Brine, Merrifield, VA

I’ll write a review of my meal at Brine, but I don’t feel like writing tonight, and I want to at least issue a brief warning (which I will delete) to people thinking of dining there this weekend:

Go *now*. Because it will never be any better than it is, and right now, the food is fabulous. And I mean effing fabulous! More later, but when (not if; *when*) you go, think “produce and fish.”

I was out at a forever-changed Tysons Corner, near the Greensboro Metro Stop, on late Friday afternoon, and knew this was one of my best chances to get to Brine, just a short hop down Gallows Road.

I pulled up a seat at the bar, and unwound with a pint of Three Notch’d “Hydraulion” Irish Red ($6), an antidote towards overhopped IPAs that so fiendishly plague this poor, naive country of maltless primitives, then began my meal with a Radish Salad ($6), about eight different large chunks of (presumably heirloom-type) radishes, oyster aioli (which is something I’m not familiar with, but it was very good), chive blossom, and Maldon salt. These were largely as Ilaine describes below, except that I really enjoyed them. Yes, they were extremely hard, but instead of gnawing them, I merely cut them in half with my knife (even that was something of a challenge). I really enjoyed this dish, and the texture didn’t bother me so much as it fascinated me – with the dipping aioli, I thought it made for a wonderful appetizer on a hot afternoon, and gave me enough confidence in the produce here, to go a step deeper with the rest of my meal.

For my main course, I asked for two things brought out together: Crispy Redbor Kale ($8) which, like the Radish Salad, was from the “Sharing Size” section of the menu, and from the “Simple Fish” section of the menu, Croaker ($16), choosing Preserved Lemon Aioli as my sauce, despite knowing that there might be some redundancy with the sauce that came with the Radish Salad. Together, I picked a combination of dishes that were so good, I simply couldn’t believe what I was eating. Let me also mention that I was asked if I wanted some bread, and I said, ‘Sure, a couple pieces,’ mainly to give a it a try. What arrived was a tin pail of Parker House Rolls, made to order, and while not Zieboldian, these were about the second-best Parker House Rolls I’ve seen in this city of imitators – they were just about perfect, and so good that I was dumbfounded – so good that I had to control myself in order to distribute them throughout the meal rather than instantly gobbling them down. Although they went well with every single dish as a swab, they were best eaten alone because anything you added to them, detracted from them.

The Crispy Redbor Kale salad was a masterpiece: a mound of crispy Kale (think of the Palaak Chaat at Rasika), atop something called “Grated Tomato,” with olive oil and “zucchini pickles” which were negligible. This dish was Kale on Tomatoes, and looked exactly like some sort of Japanese Seaweed on an impossibly large pool of Tobiko or Ikura, but the pinkish base was, in fact, grated tomato, most likely sweetened with a bit of simple syrup, and served cold as a salad. The texture of the kale was precisely that fall-apart texture you find at Rasika with their Palaak Chaat – this dish was heaven, and even better with my simply grilled Croaker – one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of fish I can remember having in a long time. The croaker was served atop a little bed of stems (I’m sorry, I was unable to identify them), and the lemon aioli was really just a couple of blots – the fish itself was the star of the show, and these two items in combination had me walking away from my dinner, knowing that I had stumbled upon a restaurant with such great potential that I had to wait until I was well-rested to write the review. All three things, even the tough-to-cut radishes, were at a level of quality you just don’t see. When I was eating my kale and croaker, I was daydreaming, typing in messages on my cellphone, pretty much anything to distract myself, but like what happens to me sometimes at Corduroy, these dishes were so perfect that they forced me into the moment. I sat there, silently staring at what was in front of me, just in awe of what I was experiencing. Brine, despite its enormous size, on this evening, was at a level of greatness that I rarely see.

Ilaine, on 18 Jul 2015 – 9:26 PM, said:Husband was begging to go back, and Don’s post above stimulated me to say, “sure, why not?”

My opinion hasn’t improved but it hasn’t gotten worse.

Got there at six on a Saturday, out by 7:15 p.m. In the interim, it went from less than half full to mostly full, and the noise level went up accordingly. Speaking objectively, I would describe the decibel level as “brutal.” Not actually a problem for me. After raising two sons, I can tune out a lot of noise, but if you can’t do that, well, you’ve been warned. It would take a lot of wall hangings and whatnot to dampen this down. The hard chairs don’t help.

