The Dining Dish blog is Dara Bunjon's take on anything food, both national and in her hometown of Baltimore. Warning: this food blog can be harmful to your waistline.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Gallagher's Travels ~ Extra Virgin

by Mary E. Gallagher
National Television, Radio, Print and the Web

Longtime residents of south Arlington have for years watched the changing landscape of Shirlington Village with interest. After the initial renovation nearly 20 years ago, developers tried a retail/restaurant mix but it wasn't enough of a mix to satisfy visitors -- too few restaurants and uninteresting stores.

Some say the county was to blame for the slow start by refusing to acknowledge the hidden assets of this accessible location and ignoring the need for parking. This is the historical (and hysterical) way of Virginia government - ignore the cars and their need for roads and parking don't provide public transportation, and someday your troubles will be over. Well, a lot of some days have come and gone and the cars and people are multiplying like Easter bunnies, including in Shirlington.

At last things have settled, leaving a nice mix of price range and ethnic choices for before and after live and movie theater performances for snacks and anytime dining. The Curious Grape wine shop has an active schedule of tastings and seminars.

My tastes, interest in quality and desire for the elusive trained server seems to be on a more demanding scale than those who pack themselves in like sardines for abuse and noise at the Carlyle. At last I've been rewarded, and after a number of incantations at its prime corner location rises Extra Virgin, a restaurant featuring "Tuscan cuisine" with a modern flair.

Opening the restaurant in the summer of 2005 and experiencing a shaky few months from miscast personnel, owner Shary Thur and General Manager Tim Woody have now gathered an impressive team and regrouped the open kitchen with an outstanding executive chef, Rachid (Niko) Amroune.

Let me start with entering the restaurant. Tim Woody literally lives on-site, keeping a watchful eye on all details. The hostesses on my visits have been quite nice, alert, and have understood their purpose, though unfortunately following the popular hiring mode of only skinny young girls in black. How I long for the days of dining when mature sophisticated men and women like Ann at geranios or the longtime hostess at Loews L'Enfant Plaza wore stunning outfits, knew us all by name, and I didn't feel like an empty box being passed off to one child after another burdened with walkie-talkies, beepers, and floor plans.

As suggested by its name, olive oil is the (forgive us) "running" theme at Extra Virgin --not only in the cuisine, but in the decor as well. All space is enhanced by warm golden colors, moving water, and yards of luxuriously plush draperies flowing from the windows allowing one to observe the active pedestrian street scene yet shielded a bit from the day's realities. I loved the similar posh decor of now closed Ortanique in Washington, one of the most romantic restaurants ever. Luckily Extra Virgin offers a similar great escape. Press information says drizzles of olive oil are suggested throughout by the interior design, but I felt enveloped in gentle euro-style, sophisticated comfort with a sense of peace.

By now you've probably guessed that the total "experience," not just the food, is highly important to me. We can quickly forget the luxurious silken chocolate mousse if the server slams the dishes on the table. This is not to say the food at Extra Virgin is anything but superior. Owner Thur insists on the best and has worked diligently to correct early lapses. The staff is truly professional and knows the menu and every item on it.

Blowing out all the stops, I had the "tasting" menu, featuring whatever the chef feels creative about that evening while allowing for any allergies or peculiarities you might have. I don't eat "raw" and out of courtesy always inform the kitchen well in advance. The choice of that day's special ingredients inspires and allows Chef Niko poetic license. Extra Virgin charges a reasonable $65 for their five-course tasting experience. And it is a rare occasion that Niko doesn't send out an extra amuse-bouche or two. There is a generous full range wine list to accompany your choices.

We started with a little portion of scrambled eggs laced with truffles set in a riotous egg cup. On the same plate was a delicious smoked salmon flower and fresh herring. Then a delicious terrine of rabbit and onto ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta, saffron risotto with mussels and shrimp, tortellini filled with a lamb ragu, and roasted salmon. So far I was doing fine but starting to fade and we're not at the end! By the way, the end was a wonderful white chocolate raspberry cheesecake and very nice espresso.

Do you ever have the experience when you see the first course delivered on a tasting menu and hopefully it's just a bite or two, but you're thinking "will I have the famous Chinese takeout syndrome: hungry in three hours" Well, never fear; a few bites of no fewer than 10 items and probably exceeding 20 adds up to a lot of food!

Not up to the tasting menu? Try the hand-tossed brick-oven pizza that friends of mine rave about or house-made pastas including ravioli filled with veal ragu. Enjoy lunch to test out entrees like Scaloppini di Maiale--pork scaloppini with grilled herb polenta, braised pancetta, cabbage, and porcini mushroom sauce for only $13, or a radicchio salad with Bartlett bosc pear, imported Gorgonzola terrine and toasted walnuts. Add chicken or salmon for a small additional fee. Lunch prices run $7 to $15 and dinner $10-26. Reasonable enough for a nice dinner out or blow out all the stops with three or four courses.

Chef Niko likes to try various creations as specials and those that clients ask for over and over get added to the regular menu. Like a one-hit-wonder--as we used to call it in the country music business--chefs can never take these classics off the menu.

Chef Rachid 'Niko' Amroune, was born in Mount Pelier, France and always carried a passion for the culinary arts. A career as a chef inevitable, he attended the Oxford Culinary School in Oxford, England at age 19 and received an apprenticeship at the Ritz Carlton, Oxford. At 21, he moved to the United States, launching his stateside career. Unmentioned in this formal training resume is the years that every great chef spends learning to cut vegetables, cook rice and stocks plus perform the other mundane repetitive kitchen tasks under the masters. Then you go to school.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in the Washington area, Niko began working with the esteemed Roberto Donna at his 'award' winning restaurant, Galileo. After a few years in this highly regarded kitchen, he joined the culinary team at Teatro Goldoni with Fabrizio Aielli. Four years later, Chef Niko headed to the kitchen at Tosca, working with Cesare Lanfranconi. Now we are lucky to have him in Arlington at Extra Virgin.

Very young and handsome, Niko is a serious threat to the area's kitchen glitterati, creating great masterpieces--some with humor, some classic, and all incredibly good. His shy ready smile, good looks and willingness to chat with guests is a plus.

The bar area has a slightly "lighter" feel than the main dining room and features a full premium of drinks. Some of the banquettes in this area view the open kitchen, stop off before or after a movie, have a glass of wine and appetizer, or maybe skip straight to a couple of desserts!

When warm weather is here the sidewalks of Shirlington flower into a proliferation of outside dining where one can watch the parade going by as they watch you!

Stop in at Extra Virgin, say I sent you, and receive a free appetizer through June 15th, 2006. You’ll enjoy it, whatever the occasion.

Extra Virgin
4053 S. 28th Street - Shirlington Village
Arlington, VA 22206
(703) 998-8474 / (703) 931-8189 Fax
(703) 998-8474 or

Hours: M-Thur dining 11:00am-10:00pm Bar until 2:00am
F-S dining 11:00am-11:00pm Bar until 2:00am
Sunday Brunch 11:00am-3:00pm Dinner 5:00pm-10:00pm Bar until Midnight Happy Hour M-F 4:00pm-7:00pm
Live Music: Thur- Sat 8:00pm - 12 midnight Sundays 6:00pm - 10:00pm
Parking: Complimentary Valet Thursday, Friday and Saturday after 5pm, on street and ramps.


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