Restaurateurs with multiple places to eat typically don’t declare a favorite. But Michael Babin doesn’t hesitate to tell people that his first venture is No. 1. “Evening Star Cafe is the reason the Neighborhood Restaurant Group exists,” says the founder of the Alexandria restaurant, which opened in 1997 and counts nearly 20 siblings, including Iron Gate in Dupont Circle and Hazel near the 9:30 Club. For Babin, Evening Star is “the ultimate neighborhood restaurant.”
Sure, he’s biased, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue. Anyone who has followed the life of the Del Ray fixture can see how the restaurant has evolved over the years to address the needs and wishes of its community, starting with the acquisition of the convenience store next door that became Planet Wine. Diners can buy any bottle in the shop for $10 over the retail price and have it served to them at Evening Star — a fraction of the usual markup and no small deal considering the inventory of about 700 wines, half of them under $40. The 62-seat storefront restaurant comes with two bars: the street-level Majestic Lounge, which Babin aptly calls “your coolest uncle’s basement bar,” and No. 9 Lounge on the second floor. Six years ago, the Front Porch was added to the equation. Next to Planet Wine, the outdoor space is more or less an extended happy hour that everyone can enjoy, thanks to a snack-y menu and a play area for kids that includes a coloring wall.
A new chef came aboard in October. The former corporate chef for Barteca Restaurant Group, the parent of Barcelona, Jonathan Till is the seventh chef to helm the kitchen since it opened. Like a lot of his peers, he says he’s committed to serving local and seasonal ingredients, but he goes the extra step of actually procuring a fair amount of them, too. Those chanterelles sprinkled throughout the menu? Till knows where to forage for the treasure so he doesn’t have to shell out the going rate of $30 a pound. Everybody’s happy.
Garlic focaccia, sometimes flavored with herbs from the chef’s rooftop or side garden, launches dinner, and so too should one of Till’s diverting snacks. Strips of tempura-fried zucchini are accompanied by a pink “yum yum” sauce that delivers on the promise with the help of mayonnaise, tomato paste and “butter, the secret,” says Till. Cognac-spiked chicken liver mousse with a thin layer of port jelly is a hand-me-down from the chef’s grandmother, served with shards of grilled bread. There’s hummus as well, but having just Hoovered hummus at Sababa in Cleveland Park, one of my current fixations, I can’t help comparing the two — and finding the ideal in the District.
The little glory among the snacks, chicken-fried oysters, gives Till a chance to humble-brag about the whiskey barrel he picked up in Nashville and has been carrying around for a few years. Turns out he uses the cask to ferment the hot sauce for the crisp oysters, presented in their shells atop a dab of creamy “comeback” sauce. One is too few.
Hawaiian-inspired poke has lingered at the party far longer than I ever expected, but I have to hand it to Till for the refreshing salad he has created not from the usual fish, but from chunks of juicy watermelon, which he seasons with soy sauce and sriracha. Threads of nori, sliced cucumber and roasted peanuts weigh in with their respective charms, and if the combination sounds excessive, let me assure you, it’s magic in the mouth, especially in triple-digit heat. (Till has license to thrill; he was born in the 50th state.)
Slices of smoked, grilled pork belly alternating with pink watermelon radishes go down the hatch easily, too. Hiding under the display is a smoky salad of corn and compressed melon. A splash of hot sauce ties the lot together. Sliced duck breast moistened in part with sweet chile sauce gets an escort of Japanese eggplant and Thai basil — ratatouille as interpreted by the tropics — fenced in with a band of bell pepper.
Whimsy isn’t limited to the plate at Evening Star Cafe, which looks much the same as when I awarded it two stars seven years ago. The walls, hugged by booths, are a friendly shade of sunflower. A plush, double-sided blue banquette runs down the center, breaking up the boxy storefront. There are Toy Story touches from former Washington designer Rick Singleton, who transforms Erector Sets, among other ingredients, into eye-catching, thought-provoking art. The pressed-metal ceiling and tile floors look nice but do zip to absorb the clamor of a busy dinner or brunch.
Till says a fair share of his customers are meat-and-potato types, which explains the well-seasoned pork chop and herby brined chicken on his script. But he welcomes everyone to the table. Fish fanciers, for instance, are beckoned with seared salmon that arrives on a bed of sliced summer squash, an entree garnished with tangy tufts of goat cheese and buttery pecans.
“I wanted to give vegetarians and vegans something cool,” says the chef. He makes good on his word with a few dishes that require their intended audience to keep a firm grip on their plates, lest a curious carnivore inhale it. Cauliflower massaged till it’s red with Korean barbecue sauce and fried so that every bite delivers an audible shatter is an impressive way to pack more vegetables into your diet. And a “risotto” hatched from barley and sweet peas is a beautiful kitchen sink, with pops of sweet red drop peppers and golden chanterelles in every other spoonful. Filings of pecorino cheese melt into the hot barley, forming a web of richness.
From time to time, I’ve encountered some lesser lights. A salad promising snap peas and asparagus sent my fork on a search-and-rescue mission amid a pile of greens, leaving me with a first course flavored chiefly with feta cheese and pickled strawberries that were basically vinegar bombs. Other dishes — gnocchi bound with farm cheese, flat iron steak with fingerling potatoes — fall in the merely pleasant category.
Servers get the job done with a minimum of interruptions. This is the kind of restaurant where, should you find a produce sticker adrift in your gumbo, the mistake is whisked away and replaced with a bowl that packs in more shrimp and andouille than the first one. (Thanks!) Evening Star Cafe also employs two gardeners to tend to the herbs and vegetables that make their way to your plate.
Little niceties add up. A flask of water is left on the table so diners can refill their glasses as they wish, and I appreciate a restaurant that sets out salt and pepper shakers, just like at home. The chef channels his grandmother with a fine dessert that marries apple crisp with tres leches cake, and channels fancier restaurants with an elegant chocolate-hazelnut cake. Wisely, the establishment offers half glasses of wine, encouraging both exploration and moderation.
It might be small, but Evening Star Cafe thinks big.
Evening Star Cafe (Good) 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-549-5051. eveningstarcafe.net. Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $6 to $12, main courses $14 to $26. Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A ramp leads to the main door, which has a knob handle; one of the two ground-floor restrooms is wheelchair-accessible.