Finding Clarity

This inventive, upscale Vienna restaurant’s name has deep meaning for its chef and owner. 

Yellow watermelon soup with local supersweet corn and baby treviso.  

Photography by Jennifer Chase

Chef Jon Krinn seems to be everywhere at once. I have come to his cheerful, elegant restaurant Clarity, in Vienna, to treat my friend Katy to a special birthday lunch. Not long after we place our order, Krinn greets us personally and then sends over an amuse-bouche of Hawaiian kanpachi, just barely seared, resting atop a tangy sauce with a hint of sweetness. He then sits down with the four women dining at the next table and soon has them laughing. Within moments, he is back in Clarity’s open kitchen, working on the day’s orders. This restaurant is all about transparency, and I quickly learn that the chef is, too.

Chef Jon Krinn

A native of Bethesda, Maryland, Krinn studied at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, before working in restaurants in Washington, D.C., France and New York, including the famed Gramercy Tavern and Union Pacific. He returned to the mid-Atlantic region in 2001 to open the acclaimed 2941 in Falls Church, which has a large and lavish dining room and lit a spark in the Northern Virginia food scene. He sought to build on that success with the even larger and more ambitious Inox restaurant in Tysons Corner, which opened in 2009—the middle of the recession. It closed just over a year later. 

It was Krinn’s Icarus moment, and it prompted some deep soul-searching. “It was a low point in my life,” he says, sitting down with me in Clarity’s newly opened private dining room, whose glass doors offer a terrific view of the bustling kitchen. “I knew that if I was going to come back from that, I’d have to come back as a different person,” he explains. After taking some time away from the restaurant business and consulting with his wife Antonia, by 2014 Krinn was ready to return to his passion, but with an attitude that was more reflective, humble and grateful. He found an empty storefront on a quiet street in Vienna—formerly the Wolf Trap Deli—and planned a new restaurant he called Clarity, which opened in April 2015. 

The name was no accident. “Clarity is what we’re all looking for in life,” Krinn says. “It’s the journey we’re all on.” The restaurant’s formula is simple, he adds, combining fresh food, creativity and hospitality, and drawing inspiration from American and French cuisine. The restaurant seems larger than it is due to the airy, bright décor, featuring mustard-colored banquettes and plush blue seats. Bar seating wraps around the open kitchen where Krinn regularly chats with guests, making it feel like a sophisticated house party. 

Menus change daily, which keeps the staff “hyper-focused,” says Krinn, who works closely with Nick Palermo, Clarity’s chef de cuisine. On the day I visit, my first course is a sunny heirloom tomato salad dressed with yellow bell pepper vinaigrette, while my friend Katy has a baby beet salad crowned with a pyramid of upland cress. For my main course, I choose a crisped cobia—a buttery white fish—paired with a lightly dressed butter lettuce salad laced with slivered cucumber and spiced pecans. Katy chooses the cast-iron seared skate wing, nestled atop a sweet corn and Cipollini onion medley. We pass forks back and forth and trail food across the table, which our attentive server quickly (and non-judgmentally) cleans up. Dessert is shared, too: a flourless dark chocolate ganache cake and a peach ice cream and cookie confection. 

Clarity also features nightly tasting menus, with optional additional wine and whiskey pairings. One recent tasting menu included pastrami-cured salmon, yelloweye rockfish and hickory grilled pork loin. Fans of top shelf spirits will delight in Krinn’s recent acquisition of a 14-year-aged barrel of bourbon from A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, one of only two the distiller offered for sale in 2018. Finally, not to be overlooked are the restaurant’s dinner rolls, freshly baked by Krinn’s father, Mal, as he has been doing for his son’s restaurants for many years. 

Even though Northern Virginia is where Krinn suffered his worst culinary heartbreak, it is also where he’d built up a loyal following. “I didn’t want to abandon my clientele,” he says, noting the sophistication among the region’s eaters. The location also is easily accessible to the Virginia farms from which the restaurant frequently sources meat, seafood and produce. (Krinn says he gets products from “around the corner, the country and the world.”)

Earlier this year, Clarity won a RAMMY award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington for being the “Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year.” This recognition might lure even more diners through the glass doors of Clarity, but what will keep them coming is the bright, inventive food and the open, welcoming environment. “If you can get people to feel something deeply with food,” Krinn says, “it’s a success.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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