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It’s a hot night the first time we visit Evening Star Café, and our waitress is very friendly. “Can I get you guys any more bread?” We’re fine, we tell her. We’ve already emptied two baskets. Wrong response. “Are you sure?” She tells us that she has a weakness for the star-shaped, red-pepper scones. “Oh my God, I totally pig out on those,” she giggles, reaching for our empty basket. “I’m going to get you some more. How about wine?” She’s just opened us a bottle. “Can I get you more wine?”
OK, she is a little over the top, but she keeps an eye on our water glasses like a soldier assigned to a missile silo, and she comps one entree after bringing out the wrong order. More importantly, she matches the place. The Arlandria street on which Evening Star sits suggests Mayberry in its well-tended quaintness, and the cafe has succeeded stunningly in bringing something close to fine dining to the area without disrupting the neighborhood vibe. Decked out with light fixtures and chandeliers that look to have been made with loose parts from an erector set, Evening Star is as much a playpen as a restaurant: The back loungeimagine the 9:30 Club back bar filled with sunlight and preppy peopleis stocked with board games.
With a demeanor that’s far more regular-guy than its menu, Evening Star is that rare restaurant that fuses attitudes as well as cuisines. (Tell me of another restaurant where a waiter’s list of suggested vegetarian dishes includes something served by a joint down the street.) When Evening Star opened earlier this year, the kitchen underscored the restaurant’s home-spun dignity, serving Cajun-accented Southern food, much of it pitch-perfect. But a lot has changed since opening chef Gillian Clark jumped ship. New guy Brian Hooyenga, whose résumé includes Tahoga, Citronelle, and Kinkead’s, continues to serve old crowd-pleasers such as crawfish étouffée and Cajun popcorn shrimp (his bosses are from Louisiana), but overall his menu is tonier than the one it replaced.
Hooyenga’s dishes are mildly ambitious, yet even if they sometimes fall shorttwice I’ve been served pecan-crusted rockfish that’s halfway burnedthere’s an added incentive for foodies to find their way to Del Ray. The wine store next door, the Daily Planet, is in cahoots with Evening Star, doubling as the restaurant’s cellar. Currently, you can pay retail for a bottle at the store and, for an $8 corkage fee, have it brought next door to drink with your meala deal that gets better the more you spend, given most restaurants’ wine mark-up practices. Soon, says Daily Planet wine director Ann Berta, the store’s entire collection will be printed and presented to Evening Star diners as a wine listone that she predicts will be the largest in town once the new-ish store is fully stocked.
At his best, Hooyenga can match anything Berta sells. The restaurant’s atmosphere demands that he keep things simple, and in each of my four visits, I noticed plenty of people washing back reasonably priced hamburgers and oozy catfish po’ boys with beer. But it’s in the chef’s nature to try to dazzle. An appetizer portion of quail is stuffed with just enough Gorgonzola to imbue the meat with extra flavor and oil, and the shoestring potatoes beneath it are a table favorite. The curry vinaigrette is way more delicate than it sounds, adding a soft bite to a starter of sea-sweet, pan-seared scallops, which arrive nestled against a small salad of calamata olives.
Hooyenga goofs when trying to arrange summit meetings of boutique ingredients on the plate. His grilled veal shank with barley risotto would be a thing of beauty if it weren’t subsumed by a sauce of walnuts, apples, and brie. Beef tenderloin suffers a similar fate; the meat is tender and cooked to order, but between the pan sauce, blue-cheese mashed potatoes, truffle mousse, and buttery toast points, it’s easy to forget that there’s any beef involved at all. A few of the chef’s more lavish ideas are as astounding as he intendsthe salmon dressed with butternut squash sauce is a genuine fall classic. But his best dishes are probably the least fun to dream up: the familiar Caesar with fresh anchovies, the nicely understated strawberry cobbler, the plump, hearty pork chop paired with slow-cooked cabbage, the feisty chicken-sausage gumbo, the pear and Stilton salad. The only simple dish I wish I hadn’t ordered is the grilled portobello salad, which arrives so dressing-drenched that you’d think someone in the kitchen thought it was on fire and snuffed out the flame with Creole-mustard vinaigrette.
With the wine store arrangement and the entree-like composition of some of the appetizers, it’s easy to dine here on a budget. For maximum pleasure, I recommend dropping in on a slow night. Big crowds tend to frazzle the staff; on one Thursday, we had to sit in a booth with a pile of dirty dishes for a good 20 minutes before our waitress came to Windex the table clean. But the staff seems to mellow when the crowds are thin, making the whole place feel more Southern than it is. On a recent Tuesday, I ask my waitress if she thinks an appetizer of grilled andouille sausage will suffice as a meal. “Probably,” she says. “And if it doesn’t, you can always fill up on bread.”
Evening Star Café, 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, (703) 549-5051
Cafe Lombardy, located on the first floor of the Hotel Lombardy, has the vague feel of a mountainside cabin, and the staff treats all customers like they’ve dropped big bucks on a room. “Good evening, sir,” greets a man with an interesting beard. “Will you be dining alone this evening?” One reader hails the Italian restaurant as an “unsung treasure,” and a colleague recalls being turned on by lunches here in the past; but on my visit, the proper service outshines the meal. Given the season, wild mushroom polenta sounds ideal, but the fungi are sopped in a vinegar reduction so abrasively tart that by midmeal I wonder if my face will ever unpucker.
Cafe Lombardy, 2019 I St. NW, (202) 857-3912
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