Monday, May 17, 2010

Restaurant Eve, Alexandria VA

In planning the family trip to DC it must be noted that the trip itself was functioning as Christmas, Graduation, and Birthday for me – I worked overnight call for every major holiday this year and as such requested each family member to dine with me somewhere in DC during our visit as my gift – similarly I took them all out for their respective holidays…”stuff” gathers dusts while memories of special times with family last a lifetime. For the first of these three meals the decision was made to attend Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria with my mother. Having heard good things from multiple friends and Washingtonians (including Chef Cooper at Vidalia and the Maitre D’ at The Inn) I was quite excited for the meal and although reservations were a bit tricky it worked out well as the Tasting Room is open on Mondays and we landed a two top for 6pm.

Arriving 20 minutes late due to traffic we parked the car and made our way down the tiny alley to the lobby of Chef Cathal Armstrong’s beautiful restaurant and were greeted pleasantly by a pair of young ladies who led us quickly to the Tasting Room, a lovely space separated by glass doors from the restaurant proper. The vision of Chef Armstrong and his wife Meshelle, Eve features three dining areas with each sporting different menus and price ranges, the tasting room being the most exclusive. Having contacted the restaurant ahead of time I was assured it was okay for me to order the spontaneous 9-course menu while mom opted for less food – I will note that Reservations Manager Ashley Pique’ was quite helpful both before and after the meal, when she E-mailed me to ask for a mailing address for a copy of the menu.

Seated and with water filled we were greeted by one of three servers who would assist us throughout the night. Courteous, pleasant, and ever-present in the room I will note that at first the service felt a tad “hovering” but it relaxed as more diners arrived. If I had but one negative (the only negative, I might add) to say about Eve’s service it would be that plates were occasionally dropped off by runners who failed to describe the plates, instead leading the diner to wait 15-30 seconds for a server to arrive tableside…an easy fix I recommended on the comment card at the end of the meal; simply train the runners in the art of describing a plate. While mom browsed the menu I opted for a drink, something I rarely do but couldn’t resist when I saw Lemony Laurel with Roasted Lemons, Bay Leaves, Galliano, and Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Spicy, smoky, citrus, and packing a bit of punch…best mixed drink of the trip.

With orders placed, myself going with the spontaneous 9-course and mom choosing 5 from the prix fixe, our canapés arrived first – three each I was surprised that mom not only ate them, but liked them all! Featuring Deviled Quail Egg with Osetra, Goat Cheese Fritter with Horseradish, and Salmon Rillet each was quite tasty and balanced – dense egg/creamy mousse, creamy cheese/spicy horseradish, creamy salmon/crunchy toast. A welcoming opening round, for sure.

Our amuse proper of the night was Rabbit Liver Mousse, Rabbit Sausage, Baguette, Cream – and again mom ate it, though she didn’t like it as much as I. Using the cream and savory sausage to balance the unctuous and gamey liver was a nice setup in my opinion while the baguette added a nice contrast and crunch. I can’t say I fancy rabbit liver the way I do other animals, but it was good.

Interestingly our next course was an Intermezzo featuring a beautiful first of the season strawberry sorbet paired with a dry and still bubbly champagne plus hints of lemongrass – while I can’t say I expected an intermezzo so early, it was very nicely done.

With amuses cleared the bread service began next – the night’s selection (baked in house…actually, it seemed most aspects of Eve’s cooking including stocks, sauces, coffee roasting, and bitters were done in house) consisting of a crunchy and cheesy breadstick, a smooth Buttermilk Biscuit, and an olive-rye roll. Served along with these options was a slab of authentic Irish Kerrygold butter – the best butter I’ve had outside of The French Laundry/Per Se and Manresa with its grassy nature tempered by a smooth sweetness.

Beginning mom’s tasting was her first selection – eschewing more esoteric options on the first course she chose Fresh Chickpea Falafel with Housemade Yogurt, Lemon Coulis, Baby Romaine – a constant on Eve’s menu featuring two crisp and tasty chickpea balls paired with smooth and slightly sour yogurt, clean lemon flavor, plus crispy romaine the overall feel of the dish was distinctly Greek in nature and quite delicious. While I can’t say it would have been my choice the bite I tasted indicated I certainly wouldn’t have been disappointed it arrived on the spontaneous menu.

Noting my previous statement I will say that if I received the Falafel instead of my dish, Sauteed Softshell Crab with Carrot Orange Vinaigrette, Navel Oranges, Herb Salad I would have been disappointed. Featuring a large and buttery panko crusted crab with extraordinarily sweet meat the protein was well paired with a salad of fresh garden herbs and lettuces, citrusy oranges, and a sharp yet restrained vinaigrette that tasted more carrot than orange.

