- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

Crimson velvet sofas and silk wall hangings, exposed brick, artful lighting, hardwood floors and a wall of wine are what meet the eye at Vermilion, a contemporary American restaurant in Alexandria’s Old Town. So far so good, thinks a first-time visitor — a perfect combination of aesthetics and comfort.

Then things head south quickly. Our 8:30 p.m. reservation turns into a 9 p.m. seating without any apologies, and when we arrive at the upstairs dining room it’s half-empty. What prompted the delay?

Service is slow. The first course takes at least 20 minutes to arrive and the wine is even tardier. How long does it take to fill a few glasses? A bright spot about the wine, however, is Vermilion’s nice-but-not-overwhelming selection and the variety of by-the-glass options at a reasonable price.

The food, once it arrives, helps improve the mood, too. The steamed mussels in white wine and fresh herbs is prepared perfectly. The problem is there’s not enough of the tasty wine and herb broth, meaning there’s nothing to sop with the fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls.

The arugula and strawberry salad with goat cheese, roasted hazelnut and hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette is off balance, too. The ingredients are fresh and combine nicely. The arugula is bountiful, but there is only one strawberry and very little of the otherwise delicious goat cheese.

The mini Fontina risotto cakes with spicy tomato sauce did not suffer imbalance. The deep-fried risotto balls with a cheese center were perfect with the tomato sauce.

After another long wait, our entrees arrive but are — by this point, after 10 p.m. — above expectation and very welcome.

The grilled filet mignon with sauteed summer vegetables and red wine sauce is wonderful. The medium-rare filet is grilled to order. The sauteed green beans are crisp and flavorful and the rich, red wine sauce is a nice complement to both meat and vegetables. The presentation is simple, but elegant: the filet rests on the sauce and the green beans form a small tower next to it on white china.

The jumbo lump crab cakes with creamy corn, sauteed okra and chorizo with spicy tomato coulis is also a good choice. The cakes are full of chunky crabmeat — no bread crumbs in sight — and lightly seasoned. They’re cooked just right, too.

The pan-fried cornmeal-crusted trout with sauteed spinach, roasted potatoes and warm lemon caper vinaigrette too is a tasty choice. Chef Bobby Beard, formerly of Pesce and Citronelle in Washington, knows his seafood. Vegetables, especially of the sauteed variety, are treated very well.

The desserts, on the other hand, are uninspired. The fresh mixed berries with berry coulis and whipped cream barely have any berries and the coulis is bland. The vanilla bean creme brulee has a nice, rich flavor, but the texture is way off: beneath the perfectly crisp top lies a soupy brulee. The warm chocolate walnut brownie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce is the best in the bunch, but nothing special.

Our disappointments were clearly not shared by the locals who frequented Vermilion on a recent evening. The place was packed with happy faces, including a party of women throwing a baby shower for a friend, couples of all ages and a pretty rowdy twenty- and thirty-something crowd at the downstairs bar, which has a nice selection of draft beers, including Eggensberg Pilsner and Allagash White.

Maybe the below-par service and the uneven food wouldn’t have been so disappointing had the first impression not been so great — the tasteful decor, the interesting and clutter-free menu, the well-stocked bar.

Maybe Vermilion, which is 2 years old, is still getting its act together and eventually will mature and become the restaurant its surface suggests. So many of the makings are already there, especially when it comes to the food. The dishes that shine, really shine brightly. Maybe Vermilion is just a late bloomer. We hope so.

RESTAURANT: Vermilion, 1120 King St., Alexandria; 703/684-9669.

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily (lunch, Monday through Friday; brunch Saturday and Sunday); dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $5 to $12; main courses, $17 to $25; desserts, $5 to $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

METRO: King Street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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