Restaurant Review: Ellie Bird
Carey and Yuan Tang return to their hometown with a delightful, family-friendly restaurant.
Oh, I think I’d love some fried oysters in my larb gai is not a thought that ever occurred to me. But I’m grateful it did to chef Yuan Tang, who brings those two dishes together in a wonderful marriage of flavors and textures at Ellie Bird, the Falls Church restaurant he and his wife, Carey, opened in April.
The larb gai familiar to us in Thai and Lao cooking is a salad of ground chicken, red onion, toasted rice powder and herbs dressed in lime juice and fish sauce. For his riff, Tang mixes the chicken and onions with house-made curry paste, puffed black rice and hazelnut vinaigrette (which imparts toasty notes) and tops it with diced apples and cilantro. He then surrounds the larb with four plump, batter-fried oysters and bibb lettuce leaves for wrap-making.
“It’s a take on surf and turf,” the chef explains. With its tartness, saltiness, crunch and brightness, I’d call it one of the tastiest and most innovative dishes of the moment.
It’s clear the Tangs know what they are doing. Their fine-dining sister restaurant in D.C., Rooster & Owl, earned a vaunted Michelin star in 2021. Now they’ve parlayed that savoir faire into a more casual setting at Ellie Bird, where everything—the décor, the beverages, the superlative food—is on point. The staff, I’m thrilled to say, disproves the myth that it’s impossible to find good service in restaurants nowadays.
Opening in the new Founders Row development was a homecoming of sorts for the Tangs, both of whom grew up in Falls Church. (Yuan’s family emigrated from Hong Kong when he was 12.) As teenagers, both worked in restaurants on Broad Street—he at Red Lobster, she at Applebee’s.
They moved to New York City in 2008 so Yuan could follow his dream of a culinary career, leaving behind a lackluster job as a federal auditor. He would later drop out of cooking school, opting for on-the-job training at three Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan: Jean-Georges, Dovetail (now closed) and The Modern.
The couple returned to the DMV in 2014, started a family and opened Rooster & Owl in 2019. They now live in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood of Falls Church.
Named for their second daughter, Ellie Bird is open and airy, with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. The dining room is a cheery spot with herringbone-patterned floors, caned accent panels, a midcentury color palette (teal, blush pink, chartreuse), and a colorful pop-art mural reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein.
Conceived by D.C.-based //3877 Design, the setting includes whimsical nods to the avian nomenclature of the Tangs’ two restaurants—pink neon birdies on the wall, birdcage-like framing around booths and bold, bird-patterned wallpaper in the bathroom.
The 3,200-square-foot space seats 70, including an eight-seat bar. At press time, a 40-seat covered patio was in the works.
I’m sorry to disappoint naysayers, but I have nothing negative to say about the food here. Tang’s menu offers 20 savory dishes, all of which are reliant on fresh, seasonal ingredients. It’s a concise collection with nothing extraneous; each dish is beautifully presented and sings with flavor, texture and color.
Start with a breadbasket of fluffy pineapple buns (a Rooster & Owl signature), focaccia and grilled scallion butter, and some cocktails—perhaps This Is Your Brain on Pisco, a pretty purple pisco sour made with pineapple and hibiscus. For a refreshing, spirit-free option, It Takes Two to Mango is a mélange of mango, peach and lime.
In addition to the oyster larb gai, I’m taken by the Little Gem wedge salad dressed with herby green goddess yogurt dressing and topped with candied bacon and blue cheese from FireFly Farms in Maryland. The salad, a summer garden that comes to life with each bite, is a stunner.
Equally snazzy are the ricotta gnudi (dumplings) garnished with fresh peas, pea tendrils, queso fresco and a sprink-ling of sunflower seeds—a picture-perfect taste of the season.
