The Majestic

Don’t judge a book by its cover, as the cliché goes. But at the Majestic, the comfort-food bistro newly restored in Old Town Alexandria, the cliché has a new twist: Don’t judge a restaurant by its ambiance.

The look of the Majestic, whose co-owners include former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) and his wife, is sheer art deco luxury. Dark banquettes and glowing neon cast a visual spell, pulling you in past the intimate bar space and through the curtain to the main room. Even the wine glasses are geometric wonders.

But the menu and the service is a different breed entirely, harkening back to the space’s past life as a more casual café. “Rustic American” is the description invoked by head chef Cathal Armstrong, and the flavors live up to the phrase.

Bacon vinaigrette adds a hefty heartiness to the updated succotash that arrives beneath the soft-shell crab entrée. House-cured bacon curls smokily around the green-bean side dish and the calve’s liver in red wine as well, while the Caesar salad, served tableside from a home-style wooden bowl, comes on strong and savory with an anchovy-and-raw-egg base that puts its imitation cousins to shame.

The Majestic’s split personality is befuddling in all the right ways, melding the ample portions of a traditional bistro with the delicate style of a downtown boîte. The only way to undercut your experience might be shrinking from the dessert menu for its unabashed embrace of sugar and shortening — or, as one server recalled, asking for your Caesar “light on the oil.”

Begin your meal with one of the Majestic’s hand-crafted cocktails, clever nods to PX, the 1920s-style speakeasy that is another member of Armstrong’s Alexandria family. The chef and his wife, Meshelle, teamed up to save the old Majestic space from an inglorious descent into sports-bar-dom. They also own Eamonn’s, a fish-and-chips palace, and the fine-dining spot Restaurant Eve.

The cocktails are light-years away from the trendy and precious offerings on other upscale menus. You won’t see Cosmopolitans or anything ending in -tini. The Tom Collins arrives brimming with lemony zip that’s cut down to size by powdered sugar, and the Prohibition is playful but potent with fruit accents of orange juice and orange Lillet.

For those who prefer a lighter beverage, 10 wines by the glass are available, including a superior Malbec from Argentina. The Majestic’s five beers represent Washington’s northern neighbors, while nonalcoholic sweet tea, limeade and lemonade are in line with the capital’s southern side.

The first courses are hardly your average appetizer, with two or three being substantial enough to make a full meal for groups wanting to eat light. Standing out were the mussels, in a buttery white wine sauce rife with fresh herbs that requires more bread for dipping, and the showy Caesar salad, which your server tops with a pair of diminutive and delightful whole white anchovies.

A mixed green salad with hazelnut vinaigrette is on hand for those seeking more mellowness, along with crab cakes and a house-made pork terrine. The Armstrongs and Shannon Overmiller, who cut her teeth at Restaurant Eve and now leads the Majestic kitchen, are committed to using locally grown ingredients.

Another route for first courses is the list dubbed “Little Tasty Sides,” small dishes meant to accompany entrées but perfect as appetizers. The succotash, studded with snappy pearl onions, is equally zesty without bacon vinaigrette, and the garlicky baby spinach is light enough to float.

The orecchiette pasta is also worth a try, though its oil-and-breadcrumbs base is as filling as macaroni and cheese. But steer clear of the green beans, which are casualties of a sauce that tries to add garlic and onion to an already strong bacon base.

Before your main course has emerged from the stainless-steel open kitchen, you’ll doubtless have noticed something about the Majestic’s servers: They are almost too pleasant and mellow to be believed. Servers mix it up among multiple tables, rarely appearing twice during the same course and putting diners at ease. The staff projects a strong sense of family, which may clash with the sexy vibe of the décor but is part of the Majestic’s charm.

The entrées continue the trend of liberal seasoning and weight in oil-based sauces, which can thrill or overwhelm depending on the dish. The two soft-shell crabs taste fresh from the bay and crunch in all the right places, but the stacked serving arrangement left the bottom crustacean decidedly greasier than the top. And the tomato relish intended to unify the dish misfires badly, throwing a blanket of intrusively sweet-and-sour flavor onto the crabs.

Yet boldness looks good on the meatloaf, each bite revealing an intricate sediment of bread crumbs, egg, meat and herbs. The twin loaves are lightly fried after baking, leaving them slightly crunchy and perfectly charred at the edges. The mashed potatoes accompanying the meatloaf, however, are laden down by butter and lack any lumps at all, suggesting overzealous mixing or a departure from the Majestic’s fresh-only credo.

Other entrées, like the fresh-grilled fish with fennel salad and the seared salmon with shellfish risotto, go a little easier on the stomach. The Majestic offers no bistro burger, sadly, but a New York strip steak satisfies red-meat lovers and a farm-fresh veggie plate hits the lightest end of your palate.

Don’t be surprised if your dinner has hit the two-hour mark by the time the dessert menu arrives, for the Majestic’s closers are impossible to skip. Prepare for another personality flip, as the desserts leave the 1920s behind for the 1950s. There is an authentic no-bake icebox cake, layering chocolate wafers inside chilled chocolate mousse, a straight-up strawberry shortcake and a traditional coconut-frosted cake.

Try the “cookies and shake” first, if you and your date can get into the Archie-comics irony of using two spoons in one glass. Malted milk chocolate ice cream is the base of the irresistibly thick shake, and three home-baked cookies arrive warm on the plate: oatmeal-and-currant, peanut butter and chocolate chip. Coffee comes piping hot from a French press.

And if by this time you’re a bit weak in the knees and heavy in the stomach, that’s OK. In a city where fine dining often looks as quirky as a science experiment and costs as much as a weekend vacation, the Majestic is a welcome throwback.

911 King St., Alexandria, Va. Closest Metro: King Street. Hours: Dinner daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Lunch will begin in June, brunch in mid-July.  

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