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Vermilion is back in Alexandria, with a new chef and captivating menu

Scallop crudo at Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

The mere mention of some restaurants prompts me to smack my lips and jump in the car.

Et Voilà! in the Palisades? My whole family considers it a favorite.

Hitching Post in Petworth? The fried whiting has my name on it.

Regular readers might expect Buck’s Fishing & Camping, home to the city’s most inviting communal table and one of my favorite servers anywhere. I love the idea of the place more than the reality these days, but only because the menu seems never to change and fans crave some variety. (I swear, even three new dishes would draw me back.)

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Which brings me to Vermilion, the crown jewel of the Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Before it went dark in 2020, the two-story restaurant in the heart of Old Town Alexandria always grabbed my attention, thanks to a parade of talented chefs (think Tom Cardarelli and Tony Chittum) over its nearly 20 years. While the place showed its age on my last pre-pandemic visit, the creative food made up for the wear and tear.

So, hallelujah! Vermilion reopened in July, with a fresh coat of paint and a new chef, Ben Pflaumer, 33 this month. The only thing that kept me from racing over on opening night was the fact I was out of town on assignment. I booked a reservation for the day I returned; following a few dinners, I’m pleased to report that the old show cleans up pretty well and tastes as good as it ever has.

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Pflaumer, most recently the culinary director of Creative Food Group, has me at “snacks,” a few of which are bites of typically large dishes. Instead of crab cakes, he sends out crab croquettes, bound with unsweetened doughnut batter, pumped with air for fluffiness and affixed to their plate with mustard sauce. Similarly, fried chicken is reduced — just in size — to juicy nuggets that stay in place with the help of dabs of dill-flecked yogurt. Anchovy toast is one of those hors d’oeuvres I intend to serve at my next dinner party, because whose mouth wouldn’t water at the sight of Sicilian anchovies, subtly sour stracciatella cheese and minty salsa verde on an oval of crisp bread?

I’m the kind of oyster eater who doesn’t bother with anything more than a squeeze of lemon, and then only when the oysters need some lift. But I have to admit, fennel granita makes a nice topper for Vermilion’s Stormy Bay oysters. If only the oysters were shucked so they didn’t cling to their shells, making for a messy tug of war at the onset of dinner.

Just looking at some dishes cools you down. The chef’s scallop crudo — ivory slices of sweet seafood decorated with bright green snow peas, charred for a hint of smokiness — helps you forget the swamp that is Washington in August. The starter’s umami comes courtesy of the clear snow pea broth, zapped with cured seaweed. Equally revivifying is the cucumber velouté. Look, Ma, no cream! The chef uses yogurt as a base for the garlic-fueled soup, which shares its bowl with a green tomato salad.

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Pflaumer is a good shopper, buying dry-aged rib-eye from Roseda Farm in Maryland for his excellent beef carpaccio, which he cuts to bacon-slice thickness and gently warms for about the time it takes to read this sentence. The thin fringe of fat around the borders melts in the mouth, a sensation balanced with celery, watercress and a dusting of horseradish atop the sliced beef. Live dangerously and pair the carpaccio with potato pave, a little terrine of sliced potatoes, capers and feta cheese that elevates the idea of meat and potatoes.

The chef’s résumé checks off a number of Italian dining destinations, including the chic Masseria in Washington and the acclaimed Vetri in Philadelphia, where as a line cook Pflaumer learned how to break down a baby goat in 4½ minutes. “I’m a little more careful with my hands these days,” jokes the chef, who takes an Old World approach to his slow-roasted herbed goat at Vermilion.

Pflaumer’s pastas are wonderful. The risotto uses locally produced brown Arborio rice, which the chef flavors with smoked candy onions and minced black truffles. To retain the fragrance, the dish is presented from beneath a cloche at the table, a nice little ta-da moment. Pflaumer’s sunny yellow ravioli stuffed with braised pork is as worthy of the ceremony but comes on a plate with a wash of brown butter and fresh sage. (En route to Vermilion, Pflaumer stops at sister restaurant Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, which sports an herb garden on its roof — also the source of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.) The entree, whose sauce catches in the dimples of the pasta, is music to the ears of fans of fried pig ears, bits of which punctuate the dish and provide an amusing soundtrack.

Do the servers need to circle back seemingly every other bite to ask how we like the food? They do not. The enthusiasm with which some of us make short work of most plates, including the poached rockfish paired with steamed mussels and snappy Romano beans, should be signal enough. The only reminder of a saffron sauce was a lick of gold in the bowl.

Mushrooms tend to be a lot of restaurants’ default vegetarian option. Vermilion subscribes to the idea with oyster mushrooms, sauteed to a light crunch in brown butter. But the fleshy centerpiece departs familiar territory with the addition of juicy peaches and tender black soybeans — they work, deliciously, from beneath the earthy mushroom — in a creamy beurre blanc spiked with sherry.

Blueberry strudel? Say yes to the flaky pastry, sized like a Pop-Tart and draped with frothy sabayon. Kellogg’s can only dream. On the other hand, the one time I tried the milk chocolate mousse, it was sunk by a shower of sea salt.

Regulars will recognize the space, which starts with a dining room and rear bar on the ground floor and continues up a flight of stairs to a wine display and more tables. Owner Michael Babin bought the building during the pandemic and made changes, some of which benefit the cooks (the kitchen has a new HVAC system) and some of which, like refinished floors and new wall treatments, benefit diners. But the basic good bones of the restaurant — raw brick, gas lamps, handsome millwork — remain in place.

Best of all, there’s yet another ace in the kitchen, highlighting what a prize we have in Vermilion.

Vermilion

1120 King St., Alexandria. 703-684-9669. vermilionrestaurant.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. (Bar hours are longer. Beginning Aug. 19, lunch will be offered Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The same weekend, brunch will be offered Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $18, main courses $24 to $35. Sound check: 82 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: The first-floor dining room and bar require a ramp, kept near the host stand, to enter; the second floor is reachable only by stairs. Pandemic protocols: Staff members are required to be fully vaccinated or present weekly negative coronavirus tests if claiming a religious exemption.

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