A festive spirit at Society Fair
Old Town chef whips up yet another culinary adventure
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 15, 2012
There are almost as many approaches to Society Fair, the nearly $2 million epicurean adventure in Alexandria from chef Cathal Armstrong, as there are nearby restaurants of his that have helped solidify Old Town as a dining destination.
For the discerning shopper and the mindful cook, the new sibling to the four-star Restaurant Eve and three other eateries is a more neighborly Dean & DeLuca, its shelves and cases lined with goodies -- milk from Trickling Springs Creamery, fruit vinegars from France, house-cured anchovies -- the chef uses in his kitchens. The packaged wares at Society Fair, including some made in-house (granola, sauerkraut), are rounded out by a butcher shop and a bakery stop, headed respectively by longtime Armstrong associates Dan Fisher and Nathan Hatfield.
Those of us who simply like to eat can grab a tall table in the market or in the adjoining wine bar for a sit-down spread.
That wine bar is where this paid mouth has spent the bulk of his time at the 7,000-square-foot Society Fair, which takes its name from the Royal Dublin Society, the acclaimed food hall in Armstrong's native Ireland, as well as the festive air the six owners, including drinks master Todd Thrasher, aimed to whip up on an otherwise vanilla strip of Old Town.
Since it opened in January, the wine bar has been the source of some distinguished sandwiches throughout the day and some delicious entertainment in the evening. Trey Massey, an alumnus of Restaurant Eve, is the chef responsible for both the concise standing menu and the five-nights-a-week cooking demonstration in which 10 or so participants watch the 29-year-old whip up a three-course dinner that they eat as he moves from starter to entree to dessert.
Reminders that Armstrong, and not Panera or Potbelly, is behind the concept pop up everywhere.
The sleek water glass feels like Riedel in the hand. Potato chips are not casually piled on the plate, but proffered in a wicker basket, from which diners choose from among nearly 20 different flavors. And the sandwiches, made to order on house-baked breads, generally impress. I'm most smitten by the vegetarian "TNT," partly because meatless so often translates into a snooze. Slather some smooth ricotta on a crackling baguette, dress it up with slightly crisp kale and fennel and you've got yourself some dynamite (and, frankly, a mess when the filling oozes out). Shaved lamb, sauteed spinach and lemony yogurt lend a nice Turkish accent to another sandwich, this one served on thick pita. Thanksgiving in spring? Shaved turkey from a real roasted bird tucked between toasted pullman bread is a welcome holiday. The lone disappointment among the sandwiches involves beef short ribs, ordinary and sloppy to eat. Like all the sandwiches, however, it's improved with a ramekin of pickled vegetables served alongside.
Man does not live on bread (and filling) alone. So there are snacks, soups and sweets to serve as bookends. One of them, tomato soup, shows up on a thin slab of slate, the color of a sunset and bold with garlic. Slices of crisp baguette make fine dunkers. There might also be boudin blanc - thank you, butcher Fisher! - poised on feathery mushrooms and sweet sauteed onions with soft garlic cloves providing punctuation. The sausage, its richness countered with frisee and chicory, cuts like custard. The $12 "bake sale" calls to commitment phobes with some of this and some of that from the bakery. Was I too full to appreciate the collection? Its rich slab of chocolate cake makes the sweetest impression.
I like the whimsical wine bar best at night, with the lights lower and more reason to sip into the wine-laced cocktails Thrasher created for the space. Two standouts are Whiskey and Wine, which is just that plus all sorts of warm spices and orange peel, and I Want to Eat an Onion Tart, an homage to Alsace and far better than it sounds. The recipe: Riesling, white vermouth, white rum, julienne white onions and (ta-da!) a bacon cracker to ride on the rim. Overseeing the wine list is sommelier John Wabeck, sober in person but crackling in print. (Of the 2010 Tangent pinot gris from California, he writes, "nectarine/ginger/spice/tropical fruits/someone wrote 'pine resin' on the internets.")
After listening to Wabeck pontificate, it's easy to drink up his recommendation and splurge on a $75 bottle of 2009 Soter pinot noir - and to turn the intended glass-of-wine-and-a-bite-to-eat into a budget-buster. That said, Society Fair's agreeable pricing formula for wines by the bottle encourages you to order them: It's the retail cost plus $15.
The standing menu is an easy pleasure. In contrast, the demonstration kitchen lets the chef strut his stuff, show off his range. To participate in the latter, diners reserve via e-mail for the five featured themes: ethnic (Tuesday), chef's choice (Wednesday), comfort (Thursday), fish (Friday) and luxe (Saturday).
By chance, I snared a seat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen at the end of the week, which meant a few hours of edification in roasting lobster, butchering duck and making a chocolate-caramel confection that Martha Stewart might deem cover model quality and that Massey dubs his "apology dessert." Equipped with a tiny microphone, a sly sense of humor and deft knife skills, Massey makes an engaging host.
On the way to a very good meal, my group was fed countless tips. Kerrygold butter from Ireland is "the best butter in the world." Without sufficient firepower (gas lines), a fancy stove is "like driving a Ferrari in Old Town." The best chefs clean as they move from task to task, and one of Massey's refrigerator secrets is "white sauce," an all-purpose condiment whipped up from garlic, egg whites, lemon juice and grapeseed oil. Wine pairings cost an extra $30; considering the generous pours of quality juice Wabeck featured on my visit, including a 2008 Domaine Raspail-Ay Gigondas that hints of licorice and enjoys an elegant finish, you'd be a fool not to indulge. The chef's performance, accompanied by occasional questions from his audience, made me wistful for the days I used to cook - and determined to reacquaint myself with my own stove.
"Devoted to food" reads one of the menus at Society Fair. Committed to fun, I might add.