Alexandria, VA’s Brabo restaurant [classic article]

Right in historic Old Town Alexandria is Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier. Just a block from the Metro, it’s convenient to access from D.C. or Baltimore. Chef/Proprietor Wiedmaier grew up in Germany with a Belgian father and Californian mother. His cuisine combines the elegance and tradition of Belgium with the fresh, local ingredient driven cuisine of California. I’m glad I got to try it!

The ambiance is elegant, yet comfortable. Though the restaurant is fine dining in nature with attentive service to match, don’t feel like you have to dig out your prom dress or tux to go. The restaurant is decorated in bronze tones with mid-tone wood floors. Hushed modern jazz plays in the background. It has a lively bar scene.

With a chef having Belgian roots, one simply has to try the classic mussels! They’re one of the signature dishes, a starter. They’re also very popular. Brabo’s mussels are steamed to perfection, fresh, tender and juicier than many mussels you may have had. The portion is quite generous and definitely works as a starter for two. The mussels, which come from Ireland, are served in a delicate sauce of butter, white wine, red pepper flakes, parsley, garlic and shallots.

The mussels are served with a sizeable crock of frites — thin fries — and a trio of mayonnaise dipping sauces, including a stone-ground mustard mayo. This really adds a lot of value to the dish.

Brabo’s drinks menu includes many local and Belgian beers, as well as hand-crafted cocktails.

The “Not Yo Mamma’s Appletini” is most certainly not like those trite and bright green vodka concoctions. It’s naturally fruit flavored, instead of artificially sweet. It does have light, refreshing aperitif qualities. It’s made with apple brandy, Barentzen Apfelkorn, spiced syrup, fresh lemon juice, egg white foam, Bar Code Apple Spice Bitters.

One of the appetizer specials the night I attended was seared fois gras with duck confit and poached pear. The searing gave the fois gras a nice contrasting texture and flavor, so there were more elements than the typical mere butteriness of the meat. The pear was a good flavor addition, because it’s lightly sweet but not overly dessert-like. It was a well-balanced dish.

One of the entree specials on the menu was loin of Sika deer, served with Sika sausage, apples, turnips, carrots, venison reduction and braised kale. I learned that Sika deer, also known as Japanese deer, is closer to elk than traditional venison. It was surprisingly non-gamy, quite comparable to the slight mineral-beef flavor of a filet mignon. It was served medium rare. The sausages were savory and well-seasoned. The winter veggies were quite complementary to the meat. The Sika deer and other game that frequently appears on the menu is from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas.

A great side with the meat was Irwin mushrooms from Pennsylvania.

Another entree I tried was the Pan-Seared Artic Char, with seafood cassoulet and braised kale. Arctic Char is a pink fleshed fish, sort of trout meets salmon. It was prepared with a deliciously crispy skin. The freshly snipped herbs and kale worked well with it.

Before the official dessert course, I tried their cheese plate. They serve a good contrast of cheese from cow to goat, very gourmet and all of the cheeses were from artisan American cheese-makers. The garnishes included caramelized onions, shallot jam, quince paste, honey with herbs and candied walnuts.

Continuing with the Belgian culinary education was a Belgian waffle with pineapple compote and house-made brown butter ice cream. The flavors worked quite well together. The waffle was lighter than one expect, making it a great dessert even after a rich meal.

Another dessert I tried was the creme brulee’ du jour: orange spice. The seasonings and tang of orange offered a nice counterpoint to the rich cream and perfectly candied sugar crust.

Robert Wiedmaier’s presence is a hot one in restaurants right now and there are actually three of his restaurant babies on the same block, for different takes on his cuisine and different moods. Brabo has a Tasting Room that was still packed with people late at night after I had finished my dinner, with a casual bent. I stopped into The Butcher’s Block before dinner: it’s a fun little gourmet food and wine shop with the best of the best goodies, including offerings from D’Artagnon and Fells Point meats.

Let’s say you’d like to make a night of it, after an evening of delicious food and drinks. The Brabo empire is actually the dining part of the Lorien Hotel & Spa. Definitely a good way to merge either some leftovers or some purchases from The Butcher’s Block would be to stay in one of the Lorien suites, which have balconies that overlook the city, with plush chairs to enjoy the view. There’s also a communal deck with fire pit where people like to relax and take a cocktail.

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