Review | A veteran chef revives the trailblazing Clarity in Vienna (2024)

The original talent at nine-year-old Clarity in Vienna, Jon Krinn, once told me the best compliment he got from customers was this: “It’s a D.C. restaurant that’s not in D.C.”

For sure. Just about every extra his clientele asked for, they got. Tasting menus? Sure! Cooking classes? He squeezed them in. Krinn’s father baked the terrific bread that launched every dinner, and many of the dishes on the menu, which changed daily, could have been served at upscale restaurants in Washington. (His pastas rivaled those at Centrolina.) Krinn only upped his game when the pandemic hit, turning his parking lot into a dining room with tents for two and doing some of his cooking on an Argentine-style grill outside.

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When he departed Clarity in 2022, Krinn left big clogs to fill.

It took a couple of years, but a new owner, Viswa Vasireddy, and an established chef, Tracy O’Grady, 56, are returning Clarity’s early luster. On board since April, O’Grady brings a résumé that includes the neighborly Green Pig Bistro and Willow in Arlington, as well as some of D.C.’s past greatest hits, including the seafood-themed Kinkead’s and the haute French Le Pavillon.

A sip of soup confirms I’m in a good place. Asparagus and crab (jumbo lump from Maryland) would be plenty to like, but the success of the bowl stems from a bright puree of asparagus, basil, tarragon and parsley introduced to hot cream just before serving and a trace of smoke from bacon. The scallop appetizer is similarly intriguing. A single sweet beauty from Massachusetts sits atop a loose chowder of sweet corn and bacon that’s dotted with sun-dried tomato and chickpeas and garnished with slender popcorn shoots. “It tastes even better than it smells,” a server says as he introduces the fragrant combination. One of the hottest days of summer was met by one of the coolest salads: yellow beets, Persian cucumbers and creamy avocado tucked into butter lettuce and splashed with a bright dressing sprung from preserved lemon.

Clarity’s routine chicken wings are hoodies among a bunch of blazers. The bar staple, best for its cayenne-fired hot sauce, tastes out of place in the company of starters, including seared foie gras on a cushion of toasted brioche, its plate touched up with red pepper sauce.

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Knowing O’Grady’s biography proves helpful in ordering. She’s invested in pork, thanks to her time at Green Pig Bistro. In her new roost, she balances a crisp-soft block of pork belly with a fluff of peas emulsified with parmesan. And her tenure at Kinkead’s should have you seeking out fish. O’Grady’s scallop, shrimp and halibut stew benefits from the fact that she cooks each ingredient separately, and carefully, before adding them to a bowl of fish fumet finished with a green garden of English peas, green beans and fava beans.

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Sauces helped land the chef her new job, says her boss. She certainly puts time into them here. The pork stock used for the pork belly and schnitzel is rich from cooking the feet, bones and smoked ham shank of pigs, and the kitchen knows to pull the fish stock after 30 minutes to avoid overpowering sea smells. Plate mates are creative. Foie gras stuffed into shiitakes and a cauliflower emulsion separate Clarity’s roast chicken from the flock, for instance.

“Not Your Grandmother’s” short rib is truth in advertising. My grandmother never cooked anything sous vide, and she wouldn’t have torched her carrots with harissa. Nor would she have made an emulsion of horseradish, a welcome accent on O’Grady’s comforting, if wintry, entree. Cora Sietsema wouldn’t have recognized Clarity’s warm deconstructed potato salad, either. O’Grady modernizes the idea by pairing three kinds of potato — coins of red, purple and Yukon Gold potato — with a little pillar of tangy Pipe Dreams goat cheese and a scattering of capers and olives. Some assembly is required. The idea is to spear a bite of this with a bit of that, like Swiss raclette, and savor the concert. A single tempura-fried squash blossom adds to the pleasure.

Desserts are fun. They include a tender olive oil Bundt cake sparked with lemon zest, lemon curd and limoncello ice cream — a citrus bonanza — and a “tiramisu cream flan” that brings together a coffee- and rum-flavored caramel custard, chunks of a dark cake, hazelnut brittle for crunch and streaks of salted caramel sauce. Let’s hope the blueberry sundae found a new home since I tackled the confection in a parfait glass with a ball as its base. Dipping my spoon deep down into the ice cream and fruit, I knocked the dessert on its side, sending the contents across the table. (Sorry about the mess, Clarity.)

A few dishes feel slapdash. The heavy, homely vegetarian risotto feels closer to Olive Garden than Italy; I dug out the roasted artichokes and left the rest. (The better carb is radiatori, whose ridges catch a nice lamb ragu.) As for service, the attention at night feels more polished, and definitely more brisk, than at lunch. Things were so slow one recent afternoon, I was tempted to file a missing persons report on behalf of my server.

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Unlike Krinn, O’Grady doesn’t change her menu every day, which means dishes stick around longer and the kitchen has time to finesse them. But the incoming chef continues her predecessor’s practice of baking bread and offering the wares (sourdough, brioche and a gluten-free white loaf) gratis.

Vasireddy says he plans to freshen up the interior, which looks much like it did in its youth. For now, expect blue chairs, mustard-yellow banquettes, an exhibition kitchen fronted with stools in the rear and a trio of private dining rooms that can accommodate from a dozen to 50 revelers. Clarity’s arty light fixtures suggest Chihuly on a budget. Outside is a covered patio framed with planters containing some of what you might eat: lemon thyme, sage, a bouquet of Italian, Thai and purple basil.

If you want a side of quiet with your meal, go for lunch rather than dinner. Afternoons are a good 10 decibels less noisy than evenings. But any visit reveals signs of a new chapter at Clarity — once again a restaurant that summons the city in the suburbs.

Clarity

442 Maple Ave. E., Vienna. 703-539-8400. clarityvienna.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; for dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $16 to $39, main courses $35 to $130 (for rack of lamb for two). Sound check: 79 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Review | A veteran chef revives the trailblazing Clarity in Vienna (2024)

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