Due to bad planning and fatigue, we did not make it out to Annandale to Kogiya until the waitlist was about three hours long, and a drive-by at Yechon revealed hungry Korean families spilling into the parking lot. So we pulled into the 7-11 next door trying to figure out if there was a Koream joint nearby that was lousy enough not to be crowded but good enough to eat at, when when the proverbial light bulb appeared overhead and we said "Isn't RJ's new place opening this weekend? And, where the fuck is 'Northern Virginia's Mosaic District, anyway?' (And, ultimately, "since when does 'mosaic' mean a 'soulless [except for...] fake 'urban' district composed of mass-produced chain stores?'")
Turns out that the MD is six minutes by iPhone from the 7-11 next to Yechon, or twenty minutes via the more creative route we selected after we missed our exit on the Beltway, and just around the corner from Great Wall.
Whoever had answered the phone at Gypsy Soul wasn't entirely encouraging, promising only appetizers, so we entered with limited expectations. The place is large, sleek without being cold (and further warmed as the night went by, by exceptional service) and centered on a truncated U-shaped bar (think long base and short arms) that embraces an open kitchen. The tables were virtually empty, the bar was virtually full, and behind the line in what I remember as being a slightly elevated cooking space, rogue maestro RJ Cooper was conducting a staff that seemed almost to outnumber the patrons.
Turns out that his bad luck was our good luck: an errant coffee station installer had drilled through a water line, forcing cancellation of a friends and family dinner (my invitation to which had apparently been lost in the mail). So, when the water came back on at 8PM, the riff-raff was allowed in and we parked ourselves at the bar, scored a couple of glasses of Cali Viogner and looked over an abbreviated menu that did, despite small expectations, guide us into the land of the large plates.
Briefly, the could-have-been-boring Bibb salad was curiously refreshing, tarted up just enough to be interesting without obscuring the chlorophyllic goodness that's often lost in the mix. I quite enjoyed the steak tartar, sort of a heavier-than-usual mustard prep (I'm sure RJ will correct me if I get this wrong) served with a bit of grilled romaine that had been lightly Caesared and garnished with a couple of high-end anchovies and a little Parm. Made me wonder why steak tartar isn't served with a Caesar Salad all the time, instead of those frites? Get that rich-tart thing going.
Shrimp and grits were awesome. One suspects that RJ cheated by adding a stick of butter to every cup of grits, but it was hard do object as I was trying to steal as much crustacean-candy as possible from my friend's plate and she was trying to fend me off with a fork.
Kudos to her -- despite her selfishness -- for pulling out "Frogmore Stew" to describe the what the menu at that time described as "Grouper Cheeks with Stuff" (or something like that) (btw, I note that the menu now actually calls it "Frogmore Stew") and what I thought was localized Bouillabaisse variation. It was, of course, not so much a Frogmore reproduction as a riff on that traditional recipe, which marries corn and potatoes to a spicy broth and shrimp (thank you, Mr. Google). Here it was a dish that came out of the Low Country via Marseilles, picked up grouper cheeks, saffron and clams (and toast with a killer rouille) without losing its New World starches, and landed in front of me topped by a metal dome which released a captivating vapor upon its removal. Spicy but refined, French and 'merican, I would kill for a bowl of it right now.
I should mention that Rogue's frighteningly intense pastry chef is also helming the cold kitchen at GS, and I ate all of my milk chocolate pudding with caramelized bananas and rosemary peanuts and half of my friend's, so there's that, too.
For a menu whipped up on the spot after the water came on, it was immensely satisfying. RJ looked a little beat up, but he and his crew turned in an outstanding effort under challenging conditions. Our meal was "simple," probably deceptively so; the menu on line now looks both longer an more elaborate. But a first glance suggests food that -- like ours, Saturday night -- is almost "hearty," but enhanced by the deft touch, unexpected ingredients (marrow with sea urchin) and attention to detail that marks R24.
There's no question that I'm already in RJ's camp, so add grains of salt as you will. But I'd head over now -- even if the bar, coffee station and other less vital bits and pieces haven't quite congealed -- before half of Northern Virginia is trying to eat there. In two weeks, people are going to be staring at the lines out the door and saying, "damn, we should have gotten here earlier. I guess we'll just have to grab some Korean instead."
Dinner at Gyspy Soul last night showed that this could be a great addition to the area once some of the newness shakes out. The food was excellent and the service good but there were some issues that need to be addressed. Managers acknowledged and dealt with them very nicely and professionally, though, and they will not prevent us from going back.
