“Bread and butter is my favorite food,” says Tom Cardarelli, the executive chef for the past year at Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria.
Practicing what he preaches, the 35-year-old veteran of Vaucluse and Marea in Manhattan sends his customers a basket filled with slices of house-baked sourdough bread and yeasty Parker House rolls that demonstrate the beauty of details. Not only are the contents of the basket warm, the butter that accompanies them, also made on site, is served in soft, easy-to-spread quenelles. No ripping of bread, in other words. Just the simple pleasure of one of life’s best combinations.
You may be tempted to empty the basket. Proceed with caution, though. Cardarelli, who follows some talented chefs in this space, foremost Tony Chittum, now of Iron Gate in the District, has more for you to try to enjoy.
Duck liver croquettes make a great starting point. Initiated by a sous-chef interested in making dirty rice, they arrive as a quartet of crisp rounds, affixed to their plate with tufts of smoked ricotta and sporting a bit of caramelized onion, a dot of chermoula and a red halo in the form of pickled Fresno chile. The chef finishes the first course with a drizzle of herbed honey. Yes, there’s a lot going on, but the circus of flavors is done in such a way that the dish, which tastes like Cajun arancini, makes sense.
Same for an entree of lamb, a trio of cuts (luscious leg, shoulder and sweetbreads) presented as if in the Mediterranean with smoked eggplant and yogurt.
Notice a pattern? Cardarelli has a thing for, and a way with, organ meat and smoke. He sees the former as a way to use “the most underused” bits of an animal and the latter as something primal and even “romantic.” Cue the bonfire.
His food is often striking. Take the steak tartare, which a server urged me to get even as I believed my socks would remain on my feet. The beefy first course shows up with a beautiful blizzard of fried sunchoke chips, so many you initially think the server brought out the wrong appetizer. Poke around among the golden petals, and you’ll see ruby-colored raw beef tossed with crushed peanuts. Smoke comes by way of a garnish of egg yolk; the kick is thanks to Korean chile paste.
You may wonder why a young chef would trade the Big Apple for the Washington suburbs. Cardarelli is too much of a diplomat to say it, so I will: With some notable exceptions, the scene has lost some of its edge, a bit of its allure, in recent years. The newish chef says he also appreciates the restaurant’s multiple stretching possibilities, encompassing a ground-floor bar, home to a menu that includes hush puppies with a trio of dips, and an upstairs dining room that features a reservations-only “farm table,” where he can show off whatever he foraged or audition dishes for future a la carte menus. Case in point is a pot de crème made with white chocolate and garnished with caviar creme fraiche.
Gnocchi, cavatelli, tagliatelle: I’ve yet to meet a pasta here I didn’t want to finish. Vermilion offers the frequently changing, house-rolled selections in half portions and larger. Hope to find ridged hat shapes, each tender morsel meaty with pork and duck in the filling and finished with diced apricot and cashew butter (smoked, you should know).
Signs of the times: cantaloupe soup and soft-shell crabs. The first is a melon puree poured over a little mound of pickled shrimp, shaved fennel and grapefruit. It’s nicely refreshing. The second introduces crab in a light rice flour batter, crackling contrast to a bed of tangy marinated tomatoes shot through with sherry, fish sauce and other bold recruits.
I’m the type of customer who tends to order his entree based on the accompaniments. The rib-eye is fine here, but what makes me smile when I explore beyond it are the lacy bar of crisp potatoes, the melt-in-the-mouth marrow and a moistener of hollandaise infused with seaweed. And as much as I appreciate cobia, I could easily make a meal of the crisp fingerlings, green chickpeas, supple clams and almonds that flatter the fish, which is beautifully presented with an orange comet of romesco.
Brunch feels like the sad occasion described in “Kitchen Confidential,” the inside scoop on the restaurant industry that propelled to fame the late Anthony Bourdain. (Boy, does it hurt to write about the pioneer in the past tense.) The abundance of fatty foods seems to suggest customers are coming in for hangover cures, while the execution gives me reason to think the B team is working.
Desserts could use a jump-start as well. A bar of chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream proves sweetly decadent, but a honey-sweetened pine nut tart is memorable mostly for the soggy nuts across the top. And no amount of macerated fruit or ice cream can redeem the stingy slice of olive oil cake that tastes more of oil than of cake.
But my biggest issue is the backdrop. The two-story Vermilion, part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, retains the same yellow and red walls, lantern lights and jars of preserved vegetables it’s had seemingly from the start, in 2003. Its appearance wouldn’t be so bad if the place were kept in better shape. It doesn’t take Superman’s eyes to see the chips in the paint or wine lists so ragged they look like chew toys. Walking in, patrons encounter not cooking aromas, but the sour scent of cleaning agents and yesterday’s beer. (Bon appétit!)
Cardarelli, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of New York, was once a jazz music major at New York University, where he played trumpet. These days, his music involves notes on plates.
Vermilion has a keeper in Cardarelli; the restaurant should enlist a decorator — hey, even a fresh coat of paint and an airing out would help — to give the artist a more inviting stage.
1120 King St., Alexandria. 703-684-9669. vermilionrestaurant.com.
Open: Lunch Monday and Wednesday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $17, main courses $21 to $35.
Sound check: 66 decibels / Conversation is easy.