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Sep 3, 2011 01:53 PM

Thoughts on Virtue in Old Town? Not a great first experience...

Didn't have a great meal at Virtue recently and I'm wondering if I could have navigated the menu more wisely...

In terms of atmosphere, the place is beautiful - an interior designer's dream come true. The theme of a feed and grain warehouse extends to almost everything (little burlap sacks hold the bill, even). We got there early-ish and with the place fairly empty you could really appreciate all the work that obviously went into creating the elegant/rustic effect. Maybe a little *too* themey, but that's nitpicking.

The food seemed almost like an after-thought when compared to such carefully executed decor. We got an assortment of smaller plates, including two specials, hoping to sample a variety of things and benefit from the freshest ingredients. Overall, everything was bland or out of balance, or otherwise underwhelming.

Fried mushrooms with aioli seemed intriguing, but they ended up being exactly how they sound - whole button mushrooms in breading, deep-fried. The kind of thing that should either surprise you with its simple, unexpected fried goodness, or doesn't seem to warrant a place on the menu at all. They were just OK. Fried calamari was above average in moistness, but considering how dry most fried calamari is I think that says more about other restaurants than this one. The portions for both fried app's were fair-to-generous, although neither was tasty enough that it mattered much.

The specials were baba ganoush and an heirloom tomato salad. The baba ganoush was served hot -a first for me - and came with too-thick, too-hard slices of baguette. The bread was completely wrong for the dip, drowning out its delicate flavor and clashing with its texture. When we tried the dip straight or with softer bread its seasoning came through a little better. Still, I found it too close to bland. The heirloom salad had chunks of tomato that were somehow over *and* under ripe. I'm not a salt fiend at all, and I can't think of a single time I've salted food at a restaurant, but these needed salt to bring out any fruity-ness in the dish. We thought that the strips of cheese on top of the salad were maybe supposed to be the salty element, but they were bland and didn't give any balance at all to the tomatoes (the cheese also had a curious texture, which I actually didn't mind, that reminded me of licorice -- the strips were very glossy and almost waxy). We also shared a crab cake sandwich ($20). The cake itself was good - sweet, nicely textured, crisp - but it was served on a soft roll that was spread with whole-grain dijon mustard. I love the stuff, but it overpowered the crab cake. I thought it was an odd choice considering it usually shows up to cut the fatty richness of sausage, beef, and the like. To my palate, the crab was drowned out by such a pungent mustard.

In all, we walked out for around $75 (including tax and tip, no alcohol) pretty disappointed. I've had the lunch special at Restaurant Eve and thought everything was excellent; I also really like the Majestic and I've had lots of fish and chips at Eammon's. I'm a fan of Cathal Armstrong's commitment to Old Town and his work on school lunch programs, but my ultimate loyalty is to food not chefs! Virtue gives the impression of a project where the design team responsible for the space was motivated and genuinely inspired, but the food team lacked that spark. After this dinner I'm feeling pretty skeptical about the place.

Before I write it off (at least for a while), I'm wondering if anyone else has maybe had entrees there, or made better choices among the small plates? It occurred to us as the meal was winding down that maybe Virtue's real virtue lies in being Alexandria's most stylish, comfortable, and scenic bar - we weren't drinking and so maybe we missed its best charms? I would go back for a drink with visitors, maybe, just to enjoy the ambiance. But unless I hear of undiscovered gems on the food menu Virtue won't be a dining spot for us...

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  1. I've only been there once for dinner and another for Brunch, but here is what I like/Dont:

    Cocktails - Delicious, good beer list too.
    Deviled Eggs - Fabulous! The best I've ever had outside of homemade, tasty, not sulfur-y, nice texture and a wonderful flavor.
    Mac and Cheese - Again, wonderful!
    Pigs in a Blanket - Bigger than traditional, flaky crust with a pretty good sausage tucked inside -Served with their heavy mustard.
    Crubeens (Pig's Feet) - Interesting and tasty, VERY Rich (obviously) and would order again for the table to share, but not to consume myself.
    Bone Marrow - BORING and tasteless! But then again, I've only had marrow a few times and none have knocked my socks off - So I am wondering if it is just no big deal to me (Someone prove me wrong, please!) The bread it comes with was hard and bland .

