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Ramparts Tavern and Grill in Fairlington


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Who have you stolen, Ramparts?

You’ve been a neighborhood regular in the Fairlington section of Alexandria for over 30 years. Four years ago, my first few visits were limited to your sports bar, a smoky, loud, pickup scene, separated from your restaurant by a series of heavy double doors. The full menu was available on the bar side, with Jack Daniels featuring a little too prominently on the description of several plated offerings. I’d dabbled with your choices, a hamburger here, a salad there. My samplings revealed nothing noteworthy, with the exception of your signature hot peas ($5) appetizer, deep fried legumes with a crave-able blend of celery salt, garlic powder, black pepper, and cayenne. Served in a metal basket on parchment paper, these were fun to eat and interesting to enjoy, evoking the image of Mexican jumping beans.

I even ventured to your restaurant side once before, maybe two or three years ago. I recall digging the vibe, Cheers meets log cabin meets speakeasy. I am a sucker for dimmer lighting and muted acoustics. You featured both with your wooden, sound-absorbing walls and soft glow. Servers seemed friendly and helpful, chatting intimately with groups of regulars, a true neighborhood joint. But my adoration ended there, as your entrees never delivered anything more than a ho-hum monotone to accompany the friendly scene. Back then, I recall a trout dish composed of supermarket quality ingredients, seasoned without much interest, plated without much consideration of vertical lift or other visual design. I was OK with all of this. A single interesting and hard-to-find-elsewhere item on your menu was fine with me, and I looked forward to those hot peas the few times I wound up stepping through your doors.

But recent experience has changed everything. You’ve given me such hope, such a sense of mystery! We aimed for your doors this week out of convenience--we required a specific number of walking miles to end the day’s workout. We entered a busy scene on the restaurant side, surprisingly hopping for what is normally a mid-week slump in the restaurant industry. Since my last visit, both the regular and daily specials menu had received a significant facelift. More interesting dishes appeared, described with multiple components in a more eye-catching and professional formatting. This seemed promising.

Forgetting everything I read in the recent meat ethics discussion thread, I ordered a medium-rare hangar steak that arrived with a hefty, well-browned crab cake on top, adjacent to Brussels sprouts cooked with bacon, shallots, and littleneck clams ($20), all finished with a peppercorn wine demi-glace. Flash-fried potato sticks crossed over the top of the crabcake creating dramatically attractive angles, and a slash of horseradish cream sauce cut through the side of the plate. At first taste, I knew this was not the cuisine of visits past. This was high quality, well-cooked, deftly seasoned, and interesting bite-after-bite. I stole a few nibbles of my dining companion’s Ramparts signature hamburger ($11) and was equally impressed with ingredient quality, cooking method, and balance of flavors. This burger features components that just work---smoked gouda, mushrooms, fried onion strings, a sweet-hot mustard, combining for powerful flavor. The one flat note for me was the fries, which obviously steamed more than they fried, resulting in a softer texture. My dining companion prefers this texture, so he finished those while I happily stole more of his burger. The steak and crab entrée was too much for us to complete, and leftovers were even better the next day, another harbinger of quality.

I began to wonder why these menu selections were of such higher satisfaction than of visit pasts---was it a new, behind the scenes consultant or rock star staff member? My suspicions escalated once dessert arrived. The apple tart a la mode, described as if it were a basic comfort food on the dessert menu, had been plated with much eye for design on a long, rectangular dish. Paper-thin sliced apples graced an adorable tart in a post-centrifuge pattern dusted with cinnamon, along side finely crushed graham cracker, vanilla bean ice cream, and whipped cream sprouting a fresh sprig of mint. Go, order this dessert, and tell me this shortbread is not one of the best you can recall having. I almost fell out of my chair, marched back to the kitchen, and demanded to know who was back there.

Figuring this was a one-off experience, we returned to the restaurant for a second visit a few days later. The sports bar is a full-on fume fest, but the restaurant bar is smoke free, so we saddled up to take a seat. These may be the most comfortable bar chairs I have encountered in years. Something about the height, cushioning and back seemed custom-designed for my form and frame. This time, we examined the drink menu more carefully. Bottled wine selections offered a few hopeful choices, but by-the-glass offerings were limited to the pinot grigios, sauvignon blancs, chardonnays, merlots, cabernet sauvignons, and malbecs of the every day table. On the other hand, although local microbrews had not yet made an appearance, a dozen beer selections on tap provided several excellent choices. We did not order mixed drinks, but a look at the fully stocked bar revealed several less common choices, probably favorites of frequent locals. I also noticed four kinds of bitters—peach, chocolate, rhubarb, and orange, another promising possibility for future visits.

We aimed for small dishes on this second visit, a bowl of corn and crab chowder and hot wings (my dining partner’s craving; it’s a long story involving a grappling match with three coconuts and the subsequent aftermath). The chowder ($6), once again, evoked a reaction of me wanting to storm the kitchen to investigate who was behind the menu and the kitchen prep. Masterfully tiny potato cubes, corn stock-infused cream, fresh and meaty crab, this was balanced soup of a much higher standard than I thought would be possible from this location. Hot wings were hot wings ($9), a heaping basket, appropriately fried, nicely balanced acidic heat, accompanied by slightly-steamed carrots, a nice touch with the blue cheese dressing tasting light and of good quality. We once again ordered the apple tart dessert, which arrived on a round rather than rectangular dish. While immensely tasty, the simple switch from ground cinnamon to powdered sugar garnish, missing mint sprig, and different plating took away from the transcendence of the previous edition. The venue was packed to the gills, and these changes were all symptoms of a kitchen in the weeds.

So, Ramparts, who did you steal? What kitchen manager, sous chef, or other gem do you have hiding behind your kitchen’s swinging doors? Consistency will be your challenge, but if you keep the quality of ingredients I’ve been seeing, and every-now-and-then reveal triumphant brilliance of an artfully delicious masterpiece, the future will be bright, gallantly gleaming.

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This is almost enough to get me to make the 5 block trek to Ramparts. As a restaurant I drive past 5 times a week on the way home, it's never been on my list of places to try after the one foray about 4 years ago. Perhaps it's time to give the half-priced hamburger Monday a try just so I can take a look at the menu. Perhaps there's now a replacement for pizza across the street.

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Was at Ramparts last night. Absolutely packed. Had a great prime rib, others had the chicken special and the medallions of beef with Brie. Looked terrific. The prime rib was perfect. Served with mashed potatoes and really good, fresh, tasty steamed fresh veggies. Will go back again. It's bee a long time since I was there. Obviously new leadership and direction

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