Food. It’s July and deep in my heart eating oysters in July is just wrong. In my old home town of New Orleans, the Acme Oysrer bar would close for the summer. But the oysters were fine. Excellent. We asked for a dozen each, got only one dozen, perhaps dur to decibel level, although we always have a hard time explaining to waitstaff that we want a dozen (or more) each. Why, I don’t know.

Surely the decible level contributed to the only other snafu. Husband ordered yellowtail carpaccio, waiter thought he said gaspacho. Carpaccio, gazpacho, easy mistake? The gave him the gazpacho and then the carpaccio, and the manager came by to apologize. Gazpacho puréed, tasty but obviously not carpaccio. He liked both. I thought the carpaccio filets were excessively large but he was pleased.

He also managed to eat almost all my crab chowder when I wasn’t looking. I passed the bowl to him for a taste, and when I looked up, he was scraping the bowl with his spoon.

My crab cake was a typical Maryland style crab cake. It was fine. The menu mentioned lump crabmeat, and there was probably a mention of lump crabmeat in the crabcake, but pretty much all shreds of back meat. Some filler but not a lot. Old bay. The usual. Neither here nor there.

Charcuterie also hit and miss. Ham surryano and duck rillette hits, pate a miss.

Side of grilled corn, WTF? Modern type sugar sweet corn, nicely grilled, slathered in crema and fresh cheese, except for the unepected sweetness of the corn, well executed. The WTF moment came from the wedges of lime on the side, doused with the crema. If you’re going to pick up a crema doused wedge of lime and squeeze that juice on your corn, you’re a something or other person than I am.

Radish salad, WTF, as well. For $7 for a radish salad, I expect, well, radishes. Most of the plate was big chunks, I mean a couple inches square, of a very pretty purple “radish” that after eating, I swear was a turnip. It was very hard, and had a thick skin. The only way to eat it was by gnawing it. The taste was pretty ok, but that big of a hunk of hard vegetable should have been sliced thinly.

I dunno, Brine.

Two nights later I was back with my young dining companion, having raved to him about this incredible new restaurant in the Mosaic development. I had read Ilaine’s review, and although I had 100% confidence that “I was right” with my opinion of my first visit, I’m also experienced enough, and know that Ilaine is experienced enough, to know that “she wasn’t wrong” with her opinion. Something was amiss.

My son and I were seated at a two-top in the middle of the restaurant, and perused the menu for awhile. Although I urged him to get a mocktail (this is the place for one), he stuck with water as he so often does (and good for him), whereas I stuck with the proven Three Notch’d “Hydraulion” Irish Red ($6). My only instructions for him were that we had to get the Crispy Redbor Kale ($8) because he simply wasn’t going to believe how good kale could be, and what “grated tomato” was like. Other than that, we tore the menu apart (not literally), getting samples of many different things: from the “Raw Bar” section, a Chilled Carolina Shrimp Cocktail ($13 for 6); from the “Sharing Size” section, the Kale, and then Squash Blossoms ($9) with scallop and swordfish mousseline, and charred scallion, the Beef Tartare ($16) with caperberry, rye crostini, two dots of horseradish, and a dusting of black vegetable ash; and from the “Simple Fish” section, the Mahi-Mahi ($18), which a lady was having next to me on my first visit, and was raving about – it was obvious just looking at it that it was every bit the equal of my Croaker. My expectations were high, and I told him that his expectations should be high, too. I asked our server – who was simultaneously aloof, and chatty – if we could have a rush on an order of Parker House Rolls (I know my son well enough to sense the dreaded EYOSS looming (Eighteen-Year-Old Starvation Syndrome), even though he’s always too polite to say anything, even to me (damn it, I’ve been trying to change this to no avail)). The server acknowledged this, but warned us that they’re cooked to order (great!), and that they take 5-6 minutes. No problem!