    Brunch - I had the Corned Beef Hash, which was god, but not corned enough for me - The Egg (Yes, only 1) was cooked perfectly - As was my Wife's Eggs Benedict - I can't tell you how many times I have sent back benedict because the eggs were hard - I know it sounds simple to be able to cook an egg perfectly - But I am amazed at how many restaurants can't do it.

    The Continental Buffet that came with the Brunch ($18 solo, $23 for that an a menu order) was delicious- Fruit, good pastries, Ham, cheese, etc.

    So there ARE good options here - As well as Duds. We just all have to help each other get through the minefield :)

    1. I don't think Virtue has ever billed itself as a foodie dining destination. More like a neighborhood hangout with excellent cocktails and upscale pub grub. I've found all the beer-themed hoptails to be delicious and the beer selection to be one of the better ones in Old Town. I really liked the crubeens; I think it would make an excellent porky burger if it was served on a bun. Maybe too rich for some but just right for me. I also thought the roast chicken was cooked perfectly. There wasn't anything unusual or exotic or "knock your socks off" about it. Just half a roasted chicken, very moist, that tasted like chicken. Like tommyskitchen's comment on the eggs, you'd be suprised how many restaurants screw up something basic like roast chicken.

      To me, Eve is a special occasions sort of place. We've celebrated our anniversary there every year since it opened. The Lickety Split menu in the bar is an occasional treat as well. Majestic is more of a relaxed atmosphere place with a simpler menu. Virtue is a really nice bar that happens to serve food. It's where you go for brunch on the weekend or to relax with a beer and maybe something to munch on and play Ms. Pac Man.

      3 Replies
      1. re: monkeyrotica

        Thanks for your thoughts. I think there's a fair question of whether a place opened by the chef of one of the highest rated restaurants in the DC metro area should be held to a higher standard than someone who opens a "really nice bar that happens to serve food." I don't think Armstrong puts himself out there as a guy who "happens to serve food"! I think that might hurt his feelings. :)

        I do think your assessment is right, though - the place is a great bar without a doubt. I just had higher expectations for the food from someone whose other places are above average. The chowhound in me (not a foodie! too poor/cheap) wants every place, modest or extravagant, to do something knock-the-socks off. I'm an Old Town resident so this was a pretty close "destination." I didn't travel far... just wanted something worth the money. Maybe it's just not for me. Thanks again for the response.

        1. re: Oobay

          Well, there's where we differ. I don't expect every place to knock my socks off. If I did, I'd never wear socks to a restaurant. Usually, I'm happy if they don't go overboard on the salt, foam, or e coli.

          You had a somewhat similar situation that happened with the owner of Cafe Saint-Ex downtown. When it opened, it was simple bistro fare with a few seafood options. Since then, their meals are have gotten a bit more exotic and upscale to meet the needs of their customers. The place became so popular, he opened Bar Pilar to be more of an informal hangout with simple bar food like deepfried tater tots and Bacon Marys. But eventually, that became just as popular and customers demanded more upscale fare. I'm sure that Virtue will adjust their menu to meet demands; if nobody buys the crubeeens, they'll probably be replaced by something else. I just hope it's not cupcakes.

          Bar Pilar
          1833 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

        2. re: monkeyrotica

          I'd second monkeyerotica's review completely. They do have a "feast" that is the chefs choice for 4 that I found great - all about $70 for 4 people. The last one I had was a whole rockfish with several bowls of vegetables - all were great.

        3. My first experience was great on all counts: food (Shepherds Pie), service and ambience.

          1 Reply
          1. re: DPGood

            Agreed. Shepherd's Pie is good.

            Also enjoyed the brunch quite a bit. Good quality food, well cooked and tasty. Can't go wrong.

          2. The description of the cheese reminds me of the individual string cheese sticks.

            1. I had a nice lunch there, had the Pope's lunch. But I appreciate a nice place for casual food done well. It is a really nice place for lunch or a drink after work. I haven't had any of the entrees yet though. But I am happy with well made casual.