Restaurant review

Vermilion restaurant review: A new chef and a new look in Old Town

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The mere mention of a few restaurants prompts me to smack my lips and jump in the car.

And There you go! in the fences? My whole family considers it a favorite.

Hitching post in Petworth? The fried whiting is named after me.

Regular readers might expect Buck’s Fishing & Camping, home to the friendliest communal table in town and one of my favorite servers. I like the idea of ​​the place more than the reality these days, but only because the menu never seems to change and fans crave variety. (I swear even three new dishes would set me back.)

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Which brings me to Vermilion, the crown jewel of the Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Before it dims in 2020, the two-story restaurant in the heart of Alexandria’s Old Town has always caught my eye, thanks to a parade of talented chefs (think Tom Cardarelli and Tony Chittum) during its near 20 years old. While the place showed its age on my last pre-pandemic visit, the creative food made up for the wear and tear.

So hallelujah! Vermilion reopened in July, with a new coat of paint and a new chef, Ben Pflaumer, 33 this month. The only thing that kept me from running on premiere night was the fact that I was out of town on a mission. I booked a reservation for the day of my return; after a few dinners, I’m happy to report that the old show cleans up pretty well and tastes as good as ever.

As the return of groceries grazinghis happy days are back.

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Pflaumer, most recently Creative Food Group’s culinary director, invited me to “snacks,” a few of which are bites of usually large dishes. Instead of crab cakes, he sends crab cakes, bound with unsweetened donut batter, pumped with air for fluffiness, and slathered on their plate with mustard sauce. Likewise, fried chicken is shrunk – just in size – to juicy nuggets that stay put with dabs of dill yogurt. The anchovy toast is one of those appetizers that I plan to serve at my next dinner party, because who wouldn’t get their mouths watering at the sight of Sicilian anchovies, slightly tangy stracciatella and mint salsa verde on an oval of crusty bread?

I’m the kind of oyster eater who only bothers with a squeeze of lemon, and only when the oysters need to be seasoned. But I have to admit that the fennel granita makes a nice garnish for Stormy Bay oysters from Vermilion. If only the oysters were shucked so they wouldn’t cling to their shells which would create a messy tussle at the start of dinner.

Just looking at certain dishes turns you off. The chef’s scallop crudo — ivory slices of sweet seafood decorated with bright green snow peas, charred for a hint of smoke — helps you forget about the Washington swamp in August. The starter’s umami is courtesy of the clear snow pea broth, zapped with dried seaweed. Equally invigorating is the cucumber velouté. Look Ma, no cream! The chef uses yogurt as the base for the garlic soup, which shares his bowl with a salad of green tomatoes.

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Pflaumer is a good shopper, buying dry-aged rib eye from Roseda Farm in Maryland for his excellent beef carpaccio, which he cuts to the thickness of a slice of bacon and reheats gently for about the time it takes. it takes to read this sentence. The thin fringe of fat around the edges melts in your mouth, a balanced feel with celery, watercress and a dusting of horseradish on the sliced ​​beef. Live dangerously and pair carpaccio with potato pavé, a small terrine of sliced ​​potatoes, capers and feta cheese that elevates the idea of ​​meat and potatoes.

The chef’s resume ticks off a number of Italian foodie destinations, including the posh Masseria in Washington and the famous Vetri in Philadelphia, where, as a line cook, Pflaumer learned to break down a kid in 4½ minutes. “I’m a little more careful with my hands these days,” jokes the chef, who takes an Old World approach to his Vermilion Slow-Roasted Herbed Goat Cheese.

Pflaumer’s pasta is wonderful. The risotto uses locally produced Arborio brown rice, which the chef flavors with smoked candied onions and chopped black truffles. To preserve the flavor, the dish is presented under a table bell, a nice little ta-da moment. Pflaumer’s sunny yellow ravioli stuffed with braised pork are equally ceremonial-worthy but are served on a plate with a wash of brown butter and fresh sage. (En route to Vermilion, Pflaumer stops at sister restaurant Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, which sports a rooftop herb garden — also the source of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.) The entree, including the sauce gets stuck in the dimples of the pasta, is music for the ears of fried pig ear lovers, the bits of which punctuate the dish and provide an amusing soundtrack.

Do the servers have to go back apparently every other bite to ask how we like the food? They don’t. The enthusiasm with which some of us make quick work of most plates, including poached redfish with steamed mussels and crunchy Romano beans, should be quite significant. The only reminder of a saffron sauce was a layer of gold in the bowl.

Mushrooms tend to be the default vegetarian option at many restaurants. Vermillon subscribes to the idea with oyster mushrooms, sautéed to a light crunch in hazelnut butter. But the meaty centerpiece steps out of familiar territory with the addition of juicy peaches and tender black soybeans – they work, deliciously, under the earthy mushroom – in a creamy sherry-fortified white butter.

Blueberry strudel? Say yes to puff pastry, the size of a Pop-Tart and draped in a frothy sabayon. Kellogg’s can only dream. On the other hand, the only time I tried the milk chocolate mousse, it was poured by a shower of sea salt.

Regulars will recognize the space, which begins with a downstairs dining room and back bar and continues up a staircase to a wine display and more tables. Owner Michael Babin bought the building during the pandemic and made changes, some of which benefit cooks (the kitchen has a new HVAC system) and some of which, like refinished floors and new wall treatments, benefit diners . But the good basic bones of the restaurant – raw brick, gas lamps, beautiful woodwork – remain in place.

Even better, there’s yet another ace in the kitchen, highlighting what price we have at Vermilion.

1120 King Street, Alexandria. 703-684-9669. vermilionrestaurant.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m. (bar hours are longer) Starting August 19, lunch will be offered on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). weekends, brunch will be offered on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Price: Appetizers, dinner $7 to $18, main dishes $24 to $35. Sound control: 82 decibels / extremely loud. Accessibility: The dining room and bar on the first floor require a ramp, maintained near the host’s booth, to enter; the second floor is accessible only by stairs. Pandemic Protocols: Staff members must be fully vaccinated or present weekly negative coronavirus tests if requesting a religious exemption.