I remember, not long after moving to Alexandria a few years ago, walking through Old Town and marveling at the number of great-looking restaurants that populated our new hometown. Our first walk down King Street, in particular, found us pressing our noses to many a window-posted menu, planning where and what to eat first. I distinctly remember stopping to check out the menu at Brabo Restaurant, but we weren’t drawn inside. There were probably a couple reasons for this—Brabo’s price tag was quite a bit higher than what we were used to (especially so recently transplanted from very affordable Pittsburgh), and, at that point, we’d yet to fully discover our love of French cuisine.
But things change. We’ve become acclimated to Alexandria’s price point, thanks in no small part to several financially advantageous job changes. We’ve also since traveled to Paris, stoking within me (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Kathleen) a love of French food. So when a friend recently mentioned dining at Brabo, we immediately went online and began salivating over their menu. We quickly decided that four years was way too long a wait and promptly made a dinner reservation for the following weekend.
Housed in the Lorien Hotel & Spa, Brabo conjures images of swanky fine dining and a stuffy atmosphere. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. There’s a somewhat festive din coming from tables of families and friends enjoying a night out, which is just enough to create a lively scene without becoming overwhelming. The service is impeccable and super friendly, by far the best we’ve experienced in Old Town. Even the seating—deep, low-slung leather chairs—seems geared toward comfort rather than pretention. Taken together, these things all lend Brabo a sense of approachability not typically found at high-end French restaurants.
It didn’t take long for Brabo to win me over, when soon after being seated, I sipped on what might be the best cocktail I’ve ever tasted. Called the Sakura 75, the drink combined Suntory Toki whiskey, Domaine de Canton, yuzu, luxardo, and sparkling sake. The result was a magical concoction that was effervescent, tart, and just flat-out perfect. I believe my first words after tasting it were “holy shit! Taste this, and prepare for your mind to explode!” I’m now determined to find these ingredients and make this drink at every opportunity.
This evening found us dining with two friends, and apart from enjoying their company, this meant we got to sample much more of the Brabo menu. Our desire to try as much as possible found our table groaning under a pile of appetizers. Kathleen and I both had our hearts set on trying the Jonas crab claws topped with Dijon mayonnaise. The claws were plenty meaty, but the Dijon mayo was a bit one note and it overwhelmed rather than complimented the delicate crab flavor.
The charcuterie selection was quite good, though I would have liked to see some French cheeses instead of the offerings from Georgia and California. The standout on the charcuterie board was the Jambon de Bayonne. Straight from French Basque country, the ham was salty and fatty in all the right ways.
Our favorite shared appetizer was the Mussels Cote Basque. The mussels were plump and the broth addictive. The combination of espelette pepper, piperade reduction, prosciutto, and parsley made for one of the tastiest mussel dishes I’ve ever encountered.
Pausing between courses, we ordered wine and prepared for our entrees. I was the only one to order beef—beef cheeks prepared Bourguignon style to be precise. Lightly coated in a rich red wine sauce, the dish would have been improved by more of the sauce to mask the slightly pot roasty flavor of the beef. Kathleen enjoyed bites of the accompanying medley of vegetables—carrots, onions, and delightfully charred Brussel sprouts—but they felt exceedingly wintry on a 90+ degree day. I also missed the presence of noodles, as I’d grown accustomed to in France.
Our friends had the pan seared sea bass and the shrimp boudin blanc. The sea bass tasted fresh and light. The boudin blanc proved more of an engineering marvel than a taste sensation. Ground seafood was made into a boudin-style sausage with its mix of pureed scallops and shrimp giving it a white color flecked with herbs and chives. Cut into rounds and seared, it had a slightly chewy texture. It sat on nettle risotto. I had a small bite and found the nettle strange, as it began to rapidly numb my tongue after just a tiny bite.
Kathleen’s order still hadn’t arrived, but she urged us to eat before our orders got cold. A slight mix-up resulted in her order being coded as steak, rather than the lobster gratinée she ordered. The lobster proved worth the wait and a gratis dessert was included for our troubles. Over a pound of lobster sat gently in its shell, topped with seasoned bread crumbs and a lobster bisque reduction. The combination of succulent lobster, garlicky bread crumbs, and creamy broth sang and we all returned again and again to the side of frites that accompanied the dish.
Though we’d had plenty of cocktails and glasses of wine, we decided to round out the meal with dessert wines—Moscato de Asti for Kathleen and tawny port for me. The port was thick and sweet, without being cloying, and a nice sliver of hard cheese wouldn’t have gone amiss as its side-kick. The rest of the group shared the Baked Alaska. Kathleen had never had one and was adamant it must be ordered. The taste was pleasant—white cake, passion fruit ice cream, and a lot of liquor drenched meringue—but the real treat was watching it be set ablaze.
While not for the light of purse, Brabo is a great place to enjoy an excellent meal for a special occasion where you can rest assured your dollar will go toward exceptional service and excellent food.