For my second course, arriving approximately 15 minutes after the first was cleared (keep in mind that Eve takes its time to do things right – the whole meal took nearly 4 hours and was worth every moment) the presentation was Chef Armstrong’s signature 000 “Oysters, Cippolini Onions, Iranian Osetera Caviar” and like other signature oysters and caviar dishes it is worthy of the title as signature dish. A clever play on the "000" rating given to Beluga caviar I opted stir and combine the dish after cutting the oyster in half – the fluffy tart itself being substantial and the oyster being solo. With the overall flavor of the dish strongly influenced by the supple oyster flesh and briny popping caviar I appreciated the manner in which the sweet and pungent onion balanced out the heavy and buttery tart – each flavor showing on its own but also complementing the others.

Mom’s next course was no surprise, not after her two previous experiences with John Dory and this one was potentially the best yet. Titled Roasted John Dory with Saffron Bread Sauce, Baby Fennel, Piquillo-Olive Relish the large filet was butter roasted and pan flashed – cooked through and falling apart to touch. With the mild fish laid across braised and earthy fennel the dish was subsequently topped with a smoky and sweet olive relish and finished tableside with sauce that can best be described as saffron and cream with a hint of onion. Utilizing a variety of heavy ingredients in a rather subtle style I found this dish particularly representative of what Cathal did throughout the meal – using each of his well selected ingredients to their utmost potential.

The next dish for myself was a $15 supplement (even on the spontaneous tasting there are three options for supplemental cost – foie, lobster, and Iranian Osetera) and worth every penny – even if it did look like the world’s most golden Twinkie when it arrived. Simply dubbed Foie Gras en Croute with Bliss Elixir and Pickled Rhubarb the best way to describe this dish is to see a picture – essentially a sliced log of Foie gras baked in a golden pastry shell and served alongside sour pickled rhubarb, shaved wisps of fennel, and a strawberry-lavender-citrus sauce. A thicker and more texturally layered slice of liver than most I rather assume the Foie Gras itself was first roasted before baking, but whatever the method it was excellent and ample in portion.

More time passed between the third and fourth course as the tasting room began to fill – again, it was nice as the noise level was low, the bread was good, and the company was better but I’m not sure eating alone at Eve would be comfortable – the first time I’ve ever thought this…the room is simply small and crowded. Opting against the lobster option for more local cuisine the next dish to arrive was Filet of Atlantic Halibut with Spring Vegetables and Eve Green Curry – the first sous vide preparation of the evening, juicy and tender inside, pan kissed on the skin. Served with the mild fish was a smoky and fresh curry made entirely with herbs grown on premises and peas, shallots, and onions – again, simple flavors used elegantly to compliment a perfect piece of fish.

The next course was a bit of stretch for my mother – but she took a chance and ordered the roasted Breast of Squab with Baby White Asparagus, Rhubarb, Summer Truffle Squab Glace. I say the dish was a stretch because generally she favors her poultry overcooked and this dish, roasted, promised to be delivered rare – and it was. Expertly prepared and amongst the best preparations of game-bird I’ve ever had, my mother simply couldn’t get past the scarlet flesh and opted for the portions closest to the succulent and crispy skin. Pairing the fine bird with aromatic truffle broth and snappy al dente vegetables I have to admit I wasn’t entirely disappointed that mom wouldn’t eat the whole plate solo.

My fifth course was amongst my favorites of the night, largely because it presented something I loved in a manner I’ve never seen done. First roasted to remove some of the fattiness, then pan fried to crisp, the dish of Crispy Belly of Pork with Virginia Asparagus, Jamon Iberico, Sauce Soubise was excellent. Minimally fatty for pork belly, the two slices were wrapped around a thin slice of Iberico ham that added a smoky flavor to the already intensely savory belly – paring the two pig proteins with potato batons, onion, and nutty green asparagus gave the dish a stew-like essence…it reminded me of a more refined version of the Pork Steak and Potatoes my Grandfather used to make…a good memory, to be sure.

For my final savory of the night I suggested no beef and instead received lamb – specifically Shenandoah Valley Rack of Lamb with Spring Onion Custard, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Lamb Jus. A substantial portion after already eating plenty of food and plenty of bread, I was quite impressed by this presentation – spring onions, fresh green garlic, supple bluefoot mushrooms, and a lovely custard that tasted of sage, onion, and chive – matched with the smoky lamb reduction there was no gaminess to be found.

