2011 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Among the virtues at Virtue are intriguing cocktails made with beer, leg of lamb served in thick slices with fingerling potatoes and olives, and a rustic design that incorporates reclaimed wood and leather with (woo-hoo!) porch swings and arcade games. The source of all this pleasure is the gang that owns the upscale Restaurant Eve nearby, including chef Cathal Armstrong, who gathered some of his favorite American and Irish dishes for this casual concept set in a former feed store. There are Buffalo wings and raw oysters to open, (excellent) duck confit, and rockfish on a bed of mashed potatoes and kale to move on to, and a chocolate cake so rich you don't dare go beyond a few bites (but somehow always do). Setting the two-story watering hole further apart from the Old Town pack is a section on the menu devoted to "The Weird Stuff": kidneys with red wine, a salad of beef tongue, and a crisp block of brined, braised pig's feet that's rich, funky and irresistible to offal fans such as myself. Show up for brunch the first Sunday of the month in your PJs, and Virtue rewards you with a 10 percent discount on your tab.
Where simplicity becomes a virtue
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011
Virtue Feed & Grain was crafted by the folks known for collecting stars at Restaurant Eve, but don't mistake their new place with the oasis of fine dining in Alexandria. "We are a modern American tavern that serves ... pub grub, nothin' fussy," reads the fine print on Virtue's menu. "Just simple, but made with quality."
Diners, you've been warned.
And also indulged.
Virtue Feed & Grain, which incorporates the site's long-ago role as part of its name, is a restaurant perfectly suited for the times. Entrees average $18, and they're strapping. If one of you wants a chili cheese dog and one of you desires scallops on risotto, Virtue can grant both wishes. Expansive in terms of both size (two floors, 300 seats) and personality (arcade games and a pool table upstairs!), this fourth venture from chef Cathal Armstrong and his EatGoodFood Group cures just about anything that ails you.
Off the bat, observant chowhounds will notice two trends: no bread basket, and drinks based on beer. Bread I can do without; more room for the house-roasted peanuts. And this indifferent beer drinker has learned to like those libations; "hoptails" created by ace mixologist and co-owner Todd Thrasher tastefully weave suds and spirits. Summer surfaces in the lightly foamy "peach fizz" fueled in part with rye whiskey, a Belgian lambic and peach bitters; Christmas comes early in the swirl of tequila, cognac, burnt cinnamon, orange peel and hard cider.
Virtue gathers dishes that Armstrong is fond of, foods he was raised on in his native Ireland or grew to love in his adopted America. So, there are prawn cocktails and tangy chicken wings with house-made blue cheese dressing among the "Morsels & Tidbits," and a ham and cheese "toastie" alongside the Cuban sandwich on the menu. (For my taste, there aren't enough vegetables in the mix. I'd gladly sacrifice some deviled eggs or garlic mushrooms for something greener and leaner.) Shaggers Pie turns out to be a shepherd's pie, a ripple of mashed potatoes paving a stew of lamb and carrots. The cover, tinted gold from the broiler, is more fun to eat than the blah center.
Superior in every way is the seared rockfish bedded on creamy mashed potatoes skeined with kale, a vegetable combination the Irish know as colcannan. Come Halloween, Armstrong plans to slip foil-wrapped coins into the side dish, just as they do across the pond, for luck.
Virtue makes a memorable duck confit, and well it should. Armstrong, after all, was the chef at Bistro Bis for four years before opening Eve in 2004. Ryan Wheeler, the lead chef at Virtue, pairs the succulent, subtly sweet fowl with sliced potato and onions cooked to a gentle brown. Old Town, meet Paris.
Is Le Creuset paying for product placement? The enamel cookware makes an impressive lodge for some of my favorite entrees, among them the garlicky roast chicken with its pile of fat chips that only get better as they absorb the bird's juices. Carving it feels like Thanksgiving duty. Leg of lamb gets the designer treatment, too. Thick, pink slices of roasted meat huddled with fingerling potatoes, soft pearl onions and bits of green olive is a dream of an Irish Sunday supper.
The newcomer, whose siblings include the nearby Eamonn's, Majestic and the speakeasy PX, also takes some risks. "The Weird Stuff" on the menu - tongue, liver, kidneys - will stand out as an anatomy class for some, nirvana for offal eaters such as myself. Shaved beef tongue, its flavor reminiscent of cool roast beef, hugs the plate it's served on; a heap of biting greens on top makes a flossy contrast. Richer, and funkier, is a nubby golden cake of brined, braised pig feet, billed as crubeens. Pierce the scrapple, and you get a rush of hot pork and vegetable juices and tender meat. The grainy mustard alongside keeps the fatty flavors in check.
"Today's Noteworthy Items" is a sheet of daily specials that take the calendar into consideration and sometimes live up to the hype. One day's tamales practically required a microscope to spot barely-there filling. But another visit found us scraping the bottom of a tiny black skillet of warm, crumb-covered baba ganouj shot through with lemon.
Dressed with reclaimed railroad wood and other material, the ground floor is pleasant and provides a peek into the kitchen. But once you see the loftlike second level, that's where you'll want to stay, either in a leather-padded booth with a glimpse of the harbor or in one of the two porch swings facing north. If you're among a gaggle of diners, the pale denim couches in the middle or the tall tables toward the rear make nice destinations. The same bar that dispenses 70 brews and tilts its overhead mirrors so patrons can see behind their backs displays multiple flat-screen TVs. Boo! We get enough news in our restaurants in Washington, thanks.
Even so, every hour feels like happy hour at Virtue.
In the midst of the space, displayed beneath a rustic skylight, is a pair of old-looking wings fashioned from resin. Co-owner Meshelle Armstrong, Cathal's mate, says the design represents "a little bit of goodness" - and helps put some virtue in Virtue.