I WANT to love Vermilion, I really do. I like it, and I've been pleased to see it make steady progress in the vanguard of what might be called the upscaling of King Street, the "new Old Town" Alexandria. And it has so much going for it that it really deserved a revisit. It's just that with Vermilion, it's sometimes a case of three steps forward, one step back. It's too almost good to be only good. Call it tough love.
And at that, it's pretty good. For one thing, it's part of an extended family of restaurants that includes the Evening Star and Tallulah, a group that not only thinks hard about what makes for a pleasurable night out but cares enough to work at it.
Vermilion has an intelligent and wide-ranging but approachable wine list, especially by the glass; and it has a smart and proficient bar staff that doesn't cut corners or skimp on the elbow grease muddling mint and sugar for the mojitos. The lounge area is one of those "duplexes" that morphs, with remarkable ease and in only a couple of yards, from classic heavy oak bar to minimalist-chic sofa chat room. It's justifiably popular, a real conversation nook, and the happy-hour nibbles, including a crab cigar and a baby bison cheeseburger (by which is meant a baby-size burger, not a calf's calf), are just the right size for a coffee table.
Vermilion used to have a sort of open-door policy -- it didn't take reservations except on holidays and for Sunday brunch -- that proved both hospitable and efficient: Customers felt comfortable coming in to eat early or late or to have a cocktail and then ask for a table as it suited the day's appetite. From the kitchen's end, having a more or less continuous flow of orders rather than spikes of parties who arrived every half-hour made the kitchen's life easier and service faster. The policy has been modified somewhat, and the restaurant takes reservations through an online service, but management limits reservations to around half-capacity, so the walk-ins are still accommodated.
The building actually has an architectural open-door policy, too, in that extraneous walls have been removed, the old bricks and much of the framing is exposed, the staircase rises graciously in the middle and the restrained use of swags and draping, all in the eponymous crimson, do not obscure the bones of the structure.
The kitchen, now under chef Bobby Beard, formerly of Pesce and Citronelle, is increasingly smart as well; it's just not consistent enough. It sends out some dishes that sing, many that carry a tune and a couple that grate.
At the top of the list is the scallop ceviche, a beautifully plated circle of scallops just barely stiffened in a coconut milk bath with chili, lime and a bracing note of grapefruit, and set off by sweet golden beets. Beard would get a gold star simply for abandoning the current craze for crudely chopped, over-salted and toughened seafood in a damned inconvenient martini glass, but as it happens, it's a superb bit of shellfish.
Just as fine, as turf to the surf, is the grilled bison hanger steak, an appetizer that ought to be an entree just to get its due respect. It is cooked to order, seared but not embittered on the outside and served with a sundried tomato salad and balsamic reduction. Being bison, it has the lean, unapologetic flavor of the real onglet, not the fatty American imitation, and has a natural affinity for the sweet-dark vinegar and tomatoes.
Little crunchy-fried cakes of fontina risotto are also meticulously cooked, both inside and out, and again not over-salted; the spicy tomato coulis adds a nice bite, though something smokier, such as roasted peppers, might add depth. Tuna tartare is half-traditional, with wasabi tobiko and pickled ginger, but the tang of red beets and grapefruit nicely cuts the tinge of oiliness.
The news is not quite so good on the entree side of the menu. Roast chicken, that bete (or poulet) noire of so many kitchens, is cooked carefully enough but falls oddly flat; it lacks distinction. The cornmeal-crusted trout with lemon-caper vinaigrette and roast halibut with gnocchi and beets are reliably good bets -- they and the ceviche are worthy testaments to Beard's seafood-savvy resume -- but at least one night the crab cakes were no better than cafeteria quality: flabby, stringy, bready and boring, and completely overshadowed by the chorizo. (And where was the promised okra?)
Another night, a special, a sort of pasta ya-ya of linguini with grilled shrimp, chorizo, cherry tomatoes and fresh leaf basil, was a pleasant portion, with a delicate garlic cream and balanced seasonings, and carefully grilled shrimp and sausage. But it was presented with all the basil, which was an essential flavor element, still on the stem, so that the customers had to tear it apart and mix it in themselves (without the tossing room of a kitchen bowl). That's one of those details that suggests the chef has been tasting the dish in process, but not actually sitting down to it in the same format as the guest. A little sprig on top should be the introduction, not the ingredient.
That's a niggle, of course, but a more serious lapse of attention marred the grilled ribeye -- a generous piece, although broad rather than thick, which rather alters the intrinsic texture and flavor of that rich cut. But it was cooked, plated and delivered untrimmed, with two great gobbets of fat at either end that, disguised by what would otherwise have been a particularly pleasant veal sauce and fine fresh shiitakes, abruptly turned the palate. (This is not by any means a carelessness restricted to Vermilion, believe me.)
None of these, except the crab cakes, is cause for major angst. I'd like to think we can rise above our differences. Maybe we're not in love, but I'd like to keep hanging around. And who knows? Maybe next time . . . .