Cheese courses at Eve are composed – always a risky maneuver for the kitchen that can backfire if the diner doesn’t like a specific cheese, but also a potential revelation if matched appropriately. For my mother’s selection, the pairing of Everona Piedmont with Poached Grapefruit and Eve's Garden Lavender Honey was perfect – the smooth and fragrant sheep’s milk cheese wonderfully balanced by bitter/sour grapefruit and homegrown lavender honey…yeah, they make their own honey at Eve, too.

My cheese selection was a Stracapra with Applewood Smoked Onions and Cumin Seed Crackers plus house pressed Olive Oil. A cheese I’d not heard of it was introduced to me as a raw goats milk cheese but aside from its soft texture it could have passed as Tallegio – it’s sweetness well matched by the smoky onions. I personally didn’t feel the olive oil added much to the dish, but indeed, Eve presses its own olive oil too.

Our second intermezzo of the night was delivered shortly after the cheeses and consisted of a small Peanut Butter Cookie with Berry Mousse and Fresh Spring Strawberry – tasting like a crunchy peanut butter and Jelly sandwich it was tasty and refreshing, precisely what it was supposed to be.

My pre-dessert was small but tasty – probably as much food as the intermezzo and interestingly similar to the point where I wonder if it was planned. Titled Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry and Pistachio the overall feel of this was a smooth and buttery strawberry shortcake matched with crunchy pistachios – nutty, buttery, strawberry – similar flavors, different textures from the preceding dish.

For our desserts proper my mother’s selection was “Banana's Foster” – Napoleon, Bourbon Bananas with Smoldering Cinnamon, Bourbon Caramel Gelato…essentially a Banana’s Foster deconstructed and focusing on each component of the traditional dish separately. With the bananas nicely caramelized and the fluffy pastry housing a smooth banana cream, the show stealer of the dish was indeed the gelato – a smooth boozy and buttery bite that worked nicely alone but better when mixed with the banana’s. Served with a smoldering cinnamon stick I had to chuckle when our server suggested that part was not edible – I was told the same at Alinea...and both times took it as evidence that someone must have once tried.

My dessert, interestingly (given the fact that I’d experience 5 other tastings of chocolate during this visit to the DC area) was a Tasting of Amano Chocolate with Pumpkin Seed Oil and Sea Salt. Featuring creamy and rich vanilla bean ice cream drizzled with caramel atop a profoundly rich smear of dark chocolate, a ribbon of citrus accented ganache, and a meltingly smooth yet bitter lava cake balanced out by coarse sea salt I found the dish to be good, though given Amano’s diverse collection I’d have personally liked to see more variations of chocolate than the seemingly unrelated ice cream.

Having written ahead to tell them we’d be celebrating my mother’s birthday in addition to the previously mentioned accomplishments we were next delivered what has become a signature dish of the Eve Bistro menu – the Birthday Cake. Expensive at $12 the cake was wonderful with a poundcake textured interior and rich buttercream frosting – as a larger version of the recipe has been published in that past by the Washington Post ( I do wonder if they used Kerrygold butter in the dish or if a “lesser butter” would produce a dish equally rich - if the later this could become a go-to standard cake recipe for myself.

Sipping my coffee, a rich (again housemade) blend, we were finally brought the check…along with a two-tiered platter of mignardises and some take home gifts. For the gifts, a unique concept – do-it-yourself at home to remember this night scone mix, kerrygold butter, and 2oz of whole bean coffee…the very blend I was sipping. Copies of the night’s menu were also provided and (as noted above) a copy of the spontaneous menu was mailed my way arriving at my home before I returned from DC. The mignardise plate - Almond Rochers, Strawberry Marshmellows, Chocolate Tartes, Buttercrisp Shortbreads – all quite tasty, particularly the Rochers.

Making our way to the door we had a glimpse of the small kitchen – almost too small to imagine so much great food coming from, especially with all the home curing, brewing, pressing, and roasting. Bid farewell by our primary server and the hostess we made our way to the street with our scones and butter in hand to find the world of old town Alexandria buttoned up tight and quiet – like Washington, VA the place seemed miles away from the metropolis of DC. Looking back on the meal I have to say it was a wonderful experience – the food Armstrong is putting out of that kitchen being some of the balanced and “unfussy” I’ve had at a restaurant of that caliber and his sourcing, business model, and dedication to a vision beyond reproach.


Anonymous said...

Sounds spectacular-- but by the end of reading, I was stuffed. and I am not a small man. Wasn't it to much food, given how rich some of the courses were?

uhockey said...

I'd have kept eating if they kept serving. :-)