City Paper is not for tourists
The Majestic Cafe is pretty full of itself. First of all, there’s the name. And then there’s the detailed fact sheet on the restaurant’s history and recent renovation, which is apparently presented to anyone with a question or two about the establishment or its origins. And did I mention the just slightly overeager staff, which is capable of entertaining you with both the specials of the day and as many Majestic Cafe factoids as you’d care to hearand then some?
The good news is that the restaurant mostly lives up to its name and the enthusiasm of its employees, each of whom, like the Majestic itself, is a model of aesthetic correctness. Dressed in chartreuse shirts and dark slacks, the friendly, fast-moving servers make for appealing streaks of color in your peripheral vision against the cherry-wood tables and white walls that dominate the restaurant’s interior. At the Majestic Cafe, it’s obvious that nothing has been left to chance.
That’s certainly true of the restaurant’s elaborate restoration. Located on the less touristy end of King Street in Old Town Alexandria, across from a converted fire station that’s been home to nearly a dozen fledgling Internet companies in as many months, the rectangular space that houses the cafe’s 24 tables and a small but well-stocked bar is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The sleek modernist-leaning design is augmented by vintage light fixtures and terrazzo flooring mostly left over from the establishment’s ’40s incarnation, when, as some of the black-and-white photos adorning the walls attest, the place was also called the Majestic Cafe. Like the home of a wealthy and self-consciously stylish aunt, the restaurant is a casually elegant backdrop for some gussied-up but down-home dishes, which cover all the basics of the Southern culture veteran chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg cheekily admires.
Lindeborg is a local culinary hero, with memorable tours of duty at both the Morrison-Clark Inn, where she was head chef, and 21 Federal, where she ran Robert Kinkead’s pastry operation. But Majestic is something completely different. From the Southern thematic to the careful preparation, the kitchen belongs to Lindeborg and her chic, diner-tinged aesthetic. Pimento-cheese soufflé appears on the dinner menu, and, when it’s available, a wonderfully artery-clogging Boston cream pie is the highlight of the dessert listwhich is especially impressive given that it also features a silken buttermilk pie and a peanut-crusted chocolate tart rich enough to send a wayward nephew to college. And dishes such as the country-ham-and-grits soufflé, which comes with a light pickled-corn relish, and the chicken-liver pâté are prominently featured on the eclectic appetizer menu. Think Southern comfort food with an avant-garde twist and you’ll begin to have a sense of what’s happening in Lindeborg’s humming open kitchen.
On a recent lunchtime visit with several famished co-workers, all but a couple of the cafe’s tables were filled mostly with chattering businessmen and tourists, noshing with obvious pleasure on dishes such as roasted-sumac-chicken pita, which comes with plentiful amounts of goat cheese and walnuts as well as a barely dressed cucumber salad, and the Southern classic black-eyed-pea cakes. An entree that works as a table-sized appetizer, the cakes are a tasty mash of black-eyed peas and bread crumbs covered in red and green peppers and onions. Served on a bed of greens and with a buttery red-pepper sauce, they may be the best thing on the menu, day or night. My co-workers certainly thought so. During our visit, one ordered the cakes only to have them scarfed down by her dining companions when she made the mistake of offering us samples.
No one took me up on my offer of a taste of the roasted-beet soup, howeverwhich was fine by me. The dish is a light broth served with thin slices of beets and shredded carrots, delicately spiced with both ginger and orange. I kept quiet about it at the time, but the citrusy tang of those flavors perfectly complements the earthiness of the broth and vegetables, revving up the flavor without running it over. The soup is presented either hot or cold, but the hot version comes with the ritual of the waiter pouring the steaming purple elixir from a small chrome teapot. It’s a nice touch for a tasty dish, though perhaps not sufficient to convert misguided, beet-averse dining partners.
Among the best of the lunchtime entrees are the grilled chicken breast and the grilled tuna. The plump breast comes floating on a shallow pool of charmola vinaigrette and plated next to an ample portion of cold couscous salad. The saladsubtly inflected with coriander and perfect for catching a runaway stream of the vinaigrettecomes laced with thinly sliced almonds and crisp strips of zucchini. The grilled tuna, accompanied by a gourmand’s version of potato salad, is similarly sauced, with tarragon and capers rounding out the tart vinaigrette. Both dishes go well with a glass of Bordeaux blanc, chosen from a generous list of nearly 40 wines, nine of which are available by the glass.
At night, the offerings are slightly more exoticbraised rabbit leg and mushroom napoleon, for instance, are occasionally available. But though the food is prepared with the same home-cooked TLC as the lunchtime entrees, the dishes’ fussier details frequently fall flat. Grilled rockfish is a thick rectangle of tasty white meat served with a rich red-pepper sauce that, unfortunately, arrives atop a nearly flavor-free layer of sweet white corn, hominy, and green pepper. The seared halibut is also impressive, a dream of moist and flaky white fish, but the accompanying rhubarb pickle will likely get pushed to the side of your plate. And, to judge from the absurd mound of seared onions it arrives buried beneath, the grilled Angus rib-eye seems to be on the menu because, well, you have to have a steak on the menu. Still, even cooked medium, the beef is sweet and tender, and the accompanying Yukon Gold potato wedges soak up the Worcestershire-ish sauce as if they were meant for the job.
Those shortcomings aside, Lindeborg and her capable staff are off to a promising start with this stylish little place, which opened just this past May. Once the kitchen recalibrates the accompaniments, the Majestic will clearly be among the finest eateries in restaurant-rich Old Town. Until then, hungry patrons are referred to the sides menu and, in particular, to that staple vegetable of diners everywhere: green beans. Streaked lightly with butter, Lindeborg’s French version of the beans is a plain and simple delight. Order them Southern-style, though, and they come salted and cooked with pork. Two varieties but really only one choice: At the Majestic, you’ll want to go Southern. Majestic Cafe, 911 King St., Alexandria, (703) 837-9117. Shannon Zimmerman
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