Clarity review: Double the pleasure, double the fun

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By: Tom Sietsema

3 star  EXCELLENT

Of all the attention-grabbing ideas that have popped up on the dining radar of late — built-in tips at Sally’s Middle Name, cocktails served in coffee presses at Provision No. 14 — the notion at Clarity in Vienna that two heads are better than one has probably earned the most customers.

At this American bistro with aspirations, the open kitchen finds Jonathan Krinn fussing over plates alongside Jason Maddens, chefs who rode the highs and lows of luxury dining over the years, first at 2941 in Falls Church, then at the late Inox in McLean. Krinn had been Maddens’s superior at both restaurants. At Clarity, the men are equals. On any given night, they can be found front and center, bedding anchovy-spiked rockfish on saffron potatoes or high-fiving diners who have enjoyed their previous work and are cheered to be eating it again.

This time around, however, the duo’s main dishes are priced to encourage frequent consumption (entrees average $20), and the ingredients include all parts of whole animals that are broken down in the restaurant by what the menu bills as “meat-guy extraordinaire” Adam Musselman. A veteran of Red Apron, the butcher makes possible the nightly specials of brisket and smoked pork and lamb shoulders — cuts deemed too common for most fine-dining establishments. Wednesday can’t come soon enough for me. That’s when Clarity offers lamb shoulder that benefits from a rub of garlic, cumin and harissa and long, slow roasting in the oven. The meat becomes a feast with the addition of tangy Greek yogurt, preserved lemon and pickled vegetables (ramps in spring). If I close my eyes, I could be eating at Kapnos Taverna, the starry Greek retreat in Clarendon.

Except you ought to keep your eyes open here. The kitchen turns out dishes that can be as beautiful as they are delicious. I’m thinking now of pillowy ricotta gnudi strewn with elephant garlic chips and spring finery — morels, asparagus, fava beans — and slicked with mushroom jus, and four fat scallops, each occupying a quadrant of its own on a square plate. The seafood, presented with crisp pancetta waving from a cut in each caramelized scallop, is served on summery creamed corn and wilted spinach. A little surf, a bite of turf, a note of sweet, a touch of smoke: What a score!

late — built-in tips at Sally’s Middle Name, cocktails served in coffee presses at Provision No. 14 — the notion at Clarity in Vienna that two heads are better than one has probably earned the most customers.

At this American bistro with aspirations, the open kitchen finds Jonathan Krinn fussing over plates alongside Jason Maddens, chefs who rode the highs and lows of luxury dining over the years, first at 2941 in Falls Church, then at the late Inox in McLean. Krinn had been Maddens’s superior at both restaurants. At Clarity, the men are equals. On any given night, they can be found front and center, bedding anchovy-spiked rockfish on saffron potatoes or high-fiving diners who have enjoyed their previous work and are cheered to be eating it again.

This time around, however, the duo’s main dishes are priced to encourage frequent consumption (entrees average $20), and the ingredients include all parts of whole animals that are broken down in the restaurant by what the menu bills as “meat-guy extraordinaire” Adam Musselman. A veteran of Red Apron, the butcher makes possible the nightly specials of brisket and smoked pork and lamb shoulders — cuts deemed too common for most fine-dining establishments. Wednesday can’t come soon enough for me. That’s when Clarity offers lamb shoulder that benefits from a rub of garlic, cumin and harissa and long, slow roasting in the oven. The meat becomes a feast with the addition of tangy Greek yogurt, preserved lemon and pickled vegetables (ramps in spring). If I close my eyes, I could be eating at Kapnos Taverna, the starry Greek retreat in Clarendon.

Except you ought to keep your eyes open here. The kitchen turns out dishes that can be as beautiful as they are delicious. I’m thinking now of pillowy ricotta gnudi strewn with elephant garlic chips and spring finery — morels, asparagus, fava beans — and slicked with mushroom jus, and four fat scallops, each occupying a quadrant of its own on a square plate. The seafood, presented with crisp pancetta waving from a cut in each caramelized scallop, is served on summery creamed corn and wilted spinach. A little surf, a bite of turf, a note of sweet, a touch of smoke: What a score!

Scallops with bacon on corn and spinach becomes a unique spin on surf-and-turf in a small package. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
Steamed mussels with lamb sausage come together in a lobster broth. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
More than once, I’ve looked up from my food to see fellow diners passing plates and forks of something they thought their companions shouldn’t miss. My table becomes one big Lazy Susan, too, once a bowl of mussels and an order of soft-shell crabs are brought out. The bivalves are small but meaty, arranged with tangy tomatoes, marbles of lamb sausage, pinches of goat cheese and, in the role of binder, lobster broth. The soft-shell crabs sport nubby coats of freekeh, or green wheat that has been toasted and cracked. The latter appetizer, flanked by diced watermelon, is plucked from a menu category, “Chef’s Corner,” that highlights seasonal ingredients. Another gem in the collection: rabbit ballotine, pink loin and belly in a band of house-made bacon with a berry sauce to ring it.

Locals were thrilled when the former Wolftrap Cafe was purchased by Krinn and Maddens. Burgers and roast chicken from two popular chefs! “Where’s the foie gras?” fans of the men asked shortly after Clarity opened in April. So onto the menu went sautéed duck liver served atop a veneer of brioche with strawberry-balsamic sorbet, a heady throwback to the days of decadence at Inox and 2941.

Of his new audience, Krinn says, “they eat anything” — including a recent special of beef heart terrine that sold out before the night was over.

Like the menu, the space lends itself to different moods. The front room is biggest and, frankly, in need of some mirrors or art to dress up its bare saffron walls. The heart of Clarity is the center of the restaurant, featuring a small bar and a tall communal table followed by the exhibition kitchen with eight stools flanking one side. The counter, which gives patrons a chance to watch meals unfold and engage with the cooks, calls to me most. It’s a two-way street, says Krinn, whose cast mates get close-up “verbal and visual feedback” for their efforts. (The transparency, he adds, requires a poker face when mistakes are made.) Beyond the kitchen is a small private dining room; out front is a patio. Something for every occasion or season, in other words.

As with too many restaurants, Clarity suggests pastry chefs are an endangered species. The restaurant serves a mere four desserts. But even the cliches among them are designed to delight. A molten river of chocolate runs from the dark chocolate cupcake when the confection is split with a fork. Tempering the rush is a scoop of minty ice cream. And burnt caramel lends nuance to vanilla custard, a silken pudding set off with a garnish of glazed cherries. If the choices are few, the execution is on target.

The many fine points make for a very good restaurant. The warm rolls are baked by Krinn’s father, Mal, just as the bread was in 2941’s glory days, while the cocktails mirror those shaken and stirred in Washington’s top bars. (The cardamom Manhattan is especially appealing.) A request for coffee gets you Shark Mountain, from Charlottesville, poured from a French press.

Could I like Clarity more? My ears could. (My decibel count edges close to “extremely loud” one recent weeknight). The bonhomie aside, the restaurant requires leaning in and cupping ears to hear companions. Arrive early, then, if you want to catch the Vienna edition of “Top Chef Masters.”