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Vermilion, Old Town Alexandria


SanFran88
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This place might be a huge addition to Old Town, a destination I've generally been down on food-wise for a long time. We've been twice in the past 3 weeks and enjoyed ourselves each time. It's already a happening place with potential. I'd say go before a review comes out. We've ordered mostly appetizers each time--and make a kind of tasting menu out of them. Wine is interesting and very reasonably priced, including a $20 bottle of gruner veltliner. If you are interested I'll tell you a little more about the dishes we liked--but I'd start with the mini crab cakes, the grilled skewers of beef and shrimp, the lamb-mint lollipops, the salad nicoise, and the duck quesedilla. There's a nice edge here as well--it's younger and less staid, less old money than Susan's Majestic Cafe, which is the only other place in Old Town we currently like. (The problem for some with Majestic Cafe, if there is a problem, is Susan isn't trying to do the level of cooking she was doing at Morrison Clark. For those of us lucky to taste what Susan did at M-C, which was incredible, it set the standard for that "refined new-American Southern-comfort food" niche which frankly has not been equalled by any of the current practitioners of that niche around town or say at Charleston in Baltimore. What she's doing now is an intentional step down--with a less refined emphasis serving a different, more conservative audience looking for homestyle Southern comfort food. It's still "in" Susan's style--but just with less "of" her style and time-consuming handiwork.)

Vermilion is new, of course, and right now less expensive than Majestic Cafe. On paper, the food is a little more overtly interesting than Susan's; in practice, the service and the quality of cooking is also much less accomplished, but--and this is a big but--both are decent enough already especially for a new place. We even had a pretty good berry cobbler at Vermilion--and if you read these threads you know that I usually don't even order dessert out and have very low expectations. I was surprised to find a dessert here I really liked.

However, just to put this in "grand scheme of things" perspective--Vermilion is very good, nice addition to the otherwise arid dining scene there--a Old Town neighborhood place which just opened and which has potential to realize--but the cooking there in no way compares to what, say, John Wabeck is doing at Firefly (or even better, what Gian Piero did at Elysium.) John is a much better chef doing better work--and he's a little more confident with his style of cooking now, I suspect, than when he was first championed by Phyllis Richman years ago. His restaurant and cooking is more consistent and stylish; he's been open longer, already been reviewed by Sietsema and built on that review. He's assembled, trained and retained a much better team, which results in better service and a better overall customer "experience." It's a small dining room--even if you are known to the chef, as I was, you can see the joy that the host and runners and servers communicate to all the guests. Unlike most chefs, John has a great palate for wine, he lived and cooked in Napa for a while, and at Firefly has assembled an interesting, eclectic, food-oriented wine list--perhaps one of the handful of best "food wine" lists in town and here's the kicker: his dishes are at the same price point as Vermilion.

So, go to Firefly and then, if you find yourself in Old Town, settle for Vermilion.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Actually I am very interested in what you got at Vermilion, as we will probably be going this weekend. We live within walking distance, having another neighborhood "go-to" place besides Majestic, especially since it is such a different menu, would be nice. Since I have followed the threads here -- and on the pastry board -- I am shocked, shocked, that you not only liked dessert, but that it was a berry cobbler! :wink: I seem to remember one of your complaints about Majestic being that the desserts were essentially slices of cake and pie; excellent slices of cake and pie, but kind of lowballing it or mailing it in from what you thought Susan and/or her pastry chef were capable of. We are also going to be in Bethesda this weekend and plan on going to Jaleo; if you could only order two desserts...(or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child :biggrin: ).

Tony

Tony

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Well Tony, that's always my first assessment, is it good? Good belies trend and has nothing to do with my preferences for certain styles. I try never to bring expectation or subjective preference to someone else's table. I try to appreciate something for what it is then take off from there. You should know, though, that while I thought that Vermilion cobbler was "pretty good," my wife who is also a pastry chef thought the cobbler part was too underdone and as a result didn't like it and only had a spoonful. (I bet a cobbler from Valerie at Majestic, if she's offering one, is twice as good.) Cobblers are really easy and to not get that essential part perfect ruined it for her. I guess I was just so grateful to get something that didn't suck I could be more forgiving of some percentage of raw dough. As they get more feedback about that cobbler, I bet it improves. I would be a little afraid to try the other desserts, some are outsourced and a few are done in-house by a cook, all are straightforward and predictable. I'll wait for you or Tom Sietsema to report on them!