First, be forwarned if you have looked at the menu on the website - that is not the menu at the restaurant. While many things are the same, the actual menu is shorter and some of the prices are different (higher). While I understand an established restaurant not changing its on line menu frequently, this was surprising for a place so new.
Another reason to be forewarned - the seats against the windows are under air conditioner vents which blow very strongly. They turned the AC down but it was still strong enough to blow my wife's hair in her face and literally lift my menu off the table slightly. We moved to a booth across the aisle, which was much better, and we noticed that three other tables or diners changed seats to get away from those vents during the evening. The manager explained they are getting diverters installed to eliminate the issue.
Next the big problem. There is apparently a problem with the ordering/ticketing system such that our orders did not get to the kitchen properly. 15 minutes after ordering our server told us our appetizers would be out soon. 15 minutes later, after noticing several tables that came in and ordered after us getting their food, we called her back to question the status. It was apparently at that point they noticed the error. Both she and the manager were very apologetic and offered to comp the appetizers, which came about 10 minutes later. They then offered complimentary desserts, which was not necessary but a nice touch and appreciated.
Now on to the good - the food was excellent, the setting and decor very nice (although it can get a bit loud) and the service attentive without being intrusive (I had to pour my own wine, but I actually prefer that). The bar was hopping, with numerous bartenders keeping things moving. Seats there could be very interesting, directly in front of the open kitchen.
When it finally arrived, I loved my appetizer, bone marrow with sea urchin, mustard antlers and ink toast. The bone was really deep, providing a lot of rich gooey marrow. The tang of the sea urchin and greens balanced out the richness very nicely. While the ink toast was black, it didn't seem to add any real flavor component but was a nice conduit for the other ingredients. My wife had the deviled eggs from the pantry portion of the menu (smaller starters). While she enjoyed it, she thought it could use at bit more of the ham to add flavor.
For the mains, I really enjoyed my rabbit with ricotta dumplings. The chef coaxed so much flavor out of that rabbit. Yum. My wife had the confit shoat. We both loved the taste. She was not thrilled with the texture, but I thought it was apropriate for the dish.
I normally don't order dessert, but I'm glad they offered it. I really enjoyed my caramel cremeux and my wife enjoyed her milk chocolate pudding with bananas.
We regretted not ordering the bread basket (which has a separate charge), both because our starters took so long and because it looked really good. I normally don't eat bread at restaurants so we didn't consider ordering it, but will do so in the future. Also the portions here are not terribly large so although I was satisfied at the end of the meal, I was not full and I could see others wanting the bread to help fill them up.
Finally, a word about the wine list. While it's got varietal variety (which sounds redundant but isn't), it is heavily loaded with products from Elizabeth Spencer, Owen Roe and Dave Phinney. There are plenty of choices at various price points and the mark up isn't too bad (relative to other comparable restaurants), so most people will be satisfied. Wine geeks will find it lacking, however.
One point worth noting - Chef RJ was in the kitchen, running the show, not just watching. I would not expect that to be the case moving forward. That may or may not change the food in the future.
So, overall, a very nice experience and one I would recommend. As we told the staff when leaving, we'll be back, but after we give it time to work out the kinks.
Erica and I Thoroughly enjoyed dinner here last night. Once we chuckled through the wooden and leather gates expecting to see, like, motorcycles hanging from the walls, we were pleased to find the inside is nicely minimalist. You can gawk at the open kitchen action from most seats (which are super comfy!) Everything took a little long to come out, but nothing worth kvetching about especially during opening week and a full house a couple hours into dinner service. Pig ears, tartare, frogmore stew, rabbit dumplings, and desserts were all, if I had to describe them, fucking awesome. RJ told a kitchen dude to get the fuck away from him when they entered his zone trying to ask him something, after expertly mixed "liberal" and "gnome" cocktails found this more amusing than painful (and are rethinking our management style). Chef seemed to be in expediter mode with a super strong crew backing him up, so we won't be worried if we don't see him in the mix on future visits. Stoked that this is down the street from our house and looking forward to many more trips!
They have a new spinoff location in Bethesda that is doing the Chipotle model, Cava Mezze Grill. Pita, rice bowl, salad, mini flatbread pitas (to top like tacos) - you get a shmear of a spread and then protein (chicken/beef/lamb/sausage/falafel). Seems like another Chipotle-meets-(insert country) - like Merzi in downtown DC, but with arguably more potential.
I'm definitely curious as I think their spreads are pretty good, but I'm not go-to-Bethesda-for-a-fast-casual-lunch curious. Anyone been?