Clarity, a clear winner

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By: Stephanie Gans, Dining Editor

Clarity brings fine food and fun to Vienna.

Creeping heat. Shattering crust. Bone-in meat. Chicken wings? No. Pork shanks? Yes.

Clarity, a new restaurant in Vienna that, on every visit, overflows with too many bodies in one room, does things differently.

Pork shanks are treated like chicken wings; meat and fish play together in a way that redefines surf and turf; cow is a one-man show; and foreign language lessons loop in the bathroom. Let me explain.

Grilled tuna slices mingle with red pepper, housemade kimchi and strands of braised pork in a bowl popping with tang. Another appetizer of cured, poached salmon hangs with pork belly, beets, shaved asparagus and lemon-maple caramel. It’s bright, but savory. Fresh-tasting, but meaty. I’m not sure how it works. But why wouldn’t it? Don’t settle for steak and lobster again.

The dual-beef display, in contrast, is singularly focused. There’s a food philosophy: What grows together, goes together. The same can be said for intra-animal compositions—a slice of toasted bread spread with marrow and topped with tartare also pairs well.

The bathroom audio, at least in the ladies room, doubles as a classroom with French and Italian instructions on basic vocabulary and sentence structure. Is this for clarity?

The chefs laugh. They’re just having fun with the restaurant’s Sonos sound system. No deeper meeting.

And that’s chefs plural: Jason Maddens, of Washington’s Central Michel Richard , and Jonathan Krinn, the founding chef of 2941 and owner-chef of the short-lived Inox in Tysons Corner, which also followed the unconventional path of operating under two head chefs. Maddens and Krinns both direct the vision of the restaurant as well as menu development.

The constantly changing menu is probably best showcased in Chip Off the Block. It’s a rotating selection of meat paired with uncomplicated sides. One night lamb shoulder was piled onto a wooden block with an assortment of pickled vegetables, watercress and yogurt. Rubbed with garlic and harrisa, the lamb sports a crust almost like brisket with flesh much rarer. It’s a simple meal—and under $20. The Chip also features wagyu brisket and barbecued smoked pork shoulder. Whole pigs are butchered in-house, so pork finds many avenues onto the menu (including those with fish).

And it’s easy to find fairly priced items here, especially at happy hour. On one visit, there was skewered beef, Japanese yakitori-style, with a gingery slaw of carrots and cabbage. That one skewer was $5, as was an overflowing mound of raw and blanched Brussels sprouts with arugula, marcona almonds and dried blueberries. It wasn’t dressed in enough of the promised apple cider vinaigrette, but the funky combination was pleasing nonetheless. A better salad (if it’s still on the menu), is grilled fennel, arugula and freekeh with the weight of the ancient grain balancing the light, leafy greens.

Another $5 option: a single-patty burger. There’s a double-patty version on the main menu (about three times as much, with a side) sandwiched with confit tomatoes and cheddar, which fulfills the craft burger craving and honestly was more satisfying than the $6 per ounce, 6-ounce minimum wagyu strip loin from an Idaho farm. It was a light, clean-tasting steak, but it couldn’t compare to the impact of two house-ground disks of beef. It’s a burger world these days.

Not all is as lovely as the crowds would imply, though the wine list, managed by Nico Gaskell, offers plenty to enjoy.

A chicken entree was bland and plated with burnt broccoli rabe and dreary fingerling potatoes. Fried in duck fat and sprinkled with bacon, the potatoes still couldn’t summon excitement. These same sides were also next to the wagyu strip; it might be time to retire the pair as the default accompaniments.

That same night, three scallops with what must have been only three fork-twirls of squid ink pasta arrived in one of the smallest portions of an entree I’ve seen. For $24. The fettuccine was silky, if underseasoned. The scallops, unevenly cooked.

But this kitchen is new and performing in public every night. The kitchen is open, with seating to watch it all. It’s definitely the best seating in the house. And the house is having a party.