By Elana Schor - 10/05/11 11:06 PM EDT
Be it spicy, tangy, crunchy or gooey, no one does satisfying bar food like the Irish — and Americans, who have not stopped inventing new pairings of carbs and dairy since popularizing the grilled cheese sandwich nearly a century ago.
Now a culinary star who brought the best of both those nations’ flavors to Washington, Cathal Armstrong, is combining stalwarts from both sides of the Atlantic with the mellow elegance of his Restaurant Eve’s décor and the clever cocktails of his PX speakeasy. The result is Virtue Feed and Grain, a friendly marriage of happy hour and the family dinner table that gives Washington diehards a great reason to Metro out to Alexandria.
“Our plan was to bring the old warehouse about full circle; to re-establish the building and feed the people,” Armstrong and his partners, including wife Meshelle and mixologist Todd Thrasher, write in a menu addendum explaining the mission behind their new project.
Yet modernity is hardly ignored in the restaurant’s design, as arcade games both old and new draw after-work patrons to a backroom on the second floor, while a funky reproduced Cubist painting and a prominent bronzed angel-wing sculpture sets a high bar for the dining experience.
Happily, Armstrong’s Irish-American hit list largely lives up to the confidence and charm of his décor. The U.S. rise of “nose-to-tail” eating should draw adventurous meat eaters to a crop of dishes the chef has dubbed “weird stuff,” particularly savory fried crubeens (also known as pig’s feet) reminiscent of a late-night croquette and a potent small skillet of kidneys in velvety red wine sauce made for scooping up with bread.
Those who prefer more familiar comfort food will find much to love as well. The macaroni and cheese, served in that same charming miniature iron skillet with nubs of crispy ham, owes its creamy consistency more to bechamel sauce than the bright-orange powders too often trotted out at local tables. A stellar chili-cheese dog is elevated by its house-made meat sauce. It completes a trio of upscale-but-unforgettable T.G.I. Friday’s fare, next to bacon-and-onion stuffed potato skins and lip-smacking Buffalo wings.
Such richness cries out to be cut by a cocktail, and Virtue delivers the goods via several top-shelf draught beers and a small but serviceable wine list sweetly headlined “Grape Juice.” The star attractions by the glass, however, are two Thrasher-designed lineups of traditional drinks and beer-based “hoptails.”
The latter are a revelation, using liquor to tease out sweet and spicy notes from their underlying brews while allowing tipplers to try two without fearing a hangover the morning after. What I Drink is a thirst-quenching blend of dark rum and lemon soda that manages to find complex notes in Amstel Light, while a Pomegranate Fizz crosses fruity beer with the frothy egg white of a pisco sour and the Hoptail With No Name juggles Japaneze yuzu juice with gin and bourbon.
But perhaps the biggest joy on the menu is one whose presence conforms to neither Irish nor American pub conventions. Virtue’s Cuban sandwich may be the best of its kind outside of South Florida, pairing house-smoked pork shoulder with melted cheese, succulent ham, snappy pickles and just the right amount of mustard on a sturdy bun with a side of homemade potato chips for dipping in the accompanying pepper aioli.
The Cuban is indicative of Virtue’s ethos: a new classic plated expertly with major bang for your buck. At $9.25, the sandwich easily serves as an entrée, especially when paired with a side salad dressed but not drowned in fresh vinaigrette.
Several appetizers offer similarly ample portions, including the lemony chicken-liver pate served in a quaint mason jar, low-grease calamari (next to which that irresistible aioli reappears) and the fritto misto special, a near-pound of fresh scallops, whitefish and vegetables breaded in fluffy panko breadcrumbs.
Call it recession-chic or “taste no evil,” Virtue’s self-professed motto, but the kitchen’s generous sizes extend to its larger plates.
The short-rib and lamb entrees both come to the table in colorful Le Creuset bakeware, dripping with juicy gravy and silky onions. Scallops with risotto offers four nearly palm-sized bivalves, cooked enough to maintain their plush mouth-feel, atop a heap of smoky Italian rice.
Not every dish is redeemed by skill at the stove, sadly. A rockfish entrée strikes gold with its side of colcannon, an Irish mashed potatoes-and-kale blend, but the seafood beneath is painfully salty. The same over-salting plagues deviled eggs, while a baba ghanoush special arrives oddly bereft of sodium and overpowered by lemon zest.
Of course, the upside to such strong spices can be a greater desire for palate-cleansing sweets at meal’s end. And Virtue raises its bar high at dessert, with a jammy-thick fruit cobbler and a brioche bread pudding that dares stuffed diners to finish every last swirl of its raisin-scented whiskey sauce.
The most unique dessert, in fact, functions as an exclamation point for Armstrong’s U.S.-Ireland menu mash-up. Billed as “a pie AND a cake combo,” the Bakewell tart is also a perfect balance of natural berry sugar and savory cornmeal texture, alternately melting and crunching on the palate.
For a kitchen that takes low-down dishes to a higher level, the effect is utterly fitting.