And once again, I ended up apologizing to my son after the meal for pumping up his expectations. As so often happens, I’ll go to a restaurant, rave about it to someone, then take them there, and end up explaining that “it really *was* fantastic – please believe me!” My son is savvy enough (and familiar enough with his pop) to know I’m right, but others whom I don’t know so well, aren’t, and so there have been numerous occasions when my bonafides have undoubtedly been questioned – this meal would have been no exception.

I could go start-to-finish, and explain why every single thing was a disappointment, relative to my first visit, but instead I’ll simply say that the *worst* thing I had on my first visit (the radish salad, I suppose) was better than the *best* thing I had on my second visit (the Shrimp Cocktail, I would guess). I asked my son – who has a critic’s palate – to name his favorites, in order, and he pointed to the Shrimp Cocktail, the Beef Tartare (that’s the 18-year-old in him), the Mahi-Mahi, the Squash Blossoms, and the Crispy Redbor Kale. The Parker House rolls clearly came from the same recipe, and although I watched him bite into one and nod his seal of approval, he didn’t swoon like I was sure he would; I picked one up and immediately *felt* why – the execution was botched. The tops of the rolls were thicker and harder, the mie drier, and the flavor not what it was before. This was symptomatic of the entire meal, and the only other common dish – the Crispy Redbor Kale – was so genuinely disappointing, that Brine dropped multiple notches in my mental notebook. The kale wasn’t even crispy – it was just leaves of kale, and instead of disintegrating when you bit it, you had to chew them like a salad. The grated tomato was much pinker and more watery, although the simple syrup (or sugar, or whatever sweetener they use) was there in abundance. I had no interest in the Beef Tartare, and since my son liked it, I gave it all to him after taking one small bite of everything, and the Mahi-Mahi was nothing like the one I saw on my first night. The Squash Blossoms, so incredibly appetizing when our server was enthusiastically describing them, were bitter, oily, and nothing special at all. And that reminds me: Our server spent a great deal of time describing “specials” that were written on the menu exactly as he described them, the squash blossoms being but one example. Also, he asked us if we were familiar with the menu – I told him I was, but my son wasn’t, and then looked down at the table so he’d describe things to my son. I wish he would have spent more time looking at my son (who is an adult) instead of to the man with his head down, not wanting to be looked at. He was a nice man, but not a particularly skilled server – the Parker House rolls took a bit longer to arrive than they should have, and there was confusion when I ordered a second beer, as another server got to me first after seeing my glass was empty; a couple minutes later, our server came and asked if I wanted another. Nothing was so bad on the service front, but the troops could use a little more training, and I just had this gnawing feeling that the friendliness wasn’t quite as genuine as it seemed.

After my first visit, I ranked Brine in Italic in the Dining Guide, and even ranked it ahead of Gypsy Soul as the #1 restaurant in Merrifield. Not so. While it still merits an Italic rating, it is now well behind Gypsy Soul in the Merrifield neighborhood, and if Chris Watson hadn’t left Ovvio Osteria, it would be well behind them, too. As it stands, based on the strength of my first visit alone, Brine is ranked as the #2 restaurant in Merrifield, and let me tell you: That isn’t saying much. Potential? Oh yeah. But I knew even after my first visit that it would be nearly impossible to sustain such an extraordinary level of quality in a restaurant that’s this large – one thing Brine has going for it is a relatively small menu, and I urge them to keep it that way so that things can stay manageable. This will be a very popular restaurant, and the crowds will come – this review will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, but not enough to affect the masses of people that will be frequenting Brine. After my first visit, as I was walking back to my car, a very friendly person was outside Sisters, the restaurant right next door to Brine, politely but aggressively asking if I’d like a carryout menu. Clearly, they know that they have some competition on their hands with Brine. Maybe so, but on my next visit to this building – which may not be for awhile – Sisters is going to get a fair shake from me. John Critchley, if you’re reading this (and I know you are), please *teach*. If you were there Friday early evening, but absent Sunday evening, then you are the key person that this restaurant is hinging upon. Teach your staff, and teach them well – they need it, trust me. If you were running the kitchen early Friday evening, then you are one hell of a Chef de Cuisine, but you know that you can’t work every hour of every day – it is absolutely imperative that the off-night kitchen is able to emulate, or at least approximate, the A-team; otherwise, how can we rely on Brine as a first-rate restaurant, which is exactly what it has the capability to be?

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