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Majestic Rebirth

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Alexandria Eatery Reopens With Simple, Successful Menu

The Majestic first reopened several years ago in Alexandria, Va., after a decades-long hiatus, during which time locals and tourists alike would try to peer around the brown paper that for so long had covered the windows to catch a glimpse of the delightful original interior—and for signs that something might be happening.

Although it had reopened to great expectations, by the end of last year it looked like the Majestic was in trouble. When chef Cathal Armstrong and his business partner-wife Meshelle, owners of Restaurant Eve, heard that this Alexandria icon might suffer a fate worse than death by becoming a sports bar, they could not bear the idea. After all, it was here in 2003, while talking over a bottle of wine, that the couple conceived of Restaurant Eve, their now critically acclaimed establishment in Alexandria. And so they set about to reopen the Majestic with little fanfare but lots of attention to what it’s all about—the food.

The reopened Majestic (it has dropped the Café in a nod to the original) bears all the hallmarks of an Armstrong project: a clear concept based on a powerful vision, a menu that interprets this concept, a good location, an appropriate and appealing space, and the right staff to carry out the vision. The interior is simple—its plain lines, minimal ornamentation and subtle upholstery hint at an art deco past while its lunch-counter essence is traced in the tiled floor and booth space.

Chef Armstrong has established his well-deserved reputation by focusing on high-quality, seasonally available ingredients grown locally, organically and sustainably. The Majestic’s executive chef Shannon Overmiller, recently the chef de cuisine under Armstrong at Restaurant Eve, clearly shares this passion. At first glance, the menu at the newly reopened Majestic doesn’t seem that different from its predecessor, with its focus on Southern cuisine. But with its simple and straightforward presentations, it is seeking to achieve something quite different.

Case in point: the meatloaf. Big, thick slices are served with ultra-smooth mashed potatoes that are not too rich, cheesy or garlicky, while the simple green beans are done with onions and bacon—nothing else. This is as comfortable as comfort food gets, and yet it is anything but routine. The meatloaf is bursting with rich meaty flavor and chews like a nice piece of meat without a lot of filler.

The menu is limited to a few carefully chosen options in each category, appropriate to the small space in which the kitchen staff is working. The soup choices on the menu, a creamy asparagus and a tomato basil, are delightful. The tomato soup, rich with basil and cream, has a mysteriously smoky overtone that suggests the tomatoes may have been grilled first. The fried green tomatoes, one of the more complicated concoctions, pairs big slices of thinly breaded and fried tomatoes with a tomato ragu, ricotta salata and a surprisingly kicky preserved lemon that adds a slight exotic twist to the dish.

The Caesar salad is served in a classic tableside preparation, and you can watch as your server adds each ingredient to the big salad bowl. Topped off with white anchovies, we agreed that it’s one of the best in the city.

The crab cake starter, served with delicate pea shoots, pickled red onion and a slightly spicy roulade, is small and compact, dense with crab meat and lightly fried with a thin cracker crust that keeps in the moisture—an excellent treatment that reveals Overmiller’s roots in the Chesapeake Bay region. Soft-shell crabs pan fried and stacked with tomato relish, succotash and bacon vinaigrette are another dead giveaway that Overmiller is on intimate terms with the crustacean, as the crunchy claws burst juices with each bite.

The roasted chicken, appealing for its simplicity, demonstrates that good cooking can be as much about what is left out as what is put in. Perfectly cooked so that the skin is slightly crisp and the meat tender and juicy, it is served with roasted potatoes and pan gravy. There is nothing in the dish to blur the taste of the chicken itself. The strip steak is also given the basic treatment, and the Majestic butter melting over the top offers tasty dipping for the hand-cut fries.

Two fish options round out the main course choices. A salmon filet, perfectly seared to a slight crunch outside while moist and deep pink inside, is served atop a rich risotto packed with all manner of shellfish. A whole grilled fish served with a mild fennel salad is well prepared, but may be a bit difficult to manage for some.

Most of the main courses are served with sides that are available a la carte and make a nice vegetarian option. With peas, roasted pearl onions and thyme in a vinaigrette-like dressing, the succotash goes beyond the traditional lima beans and corn. Even a pea-hater might find it hard to resist the little sugar bombs dressed with mint, shallots and lemon that make you long for a nice lamb dish. The house-made orecchiette, tossed with breadcrumbs, garlic and pepper, seemed a bit lost on the menu and was the least appealing of the sides.

Pastry chef Rebecca Willis has great fun creating desserts that mirror chef Overmiller’s focus on simplicity and pure flavors. She is continuing to offer a favorite established by her predecessor, good old-fashioned layer cakes—“the taller, the better.” The apricot honey cake was a treat, especially after it had sat for a bit.

Willis also offers an icebox cake that Nabisco could only have dreamed of. Chocolate cookies are layered with a chocolate mousse filling and served with homemade mint ice cream. With its fresh strawberries, perfect biscuit short cakes and a sweet chantilly, the strawberry shortcake a classic rendition of this favorite seasonal dessert.

Fresh from the success of his beverage program at Restaurant Eve, we were expecting great things from sommelier and partner Todd Thrasher. He has come up with a nice list of reasonably priced wines in keeping with the Majestic’s relatively modest price point, as well as some excellent microbrew beers. Thrasher has also put together a fun menu of classic cocktails—Sidecars, Hemingway’s daiquiris, Mint Juleps, Old Cubans. But with several tries we were disappointed. This may be simply a startup glitch that will right itself. For now, stick to the wines and beer or a very tasty egg cream.

The Majestic Old Town Alexandria, Va. 911 King Street (703) 837-9117 www.majesticcafe.com

Lunch: Tue. to Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tue. to Thu. 5:30 - 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 5:30 - 10:30 p.m.; Sun. 5:30 - 9:30 p.m. Closed on Monday Prices: Small plates: .50 - ; Main courses: .50 - ; Sides: .75; Desserts: - Dress: Casual Reservations: Recommended

About the Author

Rachel Hunt and Stephen Qualiana are the restaurant reviewers for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999