Colvin Run Tavern
Restaurants worth building a trip around
"But that's so far," Washington friends said when I recently proposed going to the new Colvin Run Tavern, in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Tysons Corner isn't far, of course: it's a suburb of Washington, D.C., and a half hour's drive west of the Mall. But going there feels like getting far out of the city. The drive passes near some of Virginia's loveliest hunt country, and then a sudden concentration of shopping malls, office buildings, and hotels rises in the distance.
Colvin Run is in the most elegant group of shops, directly between Tiffany and Gucci. It's elegant too, but not glossy. It's also firmly tied to the region, unlike the chain stores and chain restaurants around it. The name comes from a nearby gristmill that ground and sold cornmeal and flour until the 1930s (the mill has been restored and is open for tours), and the food is full of mid-Atlantic and southern influences.
I persuaded my friends to make the drive because I'm a longtime admirer of Bob Kinkead, the owner and chef, and this is his first new venture since he opened his very popular downtown restaurant, Kinkead's, more than ten years ago. Kinkead's has long been my favorite place in Washington to find local ingredients, particularly fish and seafood, reliably prepared and served in very comfortable surroundings. Kinkead is one of the country's leading upholders of what in the 1980s became known as New American cuisine, incorporating French techniques and regional American ingredients. (This school began with Larry Forgione's An American Place, in New York City; its current redoubts include Charlie Palmer's Aureole, also in New York, and Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn, in Larkspur, California.) It's a big, masculine style of cooking, with several deep-flavored, often contrasting elements in a single dish, and rich sauces. Kinkead has stayed at the top of the Washington list because he pays close attention to a distinctly American style of service that arose at the same time the cuisine did—friendly and knowledgeable without being familiar or pretentious. He also put good live music in the downstairs bar at Kinkead's, which is an excellent place for a solo supper.
Although I visited Colvin Run just five months after it opened, it had the feel of a smooth-running, long-established operation. The customers, not at all stereotypically suburban in appearance, looked like a mixture of downtown lawyers, businesspeople, and policymakers; survivors of the dot-com boom, which originally lured the expensive chain steakhouses that until recently were the closest Tysons Corner came to haute cuisine; and intriguing cosmopolitan types who could animate a spy novel. The service at Colvin Run was nearly as polished as that at Kinkead's.
Each of the four, themed rooms, whose names evoke those of hotel conference rooms (Shenandoah, Charleston, Nantucket, Camden), is plush and comfortable in an unforced way. I was drawn to the lively warmth of the Shenandoah, with its big stone hearth, but my friends preferred the trim and spare Nantucket, for the calm that made conversation easy. (Unfortunately, it offers views of shoes, not sandals on the beach.)
Where Kinkead's specializes in fish, Colvin Run places equal emphasis on meats, in part, Bob Kinkead has said, to match and improve on all the nearby steakhouses. This emphasis works to the advantage of anyone who hasn't had a superior prime rib in a long time, or a superior leg of lamb. The night I visited, lamb was the featured joint on the "carving cart," a silver-domed and dark-wood rolling cart out of a men's club of yore. The lamb was said to be marinated in North African spices, but they were mild, and more apparent in the fresh and moist timbale of couscous with pine nuts and currants that came on the plate. The meat was superb—a very light pink with brown, not black, ends, firm but not tough, in taste the essence of lamb. Loin of pork was not so definitive, but the sauce was a good idea done well, flavored with bourbon and "burnt ends" of roast pork.
The side dishes were so good that I wished for triple helpings: ideally balanced sweet-and-sour red cabbage, and trembling corn pudding, a custard of delicate flavor and such technical skill that I wanted to alert my favorite writers on southern food to tell them I had found an exemplar of what they had made me hope one day to taste. Fish was a bit less noteworthy overall than the several fish dishes I tried at a recent lunch at Kinkead's, where some of the dishes might have been oversauced and overgarnished, but the fish was of impeccable quality, and the signature crab cakes were meaty and crisped as always (Colvin Run serves them at lunch).
Mostly I was impressed by the confidence and flair of the kitchen, which that night was supervised by Kinkead himself; he appeared during dessert to greet diners in other rooms. He will be dividing his time between the two restaurants, and has named his former chef de cuisine, Jeff Gaetjen, to be chef at Colvin Run. Each dish at dinner had a shine, an edge, as if the chef had been reinvigorated by some new competition he'd set for himself. The excitement was evident in small things: the way the skin of pan-roasted rockfish had been seared; the perfect pale-green color and firm-soft texture of the hand-trimmed artichoke heart set beside a small disk of deep-maroon tuna tartare, which came as a giveaway at the beginning of the meal. That intense kitchen energy was more than worth the trip from Washington.
Colvin Run Tavern, 8045 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner, Virginia, 703-356-9500. Dinner 5:30-9:30 Monday through Thursday, until 10:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5:00-9:00 Sunday. Reservations and major credit cards accepted.