A table of 30-something men and women, six of them, wore party tiaras and miniature crowns, according to gender norms, as they cheered for the birthday girl around a big wooden table on the top floor of Vermilion. The restaurant was crowded, very crowded for a summer Tuesday.
After more than a decade on King Street, Vermilion remains a place to hold a celebration, especially as Restaurant Eve closed its doors earlier this year, and Brabo figures out its role post-Robert Wiedmaier, changing to a brasserie, but still selling a bay scallop ceviche appetizer for $26.
There’s Nasime, a sliver of a spot serving a five-course dinner of seasonal Japanese food, and La Fromagerie, a wine bar with a streamlined, French-inspired menu, best known for its voluminous charcuterie and cheese boards. Otherwise, Old Town Alexandria is still plying tourists with overpriced Italian and seafood and corporate interpretations of modern American.
This could be the time when Vermilion can outshine the rest. The leather-bound menu revealed tears and shreds, so it wasn’t surprising to learn the restaurant is in the midst of a refresh—new paint, wallpaper, art, logo and menu design—in time for the fall dining season.
The food, however, has been evolving over the last year under chef Thomas Cardarelli.
“The chef makes his own butter,” says a server, which is cultured, spun in a mixer, shaped into a quenelle and sprinkled with salt. Also housemade: sourdough, focaccia and Parker House rolls. The fact that there’s a bread basket—and an amuse bouche—sets the tone for the night. It proves the dominant upscale-casual restaurant category isn’t only about walls of plants and hard-to-share share plates. It is also about a scratch kitchen and hospitality.
It’s about that spicy, meaty sauce born from nduja and sopressata cloaking bouncy, chewy, intricately ridged and definitely housemade cavatelli. The secret, says Cardarelli, is mixing the durum wheat flour with boiling water. Sounds dangerous, like many tasks by knife-wielding, white-wearing professionals.
A fried soft-shell crab is the star on a plate with a ragu made from the scraps of prized Iberico pigs and what the menu calls charred pea leaf but tastes more like the magical palak chaat (crispy spinach) at Indian restaurants.
Grains appear on many plates here, a trend spanning fast-casual counter service operations and Bon Appetit-inspired kitchens. Barley, raisins and pine nuts surround browned florets of cauliflower, a curious start to the tasting menu both for its lack of summery ingredients and pizzazz, though pickled mackerel adds a note of interest. Like every non-actor hosting Saturday Night Live, it’s a cold open leaving you uncertain for how the rest of the night will play out.
A striped bass tasted off—muddy, earthy. And a baby eggplant and squash meatless entree, featuring farro and scene-stealing cherries, is a $19 interpretation of a Sweetgreen bowl, more sophisticated and enjoyable, but with less food.
Other dishes are just right, like a sliver of lardo on hiramasa crudo. The silky fat, almost hovering above a rustic interpretation of creamed corn, combine for a balanced bite of rich and clean.
Ribeye cap, technically the spinalis dorsi—a thin cut that Cardarelli calls “tender, flavorful and really marbled”—is the showpiece on the tasting menu. A salty, charred exterior with soft flesh is hard to cut in a way that makes you work for each bite, in a good way. You need a steak with chew. But there’s also a haunting smoked eggplant puree. We’re at the culinary point that vegetables are just as interesting as anything else on the plate, and it’s true here, too.
“It’s like a super delicious PB and J,” is how Cardarelli describes his white chocolate pot de creme with strawberries and sesame bark. And when given that imagery, the assembly-job dessert makes more sense. It’s delicious nonetheless; and it just might be time for a white chocolate comeback.
On the way out from dinner, my friend ran into a man she knows. Funny story actually, because my friend and his friend realized they both grew up in the same neighborhood.
“You know that giant, Tudor-style house?” asked his friend.
“That’s my dad’s house,” said my friend.
I started talking to the other outsider, the one who didn’t grow up in Lorton. He happens to be inside D.C.’s restaurant industry.
“How’d you end up at Vermilion?” I asked.
“I didn’t know where else to eat in Old Town.”
1120 King St., Alexandria
Open for lunch and dinner daily and weekend brunch