As far as Majestic and desserts, I'd use very good rather than "excellent." I really wish they were, Valerie and Susan are nice and talented, everyone that works there is nice--and hardworking and committed. Every now and then I have a "very good" dessert there. Now, the desserts I had at Cafe 15 in the Sofitel are truly excellent, the peach dessert tasting plate I had at Firefly last week was--surpise--really excellent! I'm careful about what I praise highly. Yes I value some precision and interest and refinement in presentation but it isn't necessary. I've just never appreciated the desserts at Majestic as much as I have the food--I think they are appropriate for and in the style of Susan's food just not as successfully executed or delicious as the food--and that can't be laid solely at the pastry chef's feet--dessert is a team effort. When I've said this in the past an anonymous user or two comes out of the woodwork to challenge me--as if I'm pumping myself up at the expense of others, as if chefs themselves are somehow not allowed to comment on the work of others. Believe me, that's not it and it's not personal. (I can do better work than I am doing, I'm still learning and improving, I receive constructive criticism all the time from Jose and I expect my programs to keep improving at Cafe and Jaleo and Zaytinya and anywhere else I work in the coming year.) As I said previously, if something is good, it's good--on one hand I feel Majestic is the best overall restaurant in Old Town--but on the other there is room for the dessert program to achieve more creatively and to achieve better end results even working within that more relaxed Luchetti/Silverton "Americana" comfort food approach which is all over town. How?

When we last ate there, maybe 2 months ago, they still weren't making ice creams and sorbets in-house--Virginia has strange rules re: ice creams in restaurants--and that special place cries out for special homemade ice creams with seasonal fruits, etc. At Majestic, a bowl with a scoop or two of a great ice cream, made with simple fruit salads or fresh peaches, say, would be a great, appropriate and personal end to that meal in that location. That's not all on Valerie--that's on ownership (and Susan!) for not buying a Pacojet or batch freezer. (One Pacojet in that place would be perfect.) Build several frozen cream style desserts, a parfait say, around the crumble, baked goods like tarts and cookies they're already doing very well. It's also important to remember, despite my feelings, that Majestic is doing this style of dessert better than most around town (certainly better than the similar stuff at Cashion's) and Tom Sietsema--the professional who gets paid for his restaurant opinions--singles out Valerie and her desserts and layer cakes at Majestic for praise as among the best in our area. So as with anything, taste is subjective--and you have to taste and compare and judge for yourself. It might even be unrealistic to expect more of a small place, where Susan as chef/owner is stretched in so many directions every day and night just trying to make a go of it.

My comments on eGullet about this "rustic Americana slice of cake or pie" dessert approach are more general--tied in a sense to that "pastry chef recognition" thread--and are more a cranky observation of why I thought the DC state of dessert affairs has historically been underwhelming, which Sietsema agrees with. There's altogether too much of the tired, not really done well "American comfort/Nancy Silverton" style, too much bakeshop "baking" being passed off as restaurant "dessert," too much is outsourced, underwhelming, boring or just plain conservative--and though the scene is getting better too many diners I'm afraid have become innured to it and just don't expect more. I don't think Phyllis Richman, historically, cared too much about dessert as a critic, nor did she appreciate what was possible within or the best efforts of our sweet discipline. That set our area back. For too long standards have been too low, too many undertrained bakers had climbed into "pastry chef" positions around town making $9 an hour, diners lacked awareness and diner expectations remained low. It isn't that these bakers and pastry chefs couldn't do better work or didn't want to do better work--it's often that they aren't given the support--and that all comes back to the chef and owners who control the pursestrings. That's the take home message: too many of the aging/local/celebrity chefs, themselves now mailing it in, are unwilling to find, hire, pay and support top pastry talent--talent that is their equal in the kitchen and/or capable of adapting to their cooking. Local critics and national media let chef/owners get away with desserts that don't achieve the same standard as their food while still worshipping at their savory altar. And if these celebs aren't doing the dessert thing right, their sous chefs and local friends and hangers-on now in other restaurants emulating them are less likely to care as well. Again, not unique to DC and all themes we've discussed elsewhere on the site. But I am seeing more good stuff out there, we just have to stay open to finding it and then get behind it. And as Tom starts drawing attention to people who are making the effort dessert-wise--say with the new guys at Nectar--it can only help get everyone else thinking maybe we can do a little better as well--maybe we have to do better--and maybe more diners will should expect more. Recap of by-now-predictable mini-rant over.

Back to Vermilion--besides the dishes I mentioned already--which we've ordered twice and are quite good especially for the price--apps are like 6-8 bucks and very generously portioned--here are the other dishes we had that were either good, just ok or less successful, that I probably wouldn't order again:

Hummus--red pepper, thick, chunky and tasty

Crostini--boring

Oyster--deep fried, soft, flavorless

Calamari--dry, overcooked but tasty

Spinach salad--just ok

Entrees, as observed being carried through the room and devoured by others, seem generous and fairly priced in the mid-teens. We've yet to have an entree but I'd expect them to be safe and middle-of-the-road in terms of interest.

