Elaine’s Restaurant, A Mecca of Modern Mediterranean Cooking

Our hosts, Cynthia Higgins and Executive Chef Sameer Hunter with our Food Editor, Debby Critchley

Alexandria, VA – Just a few short blocks from King St. at 208 Queen St. is Elaine’s Restaurant. The restaurant is the creation of Cynthia and Jeffrey Higgins, a life-long promise to her grandmother that one day, she would own a restaurant and name it after her. The result is a mecca filled with modern Alexandrian (Egyptian) Mediterranean cooking using family recipes that are influenced by Middle Eastern, French, Italian, and Greek flavors. That translates into brunch, lunch, or dinner for diners as they immerse themselves in a true dining experience.

The interior of the 1880 building, the former Bilbo Baggins, has been totally renovated into a fresh, new, modern space. The four dining rooms are filled with light where you can relax at comfortable tables and chairs while being tended to by attentive, knowledgeable staff who make you feel like you’ve been friends for years. Modern art graces the walls, punctuating the white walls with bursts of colors. The bar is a cozy yet elegant place of signature cocktails, a varied assortment of wines, and well-chosen selection of beers. This is the Higgin’s version of Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Upstairs, nestled in a special nook, is Elaine’s literary salon. It provides a literary hub for the DC metro area and hosts interviews with bestselling authors, book signings, book launches, readings, and literary group events. Order a cocktail and something from the menu to round out your literary experience. The four dining rooms are also available to host private parties such as corporate events, bridal showers, and wedding receptions.

We settled ourselves at a table where we were greeted by Nicholas who with Executive Chef Sameer Hunter, and Cynthia curated our meal. First order of business was beverages. Nicholas suggested we try the Lebanese wines.  Lebanon viticulture dates back to ancient times and it is thought that vitis vinifera may have been domesticated in Lebanon. We started with a red, Chateau Ksara Chateau at Nicholas’s suggested. The wine, a product of the Bekaa Valley was a deep purple with notes of violets, blackberry, black currant, raspberries, mulberry, oak, and vanilla. As red wine aficionados, the wine was excellent.

From top, going clockwise: Warm pita, baba ghanoush, assorted marinated olives, hummus, and sliced fresh cucumbers
Crispy Brussell sprouts
Fava bean falafel

Our table was flooded by mezza. All of the items are made in-house fresh. Many of these items are either vegan or vegetarian. The hummus is made from chickpeas, garlic, lemon, and tahini and served with slices of pita. I may not be a hummus fan but I would definitely eat this again. The crispy Brussels arrived in harrisa honey, lemon, and tahini. What a glorious combination. Non-Brussels sprout people will be happy to eat these. Oh, wonderful falafel, let me count the ways. These coins of ground fava beans, toasted sesame, tahini, and fresh herbs are a vegan and non-vegan delight, so moist and flavorful. That dish went back to the kitchen empty. The ancient Egyptian fava bean dip was exciting to say the least. Its bright green color came from the fava beans and it was topped with crispy chickpeas and caramelized onions and served with pita. It sounds repetitive but it was also remarkable. You ask, what about the Egyptian crispy potato wedges. They are not your fast food version. Hot and well-seasoned, the caramelized onions and labneh just added to the pleasure! The last of the mezze to the party was a remarkable cigar you might not find elsewhere. The halloumi goulash was inside a crisp phyllo dough wrapper and garnished with a blueberry compote, banana tahini, and fennel. I love halloumi and loved this version! I might order another plate for dessert when I visit next. A plate of sliced cucumbers provided a palate-cleansing refresher.

Egyptian crispy potato wedges

We would have been happy if the meal stopped here. Entrees were on their way and we needed more wine. This time we tried the Lebanon white, Chateau Ksara Blanc L’Observatoire. It was extraordinary.  To quote the winery, it is “A versatile, easy-drinking, fresh and fruity wine that captures the essence of the Bekaa Valley with its simple but elegant character of citrus, stone fruit and wildflowers.” We loved it!

Halloumi goulash cigars
Exquisite grilled bronzino
vermicelli rice

A knock your socks off entrée appeared to my left. It was the Alexandrian grilled whole branzino, my favorite fish, on a platter with a chermoula sauce and accompanied by marinated olives, cauliflower florets, and fennel. The white fish was cooked to perfection, moist and flaky with a crisp skin. I admit to eating more than my share. The Alexandrian grilled shrimp was a generous serving of shrimp on top of a tomato red chermoula sauce with parsley, lime, and pita. The shrimp were very good but I could make a meal of the chermoula sauce on top of the vermicelli rice served with the entrees. In fact, that sauce graced the leftover rice that made a delightful lunch the next day. Chef Sameer cooks scallops to perfection, just barely cooked through to preserve the sweetness of the shellfish. Served on a bed of fava bean puree and garnished with radish, dill, and crispy shallots, they were marvelous. At this point in the meal, we were almost in a food coma until the star of the evening arrived at the table. The braised lamb shoulder stood tall in its dish surrounded by a chickpea jus, pomegranate, mint, and chickpeas. One of my guests took one look at the dish and declared it was hers and she was not sharing. Luckily, it was three to one and we all got to taste this remarkable dish. The lamb was tender and moist with the piquant sauce the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat. Have I used the word spectacular yet?  It was. There were just small shreds left when we finished.

The star of the meal, braised lamb shoulder
Alexandrian grilled shrimp

So here we are, full, fat, and sated, when Nicholas comes by and says so very cheerfully, How about dessert. We all look at each other cross-eyed when he says you must try the phyllo-wrapped brownie.  We succumb to the temptation and out from the kitchen comes a brownie, wrapped in phyllo, and accompanied by whipped pistachio cream. Next time I plan to get a double order of this irresistible dessert. To add insult to injury, another plate appears with pieces of pistachio baklava, very lightly sweetened with honey syrup. The pistachios were the star. Crumbs on the plates resulted.

Pistachio baklava
Chocolate baclava

Elaine’s is a must visit restaurant. It brings a remarkable level of cooking to Old Town. The menus for brunch, lunch, happy hour, and dinner brings an array of delectable tastes to the area.

ICYM: Le Refuge, An Old Town Alexandria Gem

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