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Saturday, September 11, 2010


Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #58, Washingtonian 2009 #28, Washingtonian 2008 #45, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants 2010, 2010 RAMMY Nominee - Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year, 2009 RAMMY Winner - Rising Star Chef of the Year, Tony Chittum, 2009 RAMMY Nominee - Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year
Neighborhood: Alexandria

The Setup

I'm a planner and an optimist, which in combination is sometimes dangerous. I will buy two tickets to things well in advance of actually knowing who I'm going with. And so the last stop in my Summer Restaurant Week 2010 grand tour was originally conceived of as sort of a date day: what better place to spend the end of summer than in Alexandria? But alas, the date fell through, but left in its stead was a dinner reservation to a restaurant I was excited about eating at. So I recruited willing volunteer Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle, and away we went.

The Vibe

It's not often that a restaurant will be nominated for a RAMMY in the Fine Dining category one year and then Upscale Casual the next, but I guess such is the result of the nexus between Vermilion's decoration and location. Vermilion stands out on a walk down King Street because of the single gas lantern that flickers outside its storefront. This theme is continued inside, where gas lanterns hang all along one wall over some of the booths.

I find that some restaurants ignore their name completely with respect to their decor, and some go all out in search of it; Vermilion is definitely in the latter category. You are immediately struck by how red the decor is, not in an overwhelming way, but in an "oh, that's right I guess it is called Vermilion" kind of way. The red comes in several shades (one of which incidentally is actually vermilion) and manifests itself in a number of ways, with subtle accents of black and an off-white. The most prominent of these touches is the paisley velvet wallpaper and the matching velour upholstery on the booths.

The booths themselves are interesting: half-circles which are both large in size but cramped lending themselves to only seat two people. It certainly is an intimate touch to say the least. The other two-tops are standard furniture, running alongside a short barrier by the front door, and in the front window nook below the facade's colonial windows. Beyond this initial area, is a set of stairs to the restaurant's second floor as well as a brick archway which leads to the restaurant's bar.

The Food

To my surprise, Swizzle had worked in a restaurant in her Boston days and so she was a very knowledgeable conversant over the course of the meal (a trend in my recent dinner companions that I definitely would love to continue). That made Vermilion a good choice for her: Tony Chittum's focus on local and in-season ingredients (like other personal favorites Equinox and Blue Duck) made for high quality food. What's more, because of this focus, the options during RW came right off the regular menu. Awesome.

First out was an amuse-bouche, a shotglass-sized cup of melon soup. It was nice and certainly interesting, but Swizzle was right to point out it would have been better chilled rather than the room temperature it came out at. Couldn't sneak anything by her that night.

So, unable to hide the good stuff from her, she picked the most interesting first course: squid two ways with shelling beans, shaved celery, focaccia, and saffron vinaigrette. The squid was wonderful in both the poached and fried preparations, cooked beautifully much like the octopus from three nights prior. I thought the accoutrements were nice too, though probably a bit superfluous for my tastes. Still, sipped down with Swizzle's choice of a cava brut, it was a nice refreshing beginning to the meal.

Thankfully though, her choice drove me to pick the other appetizer of note, roma tomatoes stuffed with spiced luganega sausage, farro, vincotto, and goat cheese. I've always said that my favorite dishes always tend to be the ones that hearken back to enhanced versions of things my mother made me (say, roasted chicken, or potato and leek soup). I don't think this is necessarily something particular to only me, just a feeling that I have to give credence to. In this light, this dish was amazing. Between the rich savoriness of the sausage to the light hint of goat cheese in each bite, this was right up my alley, recalling the same stuffed tomatoes from my childhood, while bringing so much more to the table.

For entrees, Swizzle ordered the pan roasted king salmon served with Parker House "panzanella", pickled red onion, and basil three ways. I couldn't tell you what the three ways of basil were, but I can tell you that the salmon was a nice bite, juicy and paired fairly well with the panzanella bread salad that it was plated on. Again, the focus on bringing on the best in the ingredients for me was the centerpiece.

On my end, I ordered the Pineland Farms bistro filet with a caramelized potato confit, summer shallots two ways and salsa verde. Despite the fact that it was a pretty straightforward dish, there was a lot to like here: the crispy shallots on top mirrored by the fried ones below, the richness of the potatoes, the tenderness of the meat. In many ways, it was refreshing to see both entrees not try to do too much out of the ordinary and just keep it simple and excellent. Both of us went with the 2008 Annabella pinot noir, a California wine continuing in my streak of West Coast pinots. Obviously, it paired better with mine, but she was happy with it regardless.

For dessert, we each got one of the two options. Swizzle got the gianduja panna cotta with a raspberry sorbet and hazelnut crunch. The panna cotta was good, silky without being too dense as panna cottas can sometimes get, but the part of this dish that I remember the best is the sorbet. Dancing the line between sweet and smooth and tart, combined with the chocolate flavors of the gianduja, it was a wonderful ending note.

I on the other hand, along with a 10 year Fladgate tawny port, ordered the vanilla-buttermilk sorbet which came with blueberries, graham cracker, and lime curd. This like the entrees was good in the sense that it was simple and definitely recalled the creaminess of hand-churned ice cream, something helped along by the buttermilk flavor. Still, after Swizzle's dessert, I wanted to be excited by mine, and I wasn't. It was by no means bad, it just didn't measure up to hers.

The Verdict

An all around excellent dinner: good plus as she put it. Simple unfussy American cuisine done beautifully and executed well, a wonderful setting, and a great time. I am definitely going to go back.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
: Perhaps one of my favorite "DC" attractions of all time is Alexandria's Torpedo Factory. What used to be a plant has been converted into an artist's enclave with individual shops for independent artists/craftsfolk to workshop and hawk their wares. Beautiful stuff, and it's on sale too!

Vermilion on Urbanspoon