If the oysters were perked up just a bit and the calamari re-worked or cooked better, both dishes could be really good. But remember, this is Virginia and Old Town we're talking about, old money and conservative diners and what's more likely to happen is the stuff that is actually good now will become, well, a little more conservative, more sloppy, a little less flavorful, a little less interesting. I saw it happen at Seven in Tysons Corner and I just hope it doesn't happen here. This place has a vibe about it--a refreshing vibe with culinary interest and potential--I just hope they don't lose sight of it like Seven did.

(Offtopic: Bethesda Jaleo this weekend--only two desserts? That's easy--1) the Basque cake w/ leche merengada--just about everybody's favorite of the new dessert program and 2) the Casta Diva gelee/berry/lemon granite dessert--my personal favorite while berries are still strong. The recipe for the Casta Diva is on Starchefs here:

http://www.starchefs.com/chefs/pastry/SKlc...tml/index.shtml

It's a very straightforward attempt to showcase interesting flavors in a more elegant presentation than you usually see at this very low price point, hopefully you will find it clean and refreshing and the flavor of that great Spanish dessert wine will come through. And yes, despite the rapidly rising price of vanilla, we will continue to use the real thing: plump, soft, moist, intoxicating vanilla beans from Madagascar.)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Oh, prices. I hate it when people talk about a meal and don't at least speak generally about price. Including tax, before tip:

Vermilion meal #1--seven apps plus that $20 gruner veltliner bottle--$70.95;

Vermilion meal #2--six apps, the cobbler, the same gruner plus one glass of a nice Stump Jump red--$78.48

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Steve,

Went to Jaleo for Saturday lunch (hoping for Vermilion later in the week); loved the play with textures in the two desserts you recommended. (The server recommended the Basque cake and something else -- white chocolate maybe -- but seemed genuinely happy when we ordered the gelee/berries). The intensity of the gelee was amazing. And my daughter (2) devoured the entire Basque cake. She did a number on the berries and the granita as well, but I tried to steer her off the gelee (though the wine might have contributed to a nice long nap...hmmm). I'm going to definitely add that one to my simple fruit dessert repertoire; as you pointed out, the recipe from the starchefs site looks pretty doable for even the most pastry challenged among us.

Tony

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(The server recommended the Basque cake and something else -- white chocolate maybe -- but seemed genuinely happy when we ordered the gelee/berries).

I'm glad to hear that. We went for dinner a couple of months ago and our waiter actually argued with us against ordering that dessert because he didn't like it. It was a little insulting to have our judgement questioned like that.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Just got back from Vermilion. Had a lovely little Caesar salad with crostini that had anchovy on it. Also had the blue cornmeal crusted fried oysters. Does this make sense? The oysters weren't "oystery" enough. The crust was crispy without being at all greasy, but the oyster itself seemed like it was hardly there.

The Gruner Veltliner was tasty with the semi-oysterless oysters. It's a great space with a spacious and comfortable bar.

I'd definitely go back for more. Perhaps for our next "on a whim" get together? Only a few blocks from the King St metro station.

A much needed oasis in Old Town mediocrity.

peak performance is predicated on proper pan preparation...

-- A.B.

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  • 1 year later...

As usual, I've waited a little to long to post, so the finer details on things have drifted from the gray matter. But, then again, no one has posted anything about Vermilion in over a year, so whatever I put would be an update.

We really wanted to like Vermilion.....(you know where this is going!) It looks like it could be a charming restaurant from the outside. When we walked in, the front room looked quite nice. We don't know what was upstairs, but in the back was the bar, with televisions, and smoke-eaters that didn't work and that space became the bane of our visit to Vermilion.

We were seated downstairs, not far from the staircase and the entrance to the bar area. The overworked hostess was a delight and we really felt for her trudging up and down those stairs in shoes and a skirt she never should have been wearing for such a job. When I told her it was too warm in the place, she was more than happy to pass the word along, as I think she was sweating her tail off but needed customers to raise that issue with the manager. Very quickly he worked to adjust the thermostat, which made a difference for a little while. He said if it's overworked, it could shut down completely......

We had a starter of risotto balls stuffed with fontina. Now, if you're used to having "mozzarella stix" this was a few steps up. A great alternative, if that's how you're looking at it. In fact, I'd love to sit down with a basket of these risotto balls while watching a football game. But I think when we had them we realized that the meals at Vermilion were not going to be as "advanced" as we were hoping or expecting they would be.

My pork chop was a nice thick cut, but perhaps a bit overdone. Served with a fruity compote that was not overly sweet (which is a good thing) and some kind of bacon/mushroom/potato mixture. It was okay. I ordered a glass of wine to be served with my meal. By the time it arrived I was nearly 80% done with my chop. I sent it back. The server didn't seem to grasp why.

The Mrs. had a halibut with a cucumber yogurt dill sauce, quite similar to tzatziki. Like my chop, it was okay. It came with a salad of greens with feta cheese and carmelized onion. The feta was far too overpowering.

