Restaurant Reviews – Back by Popular Demand!
FW&D Review of Ramparts Tavern & Grill, Alexandria, VA
After a brief hiatus, FW&D is excited to resume its monthly restaurant reviews! This month, FW&D visited Ramparts Tavern & Grill, a favorite of Alexandria and Arlington locals for over 30 years. Walking in the door, you sense that Ramparts is the kind of place where “everyone knows your name.” While Ramparts has been around practically forever, it was sold about 3 years ago and is now under new management.
Part restaurant and part sports bar, Ramparts is divided into two distinct areas. In the restaurant, warm colors, dark wooden beams, and interesting art on the wall lend a casual yet inviting atmosphere. A bar along the back is highlighted by a brick red accent wall with shelves to the ceiling containing backlit bottles of wine. The effect is quite beautiful. A sign near the bar says “Food & Friends,” which sums up what Ramparts is all about. On the sports bar side, you’ll find 21 HD flat screens, live music Wednesday to Saturday, and trivia nights. A large private room offers rental space for parties and events. Ramparts has something for everyone!
The restaurant features daily lunch, dinner, and happy hour specials; a kid’s menu; special events like wine pairing dinners; and an extensive beer and wine list (more than 80 of each!) from all over the world. Each day, the menu has a special theme. Monday features half price burgers, Tuesday is “Super Supper,” Wednesday has 45 cent wings, Thursday is ribs night, Friday features steak specials, Saturday offers half off bottles of wine, and Sunday showcases comfort food.
The menu reveals an elegance and sophistication, courtesy of Chef Jermaine Keys. While relatively new to the restaurant world and to Ramparts, Chef Keys has a vision and expertise that he seems born with. Chef Keys stepped out of his busy kitchen for a few minutes to talk with FW&D, and told us that he grew up inspired by the wonderful food his mom and grandmother prepared. However, he never cooked with them, he always preferred to do his own thing and come up with his own creations. And luckily, at Ramparts he is encouraged to do just that. He makes two to three specials each day in addition to the extensive regular menu. His cooking boasts a Southern flair, as his family was originally from North Carolina. For Chef Keys, cooking is not just a job. He loves what he does, and that comes through in his food.
To get a true sense of the menu, FW&D headed back to Ramparts 3 times over the course of a week to sample several of its nightly specials. Needless to say, the waiters and staff got to know our name, and were very friendly and helpful.
Monday Night, Half Price Burgers
Due to the popularity of half price burger night, FW&D arrived late to avoid the crowds, around 7:45 pm. However, the place was still packed, with a 15–20 minute wait. There was not even a seat at the bar. The room had a smoky haze from the constant firing up of the grill. The special burger menu had over a dozen choices, with 8 oz Certified Angus burgers as the norm. We ordered the MexiCali burger and Healthy Turkey burgers and complemented with a glass of Dynamite Cabernet Sauvignon wine.
The MexiCali burger was blackened and topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, roasted red bell peppers, and sautéed onion. When the burger arrived at the table, it was a colorful spectacle to behold. Ordered medium rare, the burger was cooked perfectly. The seasonings on top didn’t overpower the juicy goodness of the burger, and the kick of the pico de gallo added a spicy touch. The selected side for this burger was fries, which were cut thick with the skin on.
The Healthy Turkey burger was enhanced by the flavorful and satisfying toppings of avocado, roasted red bell pepper, and sautéed onion. While onion can be overpowering, this was sliced thinly and allowed to caramelize to bring out a sweet flavor and delicate texture. Both burgers were served on a Brioche roll that was strong enough to hold up to the big burgers, but not too much bread. The side for the turkey burger was baked beans, which had green peppers and onion, and a nice sweet-smoky flavor. FW&D didn’t leave the restaurant until after 9 pm, and the place was still packed.
Tuesday “Super Supper”
On Tuesday night, FW&D returned for “Super Supper,” where the chef prepares 5 meat/fish choices—you choose one, but get all 5 sides. It was indeed super! In addition, the menu featured an appetizer special and another fish special.
We started with the appetizer special, the Thai Chili Sizzling’ Shrimp. Boy, did it live up to its name! The dish featured Tiger shrimp with roasted red pepper, grilled onions, cabbage, tomatoes, and chick peas in a Thai chili sauce that was a beautiful glaze over all the ingredients. It arrived piping hot, literally sizzling on an iron skillet. Smoke from the skillet rose for the next few minutes, making it hard to take a photo! The sauce was definitely the star here, very spicy yet with enough sweet to balance and keep it from being too much.
For the entrees, we sampled grilled swordfish with maple orange glaze and the Corvina with tomato basil cream sauce. The swordfish was cooked perfectly and was a generous portion. Again, the glaze was the star of the dish. The maple orange sounded like it might be too sweet, but again it was perfectly balanced and the glaze shone through every bite. The 5 sides were crab-stuffed cornbread muffins, roasted veggies with smoked bacon, Cajun shrimp fried rice, corn pudding, and baked beans. The cornbread muffins were more savory than sweet, and the crabmeat gave them a nice hearty texture. The veggies were delicious and made you feel virtuous until you remembered they were cooked with bacon. The Cajun shrimp fried rice had a nice authentic flavor to it, with a little spicy kick. But the winning side of the evening was the corn pudding. It was sweet and had a creamy, almost silky, texture. We would have been happy with a plateful!
The Corvina, a mild white fish, was lightly breaded then pan seared and served over a sauté of pappardelle pasta with capers, roasted red bell peppers, crab meat, artichoke, and tomatoes. Reading all the ingredients, we worried that the dish would be too heavy, yet it was prepared with a remarkably delicate touch. All the ingredients worked well together. The capers gave an unexpected tang, and the tomato basil cream sauce had a slight kick that kept the dish from being too mild.
Thursday, Ribs Night
Thursday night was our final sampling at Ramparts. Chef Keys takes his time preparing the ribs, and they are some of the best that FW&D has tasted in the area. The chef’s secret is roasting them with herbs, brown sugar, and olive oil for 3–4 hours, then grilling them. For the special, you get your choice of 7 sauces/rubs, and 2 sides. We chose a half rack with the Carolina BBQ sauce, and a half rack with the ginger chili dry rub. The BBQ meat was so tender, it literally fell right off the bone. The vinegar-based Carolina BBQ sauce was tangy and little sweet. The ginger chili rub was delicious and spicy, and luckily the ginger did not overpower it. FW&D commented that we would buy that rub if Chef Keys sold it, it was that good! For sides, we selected potato salad and fried okra. The potato salad contained large chunks of redskin potatoes with the skin on, topped with a creamy sauce flavored with scallions and bacon. We chose the okra because when do you ever see okra on a menu? It had a pleasant soft texture, and thankfully it was not “slimy” as okra is known to be.
In addition to the ribs, there were two other specials on the menu, and FW&D also sampled the fried chicken with cornbread stuffing, topped with brown gravy and finished with a side of sautéed spinach with grilled onions and smoked bacon. Talk about Southern comfort food at its best! The batter coating had a nice flavor and was provided just the right amount of crispiness. Inside, the chicken was cooked to perfection: tender, juicy, and moist. The cornbread stuffing was nice and dense, and it contained shredded chunks of chicken to add to the texture.
Fried chicken with cornbread stuffing
Overall, FW&D was thrilled with our experiences at Ramparts and now considers Ramparts one of our local favorites. We would recommend it for many different occasions. It can be the perfect spot for a drink while watching the game, a girl’s night out, date night, family gathering, or a private party. If you are looking for “upscale comfort food” expertly and lovingly prepared, Ramparts is an excellent choice. FW&D looks forward to returning soon!