Magnolia’s on King – A Thoughtful Brunch
Weekend brunch is an institution in the D.C. area, as almost everyone has their favorite “bottomless” drinks spot. When did brunch become an afterthought of the libations? Which admit it you cease to taste after the third round. The problem is, most establishments serve the same thing the same way, with little innovation or thought. It can taste yummy but chances are diners will not walk away talking about the food.
But what if there was a restaurant that thought about where they sourced their ingredients? Would it be too daring for a restaurant to not just source sustainable and local but took a cuisine and elevated it? Not really, you just have to know where to look. Enter Magnolias on King, a relatively new restaurant helmed by Chef Brian Rowe. You don’t need your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes to fit in here. The ambiance is classic without being pretentious. Sure the décor is white table cloths and nice stemware but it’s charm is akin to wearing pigtails instead of an audacious hat to the Kentucky Derby.
Magnolia’s on King, located at 703 King Street in Old Town Alexandria is quaint, reminiscent in style of the old south, with exposed natural stone on the walls. The nuances extending to the wrought iron chandelier on the first floor 30 seat dining room that also showcases ceiling fans shaped like the restaurant’s namesake. Think elevated southern style food and solid beverage accompaniments no matter your drinking style.
Yes elevated, not fusion as you might initially expect. Trust me, I grew up in the South and was blessed to have a family who had a huge garden, not window pots, but legit corn fields, vines of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and more! I know a thing or two about southern cooking so when Magnolia’s on King debuted brunch in early September and I was determined to give it a shot.
First of all what beckoned was the menu, it showed signs of enlightenment which many brunch spots lack. Brunch doesn’t have to include eggs Benedict, a BLT or home fries to be brunch. Seriously, it doesn’t. I do love Eggs Benny as much as the next person, but every now and then I would love to see something different. Also, a short menu for brunch is a good thing; embrace the fact that Chef Brian Rowe and his team don’t have a multi page menu. What they have is a connection to what you will eat and it shows.
“I know where my chicken, pork, my duck, my beef comes from,” said Chef Rowe on a recent Sunday afternoon. Magnolia’s on King Executive Chef Brian Rowe, alumni of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant empire aims to source both produce and meats from within a 60-mile radius. It’s a feat that showcases dedication to sustainable and local eating as well as supporting other local small business. “I’m a local businessman,” explained Chef Rowe. “ I not only want to know where my food comes from, but I want to support other local businesses.”
Rowe acknowledges that some foods, like wheat, oranges, cilantro or mangoes, can only be grown in certain regions. And he sees nothing wrong with shipping in such foods because they just won’t grow in the DMV area.
Chef Rowe and his food don’t execute typical southern soul food, but instead provide diners food with vivacity. They can’t match an ole southern potluck but that’s a good thing what they do is re-imagine the classics. They present food as a medium which for some people will help them reconnect with food memories and for others it will create new ones.
Glancing over the short menu my dining companion and I were intrigued by the offerings, but first we needed some caffeine. I opted for Capital Tea’s oolong variety, while my companion, a coffee aficionado, went with the French Press. Magnolias on King serves seasonal fair trade coffee from Maryland brand Rise Up for their French Press. It takes about 8 minutes to prepare, which may seem like an eternity, but it is absolutely worth the wait. The beans are ground to perfection, which is really important for the perfect brew. Seriously sluggy coffee is gross. As the server poured the coffee into the mug the enticing aromas wafted into the air. The Pura Vida, a seasonal offering from Finca Gravelias in Costa Rica was a wonderful discovery. It emanated a caramel sweetness with a light nuttiness that far surpassed well known coffee shop products.
Once we got our caffeine fix we were ready to get down to business. We decided to begin with the staff’s recommendation of the watermelon and feta salad. If you’re thinking a salad, bo-ring you couldn’t be more wrong. It was stunning to look at and thoughtfully prepared down to the final dusting of salt. The watermelon provided a nice burst of sweetness and a foil to the salty feta. The greens a combo of arugula and spinach were nicely dressed with champagne vinaigrette that brought the entire dish together. All together it made for a nice bite that left me wanting more.
On to the main event, we decided we had to try the grits; the tea brined fried chicken, and of course duck confit hash. What is duck confit? It is both a dish and a technique, which requires usually the thigh or leg piece of duck to be cooked in its own fat for an extended period of time giving it a luscious quality in the end.
So to pair confit with sweet potato hash and a sunny side up egg on top? Yes please! The duck confit hash ($18) was more delicious than it sounded. When the plate arrived I unapologetically stuck my nose into it in order to fully appreciate the ducky essence.