But what really killed this experience for us was that bar. Vermilion is not a restaurant. It's also not a bar. It really doesn't know what it wants to be. And that's the problem with it. There's nothing wrong with having a good bar/cocktail section that complements your dining area, but that doesn't happen at Vermilion. The first reason is the televisions tuned to ESPN. Sports bar, corner pub, standard bar/tavern/saloon...fine. But it attracts a crowd that's more interested in pounding down bottles of Bud and Lite and that just didn't fit for the experience we were anticipating. Then there was the smoke. It billowed. I can handle some smoke with my dinner drifting by now and then. And if I'm in a bar, I kind of expect it. (Not happy about it, but I understand where I am.) But if you're operating a restaurant, and you felt the need to put 3 smoke eaters in your bar, you better expect a problem. There was. Unless you like smoke with your food, DO NOT go to Vermilion. (Reseating was not an option).

There was no soap in the women's rest room either, and my wife reported it to the hostess. Apologized and within moments was racing in there with a plastic jug to refill the dispenser. This woman was a winner.

Then there was that server who neglected to be timely with my glass of wine. Later on, I asked for our check. Time kept on slippin', slippin', slippin'........into the future.....which was when I asked him where our check was. "Sure, I'll get that for you now." Somewhat excuseable if he was a little too busy, but we were able to watch lots of his downtime at the service bar behind the host stand. A little too absent minded.

We went to Vermilion after sitting at the bar for the first time at Restaurant Eve. With our high hopes for Vermilion dashed by our visit, we were very happy to know that Eve stood ready for us in the future.

Edited to add: Forgot something. Drink order came first. Vermilion, being tied in to the Daily Planet Wine Shop folks has a wine list that's mighty fine. And thereby the glass selection is far and away better than the standard pedestrian list you'll find at most restaurants, "we have chardonnay or pinot grigio."

I ordered a glass of the Graham Beck sparkling wine from South Africa. I think it's the same wine they serve at Restaurant Eve, but for $2 less per glass. Anyway, the server (this was our first interaction with him) returned a short time later with a bottle of sparkling water. Uh, no.

Edited by syzygy8 (log)
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Vermillion now has a new chef - Bobby Beard, formerly of Pesce, and hopefully things will improve there, at least food-wise. I am not sure exactly when he starts - some time in the next two weeks - and after about a month, things should be looking up.

Edited by Nadya (log)

Resident Twizzlebum

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  • 3 months later...

Bobby Beard is most definitely still there - and has been working some magic in the kitchen over the past few months. He's turned the place around with an entirely new menu. Personally, the butternut squash soup alone is :rolleyes: ...for dinner you might want to try the Grilled Bison Hanger Steak for starters with either the Pan Fried Cornmeal Crusted Trout or the Double Cut Pork Chop.

Anyone else been in lately?

MelGold

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  • 2 months later...
FYI - Vermilion has a new website click here

I notice the menu has the following caveat attached to certain dishes:

"*This item contains raw ingredients. In addition, items on this menu are cooked to order. Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood or eggs may increase your risk of food-bourne illnesses, especially if you have certain medial condition [sic]."

Is this a new trend, or have I just failed to notice the government-warning style text on other menus?

edited for grammar

Edited by benjy (log)
arsenal rule
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FYI - Vermilion has a new website click here

I notice the menu has the following caveat attached to certain dishes:

"*This item contains raw ingredients. In addition, items on this menu are cooked to order. Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood or eggs may increase your risk of food-bourne illnesses, especially if you have certain medial condition [sic]."

Is this a new trend, or have I just failed to notice the government-warning style text on other menus?

edited for grammar

It is almost universal. If you start looking for it, you'll find it everywhere....from Chilis to the tasting room at Eve. Started popping up in the last 5 years or so.

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FYI - Vermilion has a new website click here

I notice the menu has the following caveat attached to certain dishes:

"*This item contains raw ingredients. In addition, items on this menu are cooked to order. Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood or eggs may increase your risk of food-bourne illnesses, especially if you have certain medial condition [sic]."

Is this a new trend, or have I just failed to notice the government-warning style text on other menus?

edited for grammar

It is almost universal. If you start looking for it, you'll find it everywhere....from Chilis to the tasting room at Eve. Started popping up in the last 5 years or so.

Certain states require it by law.

Edited to add:

Medial conditions, by the way, are clearly a serious problem in the UK, Australia, Canada and other Commonwealth nations that suffer from food-bourne illnesses. Unlike here, where we're more likely to be stricken by foodborne illness, frequently helped by medication.

Of course, if you read my review above, Vermilion would better serve its patrons by putting the same warning you find on a pack of cigarettes on its menu, rather than the raw ingredients thing. Based on my experience, you're more likely to come down with lung cancer than salmonella.

Edited by syzygy8 (log)
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