ONE WOULD expect real passion from a place called Vermilion -- roses, rich wines, scarlet women (well . . .). And it is a warmhearted place, attractive and hospitable. Fun. A safe bet. But as yet, it's still a little bit too good-guy-next-door to sweep you off your feet.
Vermilion is a neighborly addition to Old Town Alexandria West, in one of those striking townhouses that do exposed brick so well, and in the same block as the venerable Le Gaulois. Its budget-friendly lunch is a swaggering assortment of sandwiches varied enough to invite return business. It's even "family" -- sibling to Alexandria's popular Evening Star Cafe and to the forthcoming Tallulah in the old Whitey's space.
Decor-wise, vermilion is the least of it: The restaurant is positively sanguine, brick, saffron thread, henna, magenta, crimson and bronze. (In fact, what it may not have is much true scarlet, except in the red lights above the settees and overstuffs in the lounge, which is the closest thing Vermilion gets to sexy innuendo.)
Chef Blake Ledbetter spent time in the Majestic Cafe kitchen under Susan McCreight Lindeborg, and he has retained an affinity for Lindeborg's traditional but structurally focused southern fare: The grilled pork tenderloin with sweet potato fries, grilled apple and bourbon "demi-glaze" and the "smothering" of haricots verts with tasso gravy -- i.e., green beans with ham gravy -- are right out of the upscale-retro cookbook.
But hearty doesn't seem to be Ledbetter's natural inclination. The bourbon reduction is overly cautious. Duck breast, although well trimmed and carefully cooked, has yet to bond convincingly with its sides, most recently an unshapely stir-fry with an overly sweet mandarin orange sauce. Rib-eye marinated in cilantro and lime, served with black beans, chipotle aioli and shrimp relish, is a nice concept, as the acid helps offset the fatty beef, but the starchy beans and the oily aioli fight right back, and the shrimp is too clever. Sesame-crusted tuna with fried rice noodles, bok choy, seaweed salad and wasabi cream is okay, but it's a predictable dish, and in need -- all around town, not just here -- of a new take.
The pan-seared scallops are nicely crusted and still soft inside but also a little underseasoned, and the red pepper coulis drizzled on the plate didn't add enough. The Parmesan-potato croquette, on the other hand, was first-rate, and being, like the scallops, crisp without and soft within, a clever twinning concept.
What Ledbetter's best dishes do seem to suggest is a real affection for the pure ingredient and a desire to let it out on its own; one can almost feel his physical pleasure in prepping and cooking. (It may be this fondness for the integrity of the food that leads him to send it out too undressed sometimes, or, like the endive that sides the filet, too lightly grilled, as if to protect its looks at the expense of potentially better flavor.)
The spinach-and-feta-stuffed rack of lamb, though straightforward, is a fine example of the less-is-more school, with just enough feta to season the greens without competing with the meat flavor; the layer of sun-dried tomatoes in the potato gratin served the same purpose, brightening the dish without dominating it. The veal reduction was lightly viscous, a textural element that mimicked the slickness of the rest of the presentation, and the ribs were thoroughly trimmed and frenched.
Even the seafood pasta diabolo, despite its ornate description ("angel hair pasta, shrimp, mussels, pancetta, black olives, diced tomatoes, red pepper flakes and fresh basil with white wine sauce"), is a pleasantly insinuating and moderately sized version of an often heavy and ham-handed dish.
Vermilion takes its bar crowd seriously, and the appetizers which are viewed as drinking nibbles, can be substantial. The "shredded pork sliders with chipotle barbecue sauce" are four mid-size bunsful of tender and tasty barbecue, plus a little pile of greens, for a mere $7, though the sauce didn't offer nearly enough kick. Mini-risotto cakes with fontina and spicy tomato sauce are excellent, and like the other patties on the menu, handily crisped. So are the crab cakes, another instance in which Ledbetter's disinclination to fool with nature is a virtue. House fries with horseradish sauce are long and lean and come in a Brussels-style paper cone. Mini-kebabs of filet and shrimp are three for $7; the large-cap portobello with mozzarella and pesto is unoriginal but good. The least successful nibbly is the crispy shrimp spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce. The rolls are crisp enough, and halved longwise, a pretty conceit; but the stuffing is almost entirely red cabbage, the few tiny shrimp make no impression and the dip is weirdly grainy.
Still, Vermilion is settling in nicely, and it will be fun to watch its talents jell. After all, it already has personality; if it's not yet a hot date, it's a fine place to hang with.