Mid-Atlantic Meets Belgium in Wiedmaier’s Alexandria Venture
On the heels of his success downtown with Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck, Robert Wiedmaier has returned to Old Town Alexandria, Va., where he began his American culinary career as the saucier at Le Chardon D’Or in the Morrison House.
His newest ventures, BRABO and its sister BRABO Tasting Room, sit next door to the newest Kimpton area property, the Lorien Hotel & Spa. Wiedmaier has forged a partnership with San Francisco’s Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, adding welcome new life to the rapidly developing dining scene in Alexandria.
Designed by Vicente Wolf, the rich chocolate brown interiors at BRABO are so new in fact that a faint odor of paint greets guests as they enter through doors guarded by the image of BRABO — a mythical Roman soldier said to have rescued Antwerp by cutting off the hand of a giant terrorizing the Belgian city. (It was also the city where Wiedmaier’s father was born and raised.) Low ceilings, subdued lighting and few windows create a cozy, almost cave-like feeling in the formal dining room — the opposite of the more casual, almost industrial Tasting Room, which features big, bare windows, exposed brick, high ceilings and bright white paint.
To help him realize his vision for the Alexandria restaurants, Wiedmaier turned to chef Chris Watson, former executive sous chef at Marcel’s and one of the key players in the rapid success of Brasserie Beck. A native of Fredericksburg, Va., Watson is as comfortable with mid-Atlantic ingredients as he is with continental techniques, helping him realize Wiedmaier’s vision of basing dishes on locally sourced, sustainable resources.
Together the two have created a menu for BRABO that combines regional cuisine and Wiedmaier’s signature Belgian touches to create some truly exceptional dishes. Every dish in fact is an interesting amalgamation of flavors and textures — some classic, some unexpected — and the execution is almost uniformly effective.
Appetizers are diverse, ranging from an elegant ravioli of wild mushroom and foie gras with truffle Madeira sauce, to a homey minestrone soup notched up with Swiss chard and roasted garlic baguette. The ever-popular shrimp and grits combination is also charged up with a vivid sauce cardinale, while the pan-seared scallops are interestingly paired with chanterelles, crème fraiche and crispy salsify. Another dish offers local smoked trout prepared two ways, either as a slice of filet with crème fraiche or in a mousse served on potato blini with apple slaw.
BRABO offers a variety of entrées, but its preparation of fish is particularly successful. A fairly thin turbot filet is pan seared golden brown and crisp on the outside without drying out. Paired with mellow potato gnocchi, baby artichokes and black trumpet mushrooms, the dish is rich and well rounded. Equally good but with a much sharper dimension, thick steaks of Ahi tuna are seared with citrus pepper and served with roasted red pepper sauce and fennel slaw. Skate wing — crispy and accompanied by candy-striped beets and a lemon thyme butter — offers a more herbal profile, while the salmon, pan seared with sherry butter and baby spinach, is rich and nutty. The contrast of these four seafood entrées demonstrates how effectively Watson works with the intrinsic character of the fish to build his creations.
He works equally well with meats in most cases. The lean and meaty braised pork shank, paired with lightly steamed baby bok choy and sweet potatoes, is a hearty dish. Served in a sweetish chili sauce, it has a slight Asian overtone that works deliciously well. Switching gears, the grilled lamb tenderloin has an almost Mediterranean character, served with white bean puree, ratatouille and a cumin Madeira sauce. The only disappointment was the roasted shallot cabernet sauce served with the bistro filet. The steak was prepared perfectly and the fries exceptional, but the slightly sweet and rather pasty sauce added little to the dish. The Bordelaise sauce served with the rib eye was far more effective.
The sides, paired with the entrées or available a la carte, offer diners several excellent choices. Wiedmaier’s signature Belgian frites, thinnish and perfectly crisp, are served with three rich dipping sauces and are as good here as they are at his other establishments. The fricassee of wild mushrooms is a salty delight, while perfectly fresh spears of peeled spring asparagus are liberally dressed with a rich Maltaise sauce (hollandaise with orange juice).
Pastry chef Shaun McCarty matches the creativity of Wiedmaier and Watson with several striking creations of his own. The signature BRABO Belgian waffle is a heavenly concoction of exceptionally light waffles filled with cream cheese mousse and complemented by a cherry compote of Kirsch cherries. It’s a dessert not to be missed. McCarty’s version of a lemon tart is a super rich and biting lemon chibouste set off with a sweet raspberry curd and surprising buttons of cilantro gelee. Classic Pot de Crème comes in a trio of subtle mango, medium chocolate and intense hazelnut flavors, but for those who like their chocolate concentrated, the triple chocolate mousse terrine will be a delight. The thin, dense yet perfect blend of white, milk and dark chocolate mousse comes with a burnt orange cardamom sauce and crunchy pistachio tuile. The contrast of the aromatic cardamom with the layered chocolate flavors gives the dish a complicated yet interesting flavor profile.
As with all his other ventures, Wiedmaier is attentive to the details that make a good restaurant great, and a great restaurant exceptional. The bread is crusty, the butter sweet, and the salt international. The presentation is graceful but restrained, enhancing rather than distracting. The beverage program, managed by Leah Dedmon, is well balanced, with a comprehensive international wine list that focuses on Rhône varietals and an extensive list of small production vintages as well. A short but interesting beer list features Belgian brews, and the cocktail list offers several new versions of old classics along with a couple of delicious originals. Overall, the service is knowledgeable, competent and unobtrusive.
In opening BRABO and the Tasting Room simultaneously, Wiedmaier has created the same opportunity diners in D.C. have to choose between a more formal elegant meal or a simpler, casual one. Only in Alexandria, the choices are a building apart instead of several blocks, and unlike many places in Old Town, the Tasting Room’s hours extend past midnight. Like its flavor combinations, BRABO mixes it up to breathe new life into an old favorite.
About the Author
Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.