Evening Star Cafe, Del Ray, Alexandria, VA

We walked into Evening Star Cafe on a Tuesday night, grateful to find a booth still open, and were fingered by chef Will Artley.

One unearthly luxury about this underrated restaurant is the wine list by the bottle, which contains over 1,000 selections! They come next door from the retail shop, Planet Wine, and cost a mere $10 over retail.

I ran over to Planet Wine and did a quick inventory check, then came back to the booth and made my selection, a 2009 Lauverjat Sancerre (only $30). The one drawback to ordering bottled wine here – and this has always been the case – is that it takes a long time to chill the whites down to temperature, and it was a good (actually not so good) fifteen minutes before we got our first sip.

During the wait, Will came over to the table, and we asked him if there were any must-haves. He offered to do a tasting menu, and we instantly closed the menus and said yes, adding that we weren’t all that hungry.

As we nursed the Sancerre, the courses started to arrive – a daily special roasted Carrot Salad with Carrot Dressing, beautiful roasted kaleidoscope carrots, plated with tiny bits of blue cheese, shards of marinated red onion, and arugula, all elegantly dressed with an emulsified carrot dressing. Then, a daily special Roasted Butternut Squash Soup which came out piping hot (I love this), and after that a small sampler from the regular menu, “BLT” Mac & Cheese which was terrific spinach gnocchi, tomato concass√©, applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onion, all resting on a bed of triple truffle cream sauce. A heavy dish, to be sure (despite the gnocchi being extremely refined), and unapologetically so.

After these three courses (and a second bottle of the Lauverjat), the white flags came up. It might not sound like a lot of food, but it was, and it was also surprisingly rich, in a good way. Will came out, and said “I’d rather overfeed people than underfeed them,” and you should take him seriously when he says this.

The three-course tasting lasted as long as we let it, and cost only $30. Will was prepared to go on forever, and later told me that he’ll do this for anyone – three courses, five courses, or whatever you want. Just tell your server how many courses you’d like, and ideally, how much you want to spend (normally between $10-15 per course – the more expensive options will get you costlier ingredients). Or, you could do what we did and just have the kitchen start sending things, surrender when ready, and assume that your meal will cost in that range. Evening Star Cafe is a terrific, relatively unknown option in Northern Virginia that’s worth a cross-town drive.

Three days later, my evening was free, and I sneaked into the back bar area for a late dinner while the NCAA’s were on TV. It took a good thirty minutes for a barstool to open up, so I stood and sipped a pint of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($5).

When I finally got seated, I was pretty hungry since it was after 8:30, so I decided to go heavy. My first course was a Crab & Pork Terrine ($11) with herb salad and mustard vinaigrette, topped with some fascinating little fried chickpeas, and I paired it with a glass of 2010 Ponga Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50) from New Zealand. This terrine was very good, but the crab wasn’t really discernible, and it came across more as a generously sized, finely packed, straight pork terrine. I liked this, but it may have been my least favorite dish of the week here, chickpeas aside.

For my main course, I threw caution to the wind and got a mammoth Braised Pork Shank ($22) that was just what I wanted. Perfectly braised, it was generously served atop roasted sweet potato polenta, cashew and parsnip salad, and its own braising jus. (Doesn’t this sound good?) I paired it with a glass of 2009 Hillinger Pinot Grigio ($7, note the gentle pricing) which, since it was from Austria, had enough stuffing to match the pork shank.

This was a really good one-two punch of meals, and between Will Artley and the wine list, it’s almost enough to make me want to move to Del Ray so I can walk to this neighborhood gem.

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