The fun part of this month is sharing my little black book of restaurant favorites — otherwise known as the annual Fall Dining Guide — with readers. That was last week.
The less pleasant aspect of October is explaining why some places fell off the list. That’s this week’s mission.
As in years past, many are called, few are chosen. More than 80 restaurants were revisited in the past four months for potential inclusion in the collection. Fewer than half of the candidates made the cut, mostly because they seemed to be cooking in place (or worse).
Simply because a previous favorite didn’t make my current roster doesn’t mean the establishment is a less desirable experience. Where’s Blue Duck Tavern, you ask? I’m giving its new chef time to settle in. Similarly, when Eric Ziebold said he would be leaving CityZen to open a place of his own in the near future, I decided against returning to the luxury dining room in the Mandarin Oriental for what would likely be a short-lived critique. Restaurants featured in the fall guide are there with the expectation they’re going to last at least until the next roundup.
Time didn’t permit me to make multiple visits to the following popular restaurants, so I’m not changing their star ratings — yet. So consider these snapshots rather than fully developed pictures.
BUCK’S FISHING & CAMPING
Even if it weren’t in a part of the city sorely lacking for good places to eat, Buck’s Fishing & Camping, the recipient of a 2½-star rating last November, would probably play to a full house. There’s comfort in a staff that guides you through dinner like able scouts. Eleven years in, the folksy American restaurant also retains the good looks with which it opened; red walls, amber globes, a community table that runs 20 handsome feet long and an oil-on-linen nude over the bar remain as alluring as ever.
The charms, alas, do not extend to as much of the menu as a year ago. Chewy fish tacos and soft shell crabs offered with a stiff slab of cornbread pudding left me scratching my head here in mid-summer, and an encounter in early autumn with a trio of duck biscuits left me longing for the good old days at Buck’s. Tanned past optimal, the biscuits came stuffed with what smacked of leftover duck and gravy — from days earlier. Lobster stew should be rebranded “soup”; more watery than creamy, it tasted thinly of shallots in a bowl that also bore sliced potatoes. And the hanger steak lacked beefiness.
“Buck” doesn’t exist in real life. The setting makes you believe there’s a living, breathing muse behind the canoe suspended overhead. James Alefantis would like customers to think of him as the inspiration, which would be easier if the owner made himself more of a presence. Alefantis sightings are infrequent.
There’s hope. I taste promise in Buck’s lamb meatballs and herbed roast chicken. They could use better company, and more consistency.
5031 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-0777. bucksfishingandcamping.com. Entrees, $19 to $39.
Am I in a bad dream?
Two of us are returning cocktails at a place in Old Town that once set the bar for drinking, Restaurant Eve, awarded 3½ stars just this May. One liquid fail combines watermelon and cucumber. Drinking the mash-up is a sensation akin to getting a mouth full of seawater. The second cocktail is a dispiriting muddle of peach and bourbon. An elegant welcome of fish mousse and cheese puffs signals the Eve I’ve known and applauded before, but too much of what follows suggests a lesser kitchen. It does not help that two of us are seated at a too-small table in the front dining room listening to music that appears to be piped in from a hotel elevator.
Food friends and readers have been grousing for a while that Eve wasn’t what it was, that they’ve had a less than starry anniversary/birthday/business dinner. My dinner in early September gave credence to their field reports.
A porcini soup gives no indication mushrooms were involved in its making. The bowl also lacks salt. In contrast, Eve’s upgrade of the traditional Greek salad — compressed cucumber, Chiclets of feta cheese and summery tomatoes in an oregano vinaigrette — scores points for personality. Looks can be deceptive, though. The expertly pared, perfectly cooked vegetables decorating a main course of braised rabbit appear to be jewels. Too bad the rabbit is tough. Herb-freckled halibut poised on steamed lump crab in a moat of cream sauce is no more than pleasant. And the people taking orders and dropping off dishes go about their tasks with little sense of joy.
The pastry chef does what a good one should: leave diners with a positive last impression. Figs and mascarpone make for a winning roulade, in other words.
Everyone is entitled to an off night, but diners’ sympathies dim when two of you shell out almost $300 for a dinner that goes down like a copy of a copy of past strong performances.
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria. 703-706-0450. restauranteve.com. A la carte entrees, $37 to $42; six-course tasting menu $135.
The good news at Vermilion, rated as a 2½-star restaurant a year ago: The ground-floor bar recently emerged from a makeover. Fresh red paint, new hardwood floors and banquettes make for a more attractive place to sip and sup and help shave a few seasons from the Alexandria restaurant’s 11 years.
Upstairs, the dining room continues to display jars of produce on its shelves and cast a warm glow with gas lanterns against brick walls.
Consider fashioning a meal from starters. Tender squid splayed on creamy harissa with balls of crisped potato calls to all the senses, while herbed pea risotto staged with sauteed mushrooms proves a tasteful study in green. Marinated shrimp are stolid, but I like their treatment: garnishes of shaved hearts of palm, fiery red chilies and a constellation of mustard dots on the plate.
Less engaging this round are the entrees, including slices of pork loin over baby squash and salmon atop toasted wheatberries and fava beans, dull despite the tamarind broth sharing the bowl with the fish. Service feels less personal than in seasons past, too. Wine is slow to flow to the table, and bread doesn’t appear until we’re finished with appetizers.
Where’s the love, Vermilion?
Dessert, as it turns out. The high point of the night is a miniature blueberry tart with lemon ice cream.
1120 King St., Alexandria. 703-684-9669. vermilionrestaurant.com. Entrees, $28 to $34.
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