Here’s another feature where WeLoveDC authors Donna (greenie) and Katie (foodie) have paired up to tell you about local restaurants that take on the challenge of being green. Donna will explain the logic behind the environmentally friendly trends, and Katie will tell you if the food tastes any good. It’s a rough life, but someone has to do it, right?
Katie: Evening Star Cafe is nestled on Mount Vernon Avenue in the heart of Alexandria’s bohemian neighborhood, Del Ray. Lanterns twinkle above. Seated at the window, Donna and I watched neighbors pass by walking dogs, running errands and grabbing frozen custard from Dairy Godmother. Evening Star has this wonderful homey feel, so it’s not hard as hard to imagine the farm-to-table concept in practice there, as it is at a super-polished place like Charlie Palmer Steak. Chef Will Artley jokes around with us like we’ve known him forever, and describes walking through the farmer’s market picking up the food for our meal and it just makes sense. We were happy to accept an invitation to learn all about Evening Star Cafe (and Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s) approach to green dining.
Donna: Evening Star is just one of the eateries in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), and co-owner Michael Babin talked to us about the philosophy that guides them all. NRG supports mindful growing, with no pesticides or hormones, as well as humane treatment of animals. The restaurants use biodegradable take-home containers, compost scraps, and soon their used cooking oil will be turned into biodiesel fuel.
Katie: We kicked off our meal with a light melon soup. Chef Artley laughed, telling us how he’s allergic to melons, but got so excited when he spotted these that he forgot and sampled some. It was that kind of meal – perfectly accessible, friendly, and so exciting that you forget things like food allergies.
Donna: In keeping with his natural approach to food, the chef concentrates on plain ol’ fresh, honest ingredients. “Farmers don’t say ‘foam,”’ said Chef Artley. And so he avoids the fancy stuff like flavored air as well. Farmers must say “caramel,” though, and good thing. A dish that melted in my mouth was the carrots cooked down into a delicious caramel to cover Virginia scallops. It makes me hungry now just to think of it.
Katie: Chef Artley seems to have a deep and meaningful relationship with carrots, my favorite dish of the night, just like Donna said, was this lovely carrot “carmel”. It came with a Virginia scallop, a less “fishy” scallop sourced locally. It was perfectly sauteed and we got so excited to eat it that we plain forgot to take a picture. Anything you see Artley offer on the menu with carrots – get it, even if you’re not as in love with the root as he is. I’m certainly not, and I will food dream about this dish for days to come.
Donna: Chef William Artley subscribes to an OHIO philosophy — “Only Handle it Once.” That means fresh, unprocessed foods. He buys from the Arlington and King Street farmers markets, picking up such delicacies as local goat cheese and apples for soup, and pumpkin for roasted pumpkin ravioli. Mmmm…..
Katie: One of the fun things about the Neighborhood Restaurant Group is that they all use cured meats from the Red Apron Butchery, a Chef Artley incorporated some charcuterie with thinly sliced squash and goat cheese. I love a chef that embraces cheese, and Artley certainly isn’t afraid of it.
Katie: One of my other favorite dishes of the night was the gnocchi. Served two ways, I loved the pan fried version. Chef Artley is hugely proud of his staff, you can tell the way he talks about them. He says his cooks are able to feel out the pasta, without measuring or exact science, they create the perfect gnocchi just by texture. Whatever it was, it was fantastic, I’d highly recommend it. During our dinner, we were lucky to have a surprise visit from Michael Babin – one of the co-founders of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Donna and I were able to grill him on his green philosophy.
Donna: Babin said NRG supports localism for two reasons — to benefit the environment and minimize food miles, and to support local business. Yet food quality and localism are different issues. To cut down on the distance food travels to get to the restaurant, the better. But there may be someone only slightly farther away, say within 200 miles, that has better quality produce or meat and better practices, said Babin. When sourcing meat, the issues are even more complicated. Are the animals fed sustainable food? Are they treated humanely? How are they slaughtered?
Katie: I loved listening to Babin talk about all the things he’s considering doing with his restaurants. While we were talking we dug into sirloin, perfectly tender, over house-made pasta. Grab it for yourself on the daily menu by ordering the Fuego Rubbed Grilled Sirloin. It was nice to hear about Babin’s goals for his meat production while tucking into a nice steak.
Donna: More buyers equals more influence, and ultimately, said Babin, his restaurants collectively could have an impact on how things are done. For example, he could agree to buy a lot from a certain farmer if the farmer, say, produces food organically. In that way, the restaurants can become a megaphone for how to do things, said Babin.
Katie: We finished with a lovely fried apple pie. I’m usually a chocolate girl, but the fresh market apples, swaddled in a nice dough and fried made me SO HAPPY. Paired with brown sugar ice cream, I almost forgot about the candy bar on the other half of the plate. Josh, the pastry master over at NRG’s Buzz Bakery, designed a candy bar just for Artley. Mad with Dark Chocolate Ganache, Peanut Butter Mousse and broken up with a Hazelnut Crisp, it was outstanding. If the candy bar was served alone I would have not have thought there could be anything better, but the fried apple pie? FANTASTIC.
Donna: I love Evening Star’s commitment to buying local food. As with the other restaurants we’ve profiled in this series, they easily demonstrate not only that local is a good thing to do, but that it tastes good, too. In fact, it tastes fabulous.
Evening Star Cafe is located in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood at 2000 Mount Vernon Avenue Alexandria, VA 22301. Reservations can be yours on OpenTable.