Food critic February 14 at 10:00 AM
“Spaghetti & meatballs” at AhSo. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)     (Good/Excellent)

The name of one of Loudoun County’s best restaurants makes some customers scratch their heads and others smile in recognition.

Precisely the point: “AhSo is a conversation-starter,” says Jason Maddens, the chef-owner of the new establishment, whose moniker refers to the two-pronged tool used to extract corks, typically from older wines with fragile stoppers.

Yes, there’s a wine angle at the restaurant he opened in December after two years of co-piloting Clarity in Vienna with chef Jonathan Krinn. But AhSo, in the Brambleton Town Center, part of a planned community in Ashburn, is more than just another restaurant with a wall of wine.

The chef, who counts Central Michel Richard in Washington and 2941 in Falls Church as résumé sweeteners, sees his dining room near Dulles International Airport as a homecoming. Maddens, 36, grew up in Sterling and lives in Leesburg. He’s also closer than ever to the source of many of his ingredients. “I can hit a farm in 20 minutes,” he says with what sounds like equal parts wonder and pride.

Produce in particular intrigues him. “There are no new meats,” jokes Maddens, who delights in the discovery of, say, Hakurei turnips, which can be eaten raw. His interest will please those who eschew flesh or simply want to cut back. Without making a big deal out of it, AhSo pushes vegetables to the fore with dishes such as cauliflower that’s pickled and tempura’d and arranged atop raita with golden raisin and apricot mostarda. The chef says some diners order “spaghetti & meatballs” without reading the description; later, they’re surprised to discover the pasta is made with strands of spaghetti squash, and the “meatballs” are rolled out from a mash of lentils and quinoa. A ring of tomato bisque on the plate is thin and true. But even a salad is dressed for success when it involves grapefruit and fennel mixed with hazelnuts, apple and a local-honey vinaigrette.

Chef-owner Jason Maddens talks to Nicholas Babiak and guests. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

The heat in an order of lush yellowtail tartare comes from wasabi peas and gives Maddens a chance to reminisce about his mentor, Michel Richard. The late French chef would show up at his restaurants with bags of food, snacks and things he found on grocery store shelves, and sometimes incorporate them into his dishes. Like the master, the student uses texture in interesting ways throughout his menu.

There may not be any new meats, but AhSo’s hamburger stands out for a patty based on beef from eco-friendly Spring House Farm in Hamilton, Va., plus truffle cheddar cheese, a fried egg and bacon that’s braised to make it tender rather than chewy. (The liquid from the cooking is used to flavor the collard greens that ride shotgun with lamb shoulder roulade, set off with a crisp ring of acorn squash.) Instead of french fries, Maddens flanks the burger with “rustic potatoes,” golden nuggets fashioned from crumbled baked russets. Thanks for the change of pace, chef.

Maddens’s biggest disappointment in AhSo’s opening months was having to drop its early policy of including service (20 percent) in the menu prices. While the staff was initially on board with the practice, says the chef, customers weren’t making the connection when they looked at the list. Let me go on record as saying $16 for a first course of duck confit, glazed with huckleberry sauce and served as a circular hedge with sweet potato gnocchi and wispy bits of fried kale and crackling speck — presented by an able server — was worth the initial admission price (now two bucks less).

Pickled cauliflower tempura. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

This is food that would look at home at Washington’s dressier American restaurants —701 in Penn Quarter comes to mind — but happens to be offered an hour or so away in the suburbs. Lucky Loudoun County, being so close to diver scallops teetering on a two-toned beet “risotto” dressed with a celery seed-mustard vinaigrette, an acid trip heightened with pickled fennel. A duo of chicken is best for its fried leg (the sliced breast is ordinary) shored up with dirty rice and fried okra that smack of the South.

The restaurant’s charms run through dessert. Apple skillet cake with maple caramel sauce is tender and warm, an old-fashioned, gluten-free comfort served with house-made vanilla ice cream. Cheesecake whipped up with ricotta is lighter and fluffier than you anticipate and benefits from a garnish of huckleberry jam and buttery tuiles that spring from the surface like comet tails.

Slips are of the sort that are easily corrected, like a shake too much salt in the white bean ragout supporting a pork shank and pork belly, or cocktails that skew sweet. Bread makes a middling first impression when it’s brought out, a slice of white fluff per diner. But that might be remedied once Maddens starts baking his own in the $30,000 pizza oven he inherited from the former tenant, Papa Tony’s.

The young men and women taking your orders and bringing your food are an earnest bunch. “I’m a wealth of knowledge,” a server announces one night, only to backtrack a little when it comes to wine. (Hey, she says she just turned 21!) Maddens, who developed an interest in wine at Clarity, has curated a collection at AhSo that roams the world and focuses on small producers. Bottles average $65 but include sufficient choices for the budget-minded.

The dining room at AhSo. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

From the outside, AhSo doesn’t look like anything remarkable; indeed, the TVs suspended over the bar, spotted from the street, suggest a corporate watering hole. Spend some time in the place, however, and you’re likely to embrace its style, an easy
blend of brushed concrete floors, high ceilings and navy blue walls. Groups have a haven in the glass-enclosed private dining room in the back, which seats a dozen (“14 if people sit on laps, which some have,” says the chef).

One recent Saturday, the see-through cube was occupied. “My family’s in there,” Maddens said as he walked by my table, nodding in the direction of the revelers. Everyone in the bubble looked pleased. And proud, as they should be. The chef is cooking up a little storm, on his terms, at home.

Can you taste a contented chef in a meal? AhSo suggests it’s possible.