- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2009

There’s a tradition of good cooking in firehouses. Brave men accustomed to taking the heat who have a little time on their hands between alarms often take to passing time in the firehouse kitchen.

So it’s only fitting that the 126-year-old firehouse on St. Asaph Street in Old Town Alexandria, once the home of Columbia Steam Engine No. 4, has become the home of Columbia Firehouse, the restaurant.

Except for its red-brick exterior, it’s hard to tell this once was the real thing. The restaurant is an attractive mix of old and new. The main dining room once was an alley next door and now is a lovely, enclosed, high-ceilinged room with a small garden patio in front. A curved glass ceiling runs the room’s length.

Columbia Firehouse is what the staff calls a “casual fine dining” restaurant. (The fine dining, without the casual, is to come later, on the second floor, in the form of a steakhouse with a more sophisticated menu.) Chef Orlando Hitzig, most recently of the old Mark and Orlando’s in the District, will oversee both dining rooms. He describes the food downstairs as “comfort food that you can do at home but don’t want to.”

Something you may or may not make at home is a dish of mussels in a splendid curried coconut milk sauce, enhanced with lemon grass and chopped cilantro. A combination of Thai and Indian flavors, it’s delicate, light and marries the mussels in happy union. The dish can be ordered in a lager broth with Tasso ham and garlic or with cherry tomatoes, bacon, arugula and Parmesan. Sauces will change from time to time.

The fare is simple, well-prepared and to the point. No fancy sauces, no complex side dishes. But everything tastes good, and the price is right. There’s an appropriate hint of the South in the cornmeal-crusted oysters, a shrimp-and-oyster po’ boy and hush puppies that enclose a surprise filling of crab. The corn muffins may be a bit sweet for many Southerners.

A conventional starter is the shrimp cocktail, which consists of four large, plump shrimp, served not too cold and cooked so the shrimp remain juicy. The shrimp would be enhanced with a better house-made cocktail sauce rather than one that tastes straight from a bottle.

Steaks, identified by the farm from which they come, range from a hanger steak to a New York strip. A 5-ounce “petite” tenderloin is just right for a less-robust appetite. The beef, good but not great, is cooked perfectly to order. All steaks are served with satisfying garlicky mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and a red-wine sauce. The spinach, alas, was flavorless branch spinach, and there was so little sauce as to be hardly visible beneath the steak.

Meager saucing also was evident with the three excellent seared diver scallops. The scallops are topped with irresistibly crisp matchstick potatoes and served on a bed of couscous dotted with bits of tomato and a sweet pea sauce.

Fish offerings include a crab cake, seared Atlantic salmon and a fresh seafood stew with vegetables and andouille sausage. Meats include chicken, meatloaf and a pork chop.

We finished our supper (as dinner is usually called in the South) with a rich, sweet bread pudding with caramel bourbon sauce. Not much bourbon, but lots of sauce, and very good it is, too. The devil wouldn’t recognize the devil’s food cake, but any devil would like what turns out to be a slice of layered chocolate mousse cake served with vanilla ice cream.

Columbia Firehouse offers an excellent wine and beer list with glasses and bottles from all around the world. Cocktails are imaginative and include the Handsome Harry’s Swank Sparkler, a combination of fresh strawberries, lemon and sparkling wine. Perfect for the end of summer.

What makes Columbia Firehouse particularly attractive is its excellent service. Compliments to Brittany, the lovely hostess who accommodates difficult patrons with patience, charm and a warm smile.

RESTAURANT:Columbia Firehouse, 109 S. St. Asaph St., Alexandria; 703/683-1776

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

PRICES: Appetizers $5 to $16; main courses $16 to $26; desserts $6.

PARKING: Street parking; $2 garage parking is available on North Pitt Street after 5 p.m.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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