Given the chef’s penchant for cooking with whatever is fresh, many of these dishes will have rotated out by the time this review goes to print. One with permanent status, however, is the Vietnamese French onion soup, which finds a phô-inspired oxtail broth loaded with chunks of oxtail meat and enhanced with lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon and fish sauce. Add croutons, Parmesan and loads of gooey Gruyere cheese and it becomes a rich, hearty liquid rendition of a French dip sandwich, packed with depth.
From the list of entrées, the carrot garganelli (ridged tubular pasta) shine in a creamy sauce made with feta cheese, carrot purée and toasted black pepper. Tang finishes this clever take on cacio e pepe with carrot shavings, toasted pumpernickel breadcrumbs, verdant dill oil and sprigs of mint and dill. The dish reflects the chef’s trademark balance of sweetness, texture, color, acid, salt and herbaceousness.
That same balance is evident in a bouillabaisse of Nordic cod, Hokkaido scallops and littleneck clams whose underpinning fish fumet (stock, in this case made with charred fish frames) is emboldened with Korean chili flakes, fennel and garlic. Kimchi fennel salad, tiny cubes of tofu, chili peppers, honey and charred scallion oil round out this powerhouse dish. Use the grilled focaccia that comes with it to sop up the broth.
The tender lamb shank, braised in red wine and finished with a glaze of fish sauce and vinegar, is a stick-to-the-ribs offering suitable to fall weather. It’s served on a bed of grated cauliflower “tabbouleh” with apricots, almonds and chopped parsley and crowned with crispy shallots.
I’ve saved my biggest rave of all for one of the side dishes. I’m a sucker for spaetzle, those wonderful, squiggly little German dumplings made by drizzling batter through a colander into boiling water. Yang’s creamed spinach spaetzle—inspired by steak house creamed spinach—is up there with the best I’ve had. He makes the flour-based batter with spinach purée and sour cream, rendering the dumplings a vivid green, and sautees them with Dijon mustard cream sauce, mint, parsley, dill and chives. They’re sublime.
On the dessert menu, pastry chef Rachel Sherriffe’s fudgy, moist chocolate cake, made with coffee and buttermilk and frosted with chai-spiced buttercream, is billed correctly as “Can’t miss!” (Take the à la mode option.)
Another winner is a cheesecake sundae featuring graham-cracker and cream-cheese ice creams and frozen cheesecake cubes, topped with warm pecan praline and crushed graham crackers.
Going out with kids? Ellie Bird’s dining room overlooks a courtyard green space with fountains, allowing parents to send their children outside to play and keep an eye on them from the comfort of their table.
The restaurant also has a “Little Birdie’s” menu featuring kid-tested options such as carrot garganelli with butter and Parmesan (plus optional asparagus); cornflake-crusted chicken tenders; a Lunchables-esque “char-cute-rie” assortment of cheese, crackers, fruits, veggies and ham; and naan pizza.
It’s an excellent gateway to introduce children to food that is whimsical, fresh, seasonal and downright delicious—just like we grown-ups get to enjoy at Ellie Bird.
What To Drink
Beverage director Christopher Sang’s program is perfectly attuned to Ellie Bird’s charm. Six cleverly named, well-balanced signature cocktails ($13 to $16) are listed with little drawings of the barware in which they’re served. Resting Beach Face is a refreshing mélange of rum, cognac, peach liqueur and mint, served over crushed ice in a hurricane glass. For a kicky, tangy quaff that brings the heat, try the Spice Up Your Life, made with mezcal, gochujang, grapefruit and rice wine vinegar. There are also two spirit-free cocktails ($8).
The compact but nicely curated wine list includes three sparkling, one rosé, seven whites and eight reds, all of which are available by the glass ($12 to $18) or bottle ($48 to $72). The list heavily favors California, but Middleburg’s Boxwood Winery shows up with a sauvignon blanc and an “Ellie Bird x Boxwood” red blend.
125 Founders Ave., Falls Church, 703-454-8894
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Plenty of free parking in the Founders Row garages
Starters: $12 to $19; Entrées: $21 to $65; Desserts: $12 to $14 (plus a meringue dessert for two for $18)