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Every time I hear about an ambitious new restaurant with one of those trendy, single-word names that’s meant to evoke a place you’ve never heard of, or a restaurant that hypes its menu concept as though it were reinventing the medium, or a restaurant with a self-congratulatory back story about the chef’s far-flung journeys (the soon-to-open Oyamel hits the trifecta), I want to scream: How about this for a concept? No concept. No trend-fucking, no narrative-making, and no guessing games with the name, either. Just good, attentive cooking with a little bit of heart in it and a well-trained staff that knows the menu and minds the details.
Restaurant vets Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong must have done some screaming themselves, to judge from their 6-month-old venture, Restaurant Eve. The place is something of an anomaly: a youthful, energetic restaurant that’s almost wholly without contrivance or gimmickry. (The lone bit of back story is the name, a reference to the couple’s child.)
What Eve has is charm, lots of it. Begin with its location, tucked away on a quiet side street in Old Town Alexandria. Patrons enter the restaurant by a cobblestone-covered alley as quaint as any in Rome. Its knowledgeable, gracious staff succeeds in making you feel as though you’re somewhere special without ever up-selling you or showing off.
There’s an abundance of confidence, too. This is the first foray into ownership for the Armstrongs, and it’s hard not to think that they mean it to be their last. Meshelle Armstrong runs the front of the house as though it were a private home, albeit one swarming with waves of smartly coordinated employees. And Cathal Armstrong, who last helmed the kitchen at Bistro Bis, has seized upon his independence. What looks, from the outset, to be a cozy little lair of a place turns out, in fact, to be three restaurants in one: a bar, a bistro, and a tasting room. This last iteration may raise eyebrows: A credited but largely uncelebrated chef, working not in the heart of the metropolis but on the edge of it, has chosen to set aside an entire room in the only restaurant he’s ever owned for the sole purpose of dazzling gastronomes with his five- and nine-course tasting menus.
The question the Armstrongs seem to be asking—why can’t a neighborhood restaurant be a destination restaurant, too?—is an interesting one, and Eve, at its best, hums along with such quiet purpose that it seems to offer an affirmation.
That best occurs in the bistro, where Cathal Armstrong’s cooking—personal, technically proficient, soulful, and precise—is given its proper showcase. Armstrong is Irish, and a reverence for deep, earthy flavors—Old World country cooking—runs through the best of his New American dishes. His short ribs seem to dissolve on contact; a creamy polenta only enhances the solid-turning-to-liquid quality of the braised veal. Confit of pork belly, bearing a quarter-inch of crosshatched, pan-seared fat, never quite crosses the line into overrichness. Braised oxtail, the filling for some unyielding pillows of ravioli, nearly rivals the pork belly in intensity. A rabbit terrine, mild in flavor, and lacking any fatty excess, comes across as tame by comparison.
The rest of the menu is a lot more restrained; it’s also a bit of a comedown after so much skillfully wrought sensuality, a reminder that technical competence may earn our admiration but not our lusty hearts. (Though even here, you can see the pork-fat-loving chef striving mightily to marry earth and water: Halibut is adorned with crispy bits of Irish bacon.) That’s not to slight Armstrong, who has a loving regard for his locally grown vegetables and pays attention to his sources, seeking out, for example, a good wild Scottish salmon and a line-caught opah from Hawaii. And give me a bowl of either his zippy bouillabaisse, teeming with perfectly cooked shellfish, or his mussels, supported by a rich, shallot-and-cilantro-cream broth, anytime and I won’t stir up trouble.
The irony here is that what feels intimate in the bistro—a genuine connection between soil and kitchen and table—seems forced and even stilted in the tasting room. The cooking here has its moments, to be sure, and the wisdom of Armstrong’s decision to enlist sommelier Todd Thrasher (kudos to his clever cocktails and well-chosen wines) and talented pastry chef Niel Piferoen reveals itself throughout the long, leisurely evening. But I wonder if grand-chef ambition doesn’t sometimes cloud Armstrong’s otherwise astute vision.
An elaborate recitation of dishes attends each and every order in the room, so even if you missed it the first time around, by the end of the night you’ll know where your fish was caught and how long your cheeses were aged. Portions, even for a tasting menu, are small. (Half a soft-shell crab for an appetizer? A single sliced baby beet for a dish advertised as a beet salad?) As in the bistro, the earthier the dish, the better: a fan of stringy, if full-flavored, duck breast topped off with foie gras, for instance. But often as not, Armstrong sacrifices heartiness for daintiness, turning pumpkin gnocchi into a display of preciousness: four tiny dumplings moored in a pool of sage oil.
Armstrong may not yet be on a par with the likes of Michel Richard, Fabio Trabocchi, and Patrick O’Connell. But Eve is one of only a handful of restaurants in the area that know that trendiness and concepts are no match, in the end, for the verities: service, attentiveness, and a sure hand at the stove.
Restaurant Eve, 110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria, Va. (703) 706-0450.—Todd Kliman
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