Thu 12 Feb 2009
As I mentioned on Tuesday, Robert Weidmaier’s Brabo opens tonight at the Hotel Lorien on King Street in Alexandria and the main restaurant is accompanied by a Tasting Room that will offer a more casual dining experience.
Despite a shared name, the Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve takes diners in a completely different direction. The centerpiece of Cathal Armstrong’s growing Alexandria empire, Eve’s Tasting Room received the highest ranking for any restaurant outside the District in this year’s Washingtonian Top 100 Restaurants. Judging by our fellow patrons (an anniversary, two birthdays, and even a proposal), this is a site for special occasions. They know it, too: when you make your reservation, they ask if you’re celebrating anything.
Back in December, Elizabeth and I were celebrating something (her birthday), so we headed into Old Town to finally give Restaurant Eve a try. We had saved the best for last when it came to Armstrong properties, having already eaten at the Majestic and Eamonn’s and enjoying hand-crafted cocktails at PX on more than a few occasions. That night we were ready to go the Full Cathal with five courses and wine pairings in the Tasting Room.
Highlights (and there were plenty) after the jump.
When you first enter the Restaurant Eve website, you’re greeted with a question: “Are you in the mood for a gastronomic epiphany?” It’s a bold suggestion, and one that I kept in the back of my mind throughout our dinner (remember: big nerd here).
We intentionally arrived about 20 minutes early for our reservation, planning to start the evening with a cocktail in the lounge at the front of Restaurant Eve. There was a time when the lounge was a hidden gem – a place where you could enjoy one of Todd Thrasher’s creative cocktails and a tasty bite to eat without committing to the full Eve experience. That’s all still true – except for the ‘hidden gem’ part. These days, the lounge is almost always packed. We found a little corner we could occupy and ordered our drinks. As good as they were, the crowd kept us from lingering, and we were soon back at the hostess stand waiting for our table.
And that’s where the vaunted “Restaurant Eve” atmosphere first enveloped us. The hallway where we waited was calm and inviting, with a view of the wine collection straight ahead and a glimpse into the bustle of the kitchen further down. It wasn’t long before we were escorted back to the Tasting Room by a hostess who addressed us by name and handed us personalized menus when we sat down.
The Tasting Room’s decor speaks of someone with a passion for design. Paintings on the walls look like stylized versions of the drawings that adorn the back cover of Cook’s Illustrated. A long wooden table in the middle of the room that serves as a staging area for servers and sommelier alike sits below a stylish wrought-iron chandelier whose lights are in the shape of the restaurant’s signature leaf. A brick fireplace adds a homey touch of warmth.
Dining in the Tasting Room (as opposed to the “more casual and easier to score a seat in without a months’ notice” Bistro) is geared around 5 courses or more, and the menu is divided accordingly. The first course is called “Creation,” and the frequently-changing menu offers a selection of appetizers ranging from the familiar to the truly unique. Some of Armstrong’s most creative touches can be found in these smaller plates, where the details really make the difference. From there, the meal progresses to “Ocean,” where you will find a variety of seafood and shellfish dishes (as you may have guessed). Third courses from the “Earth & Sky” are entrees, though their manageable portion sizes prevent them from turning a multi-course sensory experience into a gluttonous ordeal. The fourth course, “Age,” is a classic cheese course, though each diner is served a single cheese with appropriate accompaniments instead of a more traditional cheese plate arrangement. And finally you arrive in “Eden” – dessert, of course!
Although you’re able to make your own selections and craft a menu to your personal taste, the true Eve experience comes from putting yourself in Chef Armstrong’s hands with the “Chef’s Degustation Menu.” You choose how many courses you’d like – 5, 7, or 9 – and then the kitchen takes care of the rest. Why go this route? The best reason I can think of is that the chef knows what is best on any given night – and at a restaurant of this caliber, you can bet he’s going to send it out as his personal selection. It’s also a great way to open yourself up to new tastes that you might not have otherwise selected.
No two meals are going to be the same at Eve, but there were definitely some standout dishes among the chef’s selections when we were there. The trio of amuses bouche that began the meal were bite-sized riffs on comfort food: a tiny quail egg, a goat cheese mousse with diced beets atop a garlic crisp and a fritter of ham and cheese that dissolved in our mouths. The “O-O-O” appetizer, which combines Onions and Oysters in a puff pastry and tops it with a daub of Osetra caviar, was an absolute standout. From the “Ocean,” Elizabeth and I agreeed that the crispy filet of skate wing was simply the best skate we had ever tasted. “Earth & Sky” were both represented well – Elizabeth enjoyed a quail breast and leg confit served with a foie gras jus, and someone in the kitchen must have guessed at my love of pork because I was served the kurobota pork belly which came with shredded cabbage and “sawasawan” (a selection of four dipping sauces that included sambal, rice wine, soy and Thai chili). “Eden” lived up to its name with a “pain perdu,” a rich French toast-like dessert served with caramelized bananas and a maple cream. With the amuses, a palate cleanser, and a small plate of after-dessert sweets, our five courses were really more like seven or eight (and that’s not even counting the house-made bread basket, which we loved).
If you’re already celebrating, chances are you’re going to want an adult beverage to accompany that meal, right? Eve’s definitely got that covered, as well. Managing Partner and Sommelier (and bad-ass mixologist) Todd Thrasher offers up a wine pairing to complement your meal, providing suggestions if you’re picking from the menu. On the Chef’s Degustation, he consults with the kitchen ahead of time so he’s got just the right varietals ready at just the right time.
Service is as attentive as possible without becoming intrusive. Your silverware is always pre-set for the next course, and water glasses rarely fall below the halfway point before a refill is offered. Timing and communication are polished – everything flows smoothly. And the servers, like the hosts, are prepped in advance about guests’ names and special events. The first time you meet any of them, you’re likely to be greeted with a “Happy birthday!” or a “Congratulations!”
Though reservations for Valentine’s Day are long-gone, Eve is definitely a restaurant to keep in mind for your next big romantic dinner. The luxe atmosphere and culinary skill make for an unforgettable evening. But don’t just take our word for it.
The proposal we witnessed while in the Tasting Room? She said yes.