Accommodating diners’ heartier tastes as the colder months arrive, ensuring fresh and seasonal produce is served, and simply exercising some creativity: these reasons and more were cited by local chefs whose menus have recently seen big changes.
Mad Fox Brewing Company’s Andrew Dixon, Pizzeria Orso’s Will Artley, and Dogwood Tavern’s Sam Adkins have finessed the menus where they serve as executive chef, nixing some dishes and highlighting new recipes that are becoming fast favorites.
The fruits and vegetables that come into season during the fall and winter months are one source of inspiration for local chefs altering their menus. Abundant apples, hearty slow-growing root vegetables, and dark leafy greens are just part of the bounty of the season reflected in new menus.
Orso’s Artley sees the menu change as a reflection of his responsibility as a chef – to his customers, to fuel their bodies with fresh produce, and to the community, to make purchases locally from the produce that’s available.
Though he uses specialty canned tomatoes and Italian cheeses in making his Neapolitan pizza, his menu changes frequently to include local ingredients, sometimes three times a season. He changed it last week, even though he’d changed it the week before, to account for certain vegetables going out of season. Diners can expect a butternut squash and lentil salad with green peppercorn dressing, and crispy Brussels hearts with celery root puree, roasted pear, and Applewood bacon on the new menu, among other dishes.
Dixon unveiled his new fall menu last Tuesday, his fifth revamp since joining the Mad Fox team a year and a half ago, with plans to refresh the menu quarterly. Taking inspiration from the Falls Church Farmers’ Market, Dixon unveiled a menu incorporating seasonal produce. But even protein elements, like fish and certain meats, have a season. His tuna tacos, a favorite of September’s Taste of Falls Church, make the menu because tuna is good for fall and winter, he says. Treatments change with the season, as well. Meats are braised, as are his short ribs. Because Mad Fox is not only a restaurant, but also a brewery and bar, Dixon’s menu must respond to seasonal changes in beer preferences; heavier brews are now favored. His short ribs, he said, would make a good partner to such a robust beer. And for his new wild boar ragout, some Reynard Black Saison is the dish’s complement.
The new menu at Dogwood Tavern debuted late this summer, one in a series of menu tweaks at Dogwood and its sister restaurants – William Jeffrey’s Tavern, Ragtime, and Rhodeside Grill – as Adkins recently became executive chef of them all. Some of the menu items at Dogwood were outdated, Adkins said, and his aim was “bringing up the level of food here.” He foresees twice-yearly menu changes at Dogwood, and expects the next to come in April or May. In crafting the Dogwood menu, he estimated that he altered 60 percent of the menu. The focus of his most recent change was on refreshing the menu and cultivating a style of cuisine that calls upon Virginia’s Southern heritage. Fried green tomatoes were added as a vegetarian option, and quickly became a house favorite. Fried chicken and waffles also made the menu. As for changing the menu for the inclusion local ingredients, Adkins said that buying local can be cost-prohibitive, and his focus was to maintain an affordable price point for the menu.
“To keep prices where they are, we can’t always get local food, but we use as much as we can,” Adkins said.
Even with these menu changes, there are certain dishes that the chefs wouldn’t remove from their menus. Dixon says he’d never touch the popular frickles and bitterballen appetizers, though he’ll create variations on the soft pretzel appetizer. Adkins says some pub food dishes Dogwood has become known for – wings, nachos, and the Buffalo chicken wrap – are menu mainstays. Artley is reluctant to make promises about what specific dishes diners will find on his menu.
“When you cook the way we cook, there is no guarantee,” Artley said.
Each of these local restaurants has a loyal following of diners, whose tastes and opinions are taken into consideration.
For his new menu, Dixon ran new recipes as specials to test them before adding them to the menu, and sought customer opinions on them. He also had his dishes vetted at the Autumn Beer Dinner held at Mad Fox earlier this month.
“We got a lot of good feedback on that, and luckily it was good,” Dixon said.
Dixon and Artley both say that menu changes can be exciting for regular customers. But they can also offer the chef a thrilling opportunity to experiment. The recent menu change at Mad Fox marked the first time Dixon dramatically changed the restaurant’s pizza menu. Only three pies remained from the previous menu. His aim was to “create excitement” with a new pizza menu. And already the many-meat Butcher’s Block pizza is proving a customer favorite.
Artley says that Falls Church expects these types of seasonal changes from its restaurants. His customers occasionally bring the fresh produce from their gardens to show him, as talking points about what’s in season. One longtime customer even taught Artley how to can products, and thus he now uses his own canned tomato jam.
“It’s fun to be educated by the customers, and to educate,” Artley said.
Still, booting a favorite dish from the menu can lead to diner discontent. Dixon said he tries to find a new favorite for those customers, or make their beloved dish off-menu if he has the ingredients in the kitchen. Artley, citing the many emails he received when he took Brussels chips off of his menu, tries to explain to customers the factors that go into his decision-making – the price and quality of the produce available to him, for example – and usually gets an understanding response.
“If they trust you, they’re OK with change,” Artley said.