I was surprised to be greeted by the faint wafting notes of rosemary as well. Don’t get me wrong I like rosemary, in moderation, but too much and I feel like I’m licking a pine tree. Maybe a good analogy to use is rosemary to me is like red onion to Scott Conant. If you have ever watched Chopped on Food Network you’ll get the reference. I hesitantly took a bite, and savored the earthy and herbacousness that layered together like an artful painting. Luckily the kitchen skillfully plays down the rosemary’s often overpowering quality with caramelized onions, red bell pepper, thyme and sage. I dove in again, this time gently piercing the egg yolk on top and gleefully watched the liquid gold spill out over the hash. #happiness!
“This is serious comfort food”, commented my dining companion of the hash. It was both clever and satisfying. It’s like a favorite sweater of the food world so familiar yet simple, uncomplicated. In all honesty taking simple ingredients and elevating them though is no small feat!
To compliment the richness of the duck I asked for a wine recommendation and the manager suggested a Zinfandel. The Predator ($9/gl), “Old Vine Zin” 2013 from Rutherfod Wine Company out of California has an deep nose and nice legs. Inhaling deeply as I took a sip I appreciated the rich flavor, lingering spice notes and velvety finish. It is sourced from vines that are over 50 years old which provide the intensely flavorful fruit that goes into the wine. The high acidity made the flavors of the food really pop and I really love bold flavored wines, so this one really hit the mark.
Next we tried the tea brined fried chicken ($17). I’m not gonna lie, when itthe plate first appeared on the table my initial reaction was what?! That’s boneless chicken breast, this can’t be the fried chicken. Shoving all preconceived notions of what fried chicken “should be” out the door we plunged the knife through the crispy breading. Cutting into the breast it was decidedly juicy and the aroma it reminiscent of smoky tea. This was a revelation! One bite was all it took. #newfavoritething.
To admit I was surprised is an understatement. Shocked is more like it, but I guess it goes to show if you put a lackluster ingredient in the right hands it can be transformed into something exceptional.
The fried chicken had a nice amount of breading, not too thick where it overwhelms the chicken, but just enough to provide the signature crunch that one would expect from such fare.
This plate will mess with your head, just on appearance alone. That flavor though! Combining two southern staples sweet tea and chicken, I’m now convinced this is genius. I mean lets be real for a minute no one eats the bones anyway, they just add extra weight and make eating awkward. If it weren’t for famous chefs touting the superior flavor of bone-in meats this probably wouldn’t have been so hard to wrap my mind around in the first place.
The best bite came from drench a piece of the fried chicken with the accompanying locally sourced spicy honey. Now I get it, there’s a reason this plate is presented this way. It’s a truly inspired dish! If I could fill a tub with this spiced honey and swim around in it I would! Ok maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but it is really outrageously delicious to put it mildly. The honey is even better on the cornmeal flapjacks that come with the plate. I think you could legitimately put this sh** on almost anything and it would be good.
Finally, not to be overlooked is Magnolia’s grits ($5, side), because they were shockingly real grits, not Quaker instant grits that many brunch spots pass off as grits, no this is the real thing my friend. The texture is what may throw you, it’s not the porridge that many have grown up eating and could sway you away from liking grits all together.
“This is how grits should be prepared,” explained Chef Rowe, “grits are supposed to be more like corn risotto not gruel or porridge.”
Corn risotto,that could quite honestly be the best way to describe proper grits and the main reason why you should give them a try, at least here. Come here and try grits before you decide you don’t like them.
Other stand outs on the menu are the buttermilk biscuits with house-made jam ($5) on the menu during our trip was quince jam. If you’re never tried quince, or even heard of it you are missing out. The flavor is reminiscent of a cross between an apple and a pear. This spreads beautifully onto the soft interior of the biscuits.
The Stuffed Squash Blossoms, (which aren’t on the menu yet) is what should motivate you to visit Magnolia’s once the Fall menu is available. The presentation is beautiful as the blossoms are unquestionably the star. Chef Rowe notes the delicate blossoms take two people to create. These aren’t fried as you will find on most menus. They are opened and piped to the seams full of a goat cheese with herbs. Then are gently placed a top truffle oil. These Squash Blossoms will practically melt in your mouth. I like the stems are left intact as it adds to the sensory experience.
The goat cheese that fills these tasty morsels is again locally sourced. It’s not listed on the menu, but all you have to do is ask if you’re interested. Chef Rowe is passionate about the food, and takes pride knowing where it comes from. The menu is crafted with great thought and intention, and should be appreciated as such. Brunch is just part of the equation.
Drinkers can find similar draw on the second floor lounge. There relax in cozy armchairs while sipping a Port City brew or cocktail made with local spirits next to a working fireplace. Barman Zachary Faden, formerly of Rouge 24 is the creative force behind the Southern-influenced cocktails.
Magnolia’s on King is located at 703 King St. in Old Town Alexandria. Dinner and decadent desserts are served Tuesday through Saturday. Brunch is available on Sunday from 11 am – 3pm.