110 South Pitt St., Alexandria;
After almost six years of running Restaurant Eve, chef/owner Cathal Armstrong admits there are days when he asks himself, “Am I trying to convince myself that I still love it? Or do I still love it?” Armstrong’s confession has an unscripted honesty about it, which is one of the reasons why I admire the chef. He always seems to be searching for moments of pure human expression, unburdened by public relations or business concerns or even self-consciousness.
He’s looking for much the same thing in his cooking: those dishes that bring everything together in perfect harmony—ingredients, cooking techniques, presentation, and that ephemeral, indescribable characteristic that I’ll call soulfulness. You can’t teach it, but you know when it’s there. “You spend your whole day looking for that one plate that’s just right,” Armstrong says.
It doesn’t come often enough for the chef, he says. At best he tastes one “every other week.” This is when I think Armstrong’s honesty runs head first into his Irish (if not false) modesty.
Restaurant Eve produces far more than one perfect dish a fortnight. I know. I’ve had two (or more) in one sitting in Eve’s tasting room. It might be his fillet of Spanish mackerel, its skin crisp and flesh moist, paired with a single poached mussel and a fried risotto ball, whose interior offers up a dark surprise, jet-black squid ink. Or it might be his fried veal sweetbreads, whose soft and savory character is complemented by a tangle of braised red cabbage, pillowy potato gnocchi, and a baby onion crisp. Or it might even be in the interplay between Armstrong’s cooking and sommelier Todd Thrasher’s wine selections, like the way the chef’s mackerel brings out the sweeter qualities in a glass of tart, acid-forward 2007 Domaine de la Folie Rully Clos La Folie.
The Armstrong-Thrasher collaboration, in fact, cannot be emphasized enough; while both individually talented, they are obviously stronger as a partnership, the Lennon-McCartney of local cooking, their ideas influencing and shaping each other. That collaboration can be felt all throughout the restaurant—in the tasting room, in the bistro, and in the lounge, where Thrasher still mixes the most creative cocktails around.