Moving to D.C. only six months before lockdown, I didn’t have much opportunity to explore the region’s diverse dining scene. Now, I’m looking to make up for lost time (and meals), which is why I hopped on the Yellow Line to Alexandria’s Old Town to check out Vermilion, one of the DMV’s most notable restaurants, which reopened in July under new executive chef Ben Pflaumer.
I choose a small table by the front windows so I can catch the evening’s last light, and I’m immediately charmed by Vermilion’s mix of elegance and approachability. Greenery and shoppers fill King Street as trolleys whiz by. Inside, gas lanterns warm walls of pale wood with dark trim and crimson booths. It’s quaint and a little sexy at the same time.
There’s a full bar, filled with bottles dramatically lit from below. In the very back, there’s a lounge vibe with booths and small tables. There’s a full dining room upstairs. Whatever kind of night you want to have, Vermilion probably has a space for you. It’s a neighborhood joint that still feels special. I can easily see first dates to anniversaries, first job to retirement celebrations, all happening at Vermilion. Or just a Tuesday night out.
“We created a bar menu of great snacks for those who want to come in for a drink, or small plates,” Pflaumer says.
“Those revolve around using some [ingredients] from the larger menu in different ways. We want to make sure the menu is approachable from each of the different areas, that someone sitting at the bar has the exact same experience as someone upstairs.”
A popular restaurant for almost 20 years, Vermilion has seen many accomplished chefs in its time. Pflaumer, a veteran of Italian spots Masseria and Osteria Morini, is proud to build on the restaurant’s reputation.
“Vermilion has always been a restaurant focused on local ingredients,” he says. “That’s what we want to continue with sustainability.”
Although often a vague, en-vogue term right now, finding actual examples of sustainability at Vermilion is easy.
It’s in the locally and seasonally sourced ingredients on the menu. Their amazingly crisp donut-battered coquettes use Maryland crab, smeared with tarragon Dijon good enough I ate it on its own. The Chesapeake rockfish swims in a saffron-spiked lemon butter sauce poured table side, flooding all my senses at once.
Vegetables and garnishes come from a rooftop garden from nearby Evening Star Café, as well as local farms, which Pflaumer consulted when designing the initial summer menu.
“I dug through local farm lists, reaching out to see what they would have available, whatever we could find that’s local and delicious. Then I took the time to create dishes and work through recipes.”
Pflaumer plans to change the menu every two months to take full advantage of seasonal ingredients. The baby beet plate uses the entire beet — bulb, stalk, and greens — to harmonious effect.
But prioritizing sustainability goes beyond what’s on the menu. It’s also in the service fee added to each check so Vermilion can “provide more equitable and stable wages and benefits to our back-of-house team.” Happy employees can make for happy customers.
“How we impact the environment, and how sustainable our employees’ lives are, shape the decisions we make in how we run the restaurant as we continue to grow. We’re trying to be an overall better restaurant.”
Reducing food waste and plastic use, as well as composting, are Vermilion’s other sustainability-focused initiatives.
Pflaumer and his team balance texture and tastes with such grace I had to remind myself that such apparent simplicity is actually quite complex. In addition to pastas and French dishes, the menu also has a few surprises too. House-made milk bread and kombu nod to Pflaumer’s childhood in a Japanese household.
I ended my meal sipping a glass of black walnut vermouth just after sunset. The retail shops closed; King Street still bustled outside under streetlight. A good meal can take you on a journey. A great one can make you appreciate just where you are.
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