** (2 stars) Del Merei Grille
3106 Mount Vernon Ave. (near Commonwealth Avenue), Alexandria. 703-739-4335 www.delmereigrille.com
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Separate smoking area. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $4 to $10; lunch entrees
$7 to $19; dinner entrees $12 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
The petite blonde greeting guests at the door of Del Merei Grille seems to know every other arrival by name, while the stocky young chef feels comfortable enough to leave the kitchen after a dinner rush to slide into a booth and chat up what appear to be friends. Without knowing any of the players at this four-month-old restaurant in Alexandria, even strangers get the sense that it isn't just another place to grab a bite to eat in the neighborhood.
"We like to keep it real family around here," says the chef, Eric Reid.
No kidding. He and his main business partner -- that would be Mary Abraham, the general manager -- have known each other since elementary school and have long wanted to open a restaurant together. Two of the hostesses are Abraham's twin cousins, one of the busboys is her brother, and Reid's sister doubles as a server and manager. The site itself was once known as the Calvert Grille, which Abraham's aunt and uncle ran for a decade, until 1998 -- and where Abraham worked as a hostess.
Reid, who was a sous-chef at the Evening Star Cafe nearby in Del Ray, pays tribute to still more relatives with "Zadie's" hot dogs and other items on his menu. And the restaurant's name is a rough hybrid of the two principals' names, with Merei pronounced like Mary.
The menu is a little bit country and a little bit rock-and-roll, at once old-fashioned and up to date. If I need some cheering up, a heaping plate of lightly battered butter pickles, or "frickles," served with cool remoulade is where I might head. They're hot, crunchy, salty and "best with beer," as a waiter pointed out to me. In the same vein are a pinkish scoop of horseradish-spiked beer cheese dip dusted with cayenne and circled in crackers, and another thick dip, slightly fancier, with artichokes, crab and bacon and meant to be spread on a baguette.
The appetizers don't all hark back to "Happy Days," though. There are grill-singed shrimp with a small teepee of shoestring fries and a zesty cocktail sauce, and spinach salad enhanced by creamy avocado and toasted pine nuts as well as a basil-bright dressing. The kitchen should lose that salad's Parmesan cheese, however, which tastes like a pallid version of the real deal.
There's one item on the lunch menu, the hot dogs, that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has eaten one at the Vienna Inn, one of the Washington area's most beloved pubs -- and owned for years by Abraham's late grandfather, Mike "Zadie" Abraham. Draped in finely ground beef chili, whose seasoning includes (surprise!) coffee grounds, a pair of hot dogs arrives with the perfect sidekick: tater tots.
And so it goes with the entrees, where a diner can opt for a messy and nostalgia-inducing sloppy joe -- or a thick cut of salmon topped with tomato-onion chutney and supported on a thin raft of grilled asparagus. That salmon is worthy of a high-end restaurant, and is further dressed up with a light and lacy corn pancake. "Free range tarragon roasted" half-chicken, though, reads better on paper than it tastes. The chicken is overcooked, but it gets a nice boost from some garlicky spinach and a tomato-laced risotto cake. There's plenty to like about the chef's braised beef ribs -- the meat falls easily from the bone, and it comes with a pleasantly sweet barbecue sauce -- flanked by cheesy mashed potatoes and tangy collard greens. Reid is a generous cook, doling out portions as if he were feeding hungry teenagers.
Ray's the Steaks blazed a trail when it opened in Arlington and began serving good cuts of meat for about half the cost of a proper steak dinner in the city. Del Merei Grille continues that happy trend, with a roster of steaks that are offered with a choice of two side dishes and an optional sauce. Of the seven meats, I'm partial to the bison strip steak, deep red in color and offering some nice chew, and the lean but flavorful flank steak. Good meat doesn't need any enhancement, but duty required me to test out "something saucy," as the menu puts it, and I can vouch for the rich bearnaise and jazzy mustard-and-horseradish cream.
Most of the side dishes look to the South. Green beans are cooked so they're soft, and nicely smoky with bacon. Macaroni and cheese manages to be lightly crunchy outside and creamy in its center. The chef honors his late mother, a Virginia native, with "Martinsville" summer squash, cooked per her recipe with white wine, sauteed onions and black pepper. French fries come to the table limp, and "dirty dirty" rice turns out to be pretty tame, with little of that Cajun staple's typical spark. Otherwise, the accompaniments are nice nods to home cooking.
With a few small changes, Del Merei Grille could be an even better restaurant. The young servers are likable, and they seem to know the menu, but I'd like it better if they checked in more often. As for the cooks, they need to use the salt shaker less often -- and rethink the recipe for pumpkin bread pudding, which tastes like a wet loaf of plain bread. (Far superior: fruit pies baked in-house.) Red wine served too warm continues to be a problem at too many restaurants, including this one, which otherwise offers good value, better-than-average labels and fine stemware.
Squeezed into a modest shopping strip, Del Merei Grille doesn't look like much from the street. And the small dining room, which adjoins a more handsome bar, relies mostly on red and gold paint for flair. If given the choice, however, most of us would probably forgo style for steak, fashion for frickles -- and a front-row seat on a family reunion.
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Few things irk customers more than when they write to a restaurant about a problem and fail to hear back. Bethesda reader Buck Shinkman says it's happened to him a couple
of times now, most recently with a popular eating establishment. "I've had a complaint," he writes in an e-mail, "gone to the trouble of unearthing the name and address of the relevant executive, written them a clear, polite description of their problem, and -- get no response." To find out how a busy operation handles gripes, I turned to a party not involved in Shinkman's disputes, restaurateur Gus DeMillo, a co-owner of Ceiba, DC Coast and Ten Penh. The policy at all three of his restaurants, he says, is to acknowledge a problem with a phone call within 24 hours, and let the complainant know the situation will be investigated. Diners who don't hear from restaurants within four or so days, he says, should follow up with a phone call. DeMillo points out that many restaurant problems -- an overcooked dish, an undesirable table -- are "easily fixed if we're made aware of them" in real time. The bottom line, he says: "Let us know the moment" something is not right.
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