp is available. Tasting menu $75.