Like many restaurants around the world, Vermilion closed in March 2020. Unlike most of those businesses, it stayed shuttered until the summer of 2022. In fact, it was a surprise to me when the restaurant reopened at all. I arrived in Northern Virginia in May of 2020, a month and a half after Vermilion went into hibernation. To me, it was a legend of the past — a place where the Obamas had long ago celebrated Valentine’s Day.
Now, it is a living restaurant again. In the meantime, previous chef Thomas Cardarelli decamped to his own Alexandria business, Stracci Pizza. In his place, Ben Pflaumer, a young chef whose background leans Italian thanks to tenures at Marc Vetri’s Philadelphia restaurants and the experience of opening DC’s second location of Officina, is cooking up the next generation of dishes.
Needless to say, pasta and risotto are highlights of Pflaumer’s menu, but his kitchen focuses on something else just as quintessentially Italian: locavorism.
“Really we just want to work as closely as possible with local purveyors, farmers, and fishermen to be as sustainable a restaurant as we can and make some delicious food,”
That means that the risotto, unquestionably his best dish, is made with chewy brown arborio rice from a farm about an hour away in Maryland. Each forkful stretches with melted Grana Padano cheese and has a whisper of earthy truffle. Its unusual touch of dark sweetness is courtesy of smoked candy onion.
It’s a preview of the splendors Pflaumer’s cuisine might promise someday. But on the whole, Vermilion does not yet reach those heights. Unreliable service and small, expensive portions of uninspiring dishes mean that the reopened restaurant isn’t currently living up to its pre-pandemic reputation.
But I’m not losing hope. The risotto is neither the only plate with a firm focus on local products nor the sole menu offering that has me already contemplating a return visit someday. The baby beets may sound like a throwaway: Everybody has a beet salad, right? Not one like this.
In this case, the rainbow of poached beets is served in a ring-molded pile atop pesto made from the roots’ own greens. Stracciatella crowns the construction, bleeding sweet cream from chewy, stretchy torn mozzarella. Pistachio and anise hyssop are strewn on top, lending a combination of nutty and licorice-like flavors that make this far more than your average beet salad.
So what’s the problem? While it’s clear that Pflaumer has this kind of inspiration in his quiver, it sometimes misfires. At $35, I was expecting a showstopper when I ordered the Shenandoah baby goat. The meat is expertly braised, with fat melting away to reveal only slabs of tender flesh with crisp corners. Unfortunately, the jus that dresses it merely tastes like salt. The sides of cute, miniature fairy tale eggplants are undercooked, and barley, which could provide some body to the dish, is meagerly portioned.
The issue with saltiness extends to other dishes on other nights. The casoncelli is stuffed pasta that enfolds braised pork with a mealy texture. They are eminently eye-pleasing, if excessively al dente, even for a pasta eater who loves a bit of bite. The brown butter, dotted with mirepoix, is a lip-sticking delight at first bite, but that surplus of salt rears its head, parching a diner as they tuck into a portion in line with what one might find in Italy.
Choosing dishes based on the menu’s “small” and “large” identifiers can be confusing. The Amish chicken liver terrine is served with a hot, fluffy-centered waffle. Though it’s a small plate, it was enough to easily fill me up, especially when paired with the rich terrine, which melts into the crevices of the waffle. Yes, the dish itself is a typical appetizer, but certainly a shareable one.
Diners may not want to share the petite “snacks,” another section of the menu that seems bound to be consumed at the bar. My dining companion very nearly ordered seconds of the Maryland crab croquettes with its lightly acidic Dijon and tarragon sauce, but I was less enchanted with the bites of fried chicken (essentially three nuggets, but for $6, who’s complaining?), which were mostly breading.
Another fried appetizer, the potato pave, probably would have fared better as a side. The layers of thinly sliced potato are simply a lot of spud on their own. Some chunks of feta and a few capers don’t do much to mitigate the impression of a starch bomb.
But paired with the buttery Roseda Farms bavette steak, it suddenly makes sense. The steak is part of a fresh summer dish, like something a friend might make at an upscale barbecue, thanks to its ribbons of zucchini, petite heirloom tomatoes, and salsa verde. The potatoes elevate the combination and helped to fill up my dining companion, who felt the portion was on the small side.
Pflaumer, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, creates his own desserts. The best of these is a ring of Bavarian cream accompanied by warm crumbles of financier that melt the brown butter ice cream on top. A blueberry-filled strudel is lovably flaky but marred by a heavy dose of white Port sabayon that overwhelms the sweet berries.
Will Vermilion regain its place as a local restaurant superpower? Very likely. Its regionally sourced ingredients mean it has strong ties to the community at large, and it’s clear that Pflaumer has great potential. Once he unveils the restaurant’s famed tasting menus again, he will likely have found his footing in his new digs. And that’s when I’ll be back.
See This: An arched brick doorway and sconces with flickering flames bestow a romantic feel on the upstairs. Downstairs is more casual, with sports fans watching a game at the bar.
Eat This: Baby beets, risotto, Bavarian
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday
1120 King St., Alexandria