Virtue Feed & Grain, Alexandria

(See the Mar 20, 2014 Review here.)

I’m not much into listicles, but I counted on this one during Christmas Day; at 4:55 PM, with the Golden State – Cleveland game five minutes away from tip-off, I found myself standing outside in the rain, in front of a dark, locked-up Union Street Public House.

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Desperate, I asked Siri where the nearest sports bar was, and got some ridiculous answer that was about twenty minutes away. I was caught completely off-guard, trapped, and doomed … until I turned around.

There, in front of me, across the street, was an open Virtue Feed & Grain. I walked over there, and saw the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: three flat-screen TVs behind the bar, with plenty of empty seats. I walked in, asked the bartender if they’d be showing The Game, and positioned myself right in front of the TV set – my Christmas evening had been saved, and there really *is* a Santa Claus.

I’m sorry to put a lump of coal in your stocking, but like so many other “microbreweries” from several years past (Lagunitas, New Belgium, Deschutes, Harpoon, Stone – yes, even Bell’s), Great Lakes Brewing Company has gone over to the dark side. A bottle of Great Lakes Elliot Ness Amber Lager ($7) was lifeless, bland, and a shadow of what it was just a few years ago. The good brothers at Beer Advocate are going to learn – if they haven’t already – how incredibly *easy* it is to begin a review website, relative to how incredibly *difficult* it is to keep it up-to-date once you have it populated. Gentlemen, you can throw that 100-point rating straight out the window. Knowing absolutely nothing about their production figures, or whether or not they’ve been sold, or had an infusion of investment capital, my personal experience has shown me that Great Lakes is a brewery in decline, and that statement is partially based on multiple trips to the Midwest over the past several years. As recently as five years ago, I *loved* this brewery; no longer.

The menu at Virtue Feed & Grain no longer mentions Santiago Lopez as their chef, so I don’t know who’s running the kitchen at this point. However, under the (perhaps false) assumption that there might be a Latino influence in the kitchen, and seeing some Latino-influenced items on the menu, I decided that would be the basis of my dinner. But first, I had some business to tend to, in the form of Baker’s 7-Year 107-Proof Bourbon ($8) served neat, one ice cube on the side, and thanks to both Jake Parrott and Josh Raynolds for their rapid-turnaround help in ordering.

After “a glass or two,” it was time to eat something, so I ordered the Wild Mushroom Tacos ($12 for 3), and I now ask myself if I chose the single-best thing on the entire menu, because these tacos were wonderful. Not the tortillas themselves so much as the filling – it was a mushroom-lovers delight (incidentally, have you noticed how preponderant mushrooms are on restaurant menus these past few weeks?), and went perfectly with the Bourbon. Don’t read too much into what I’m about to say: They came accompanied with a bowl of rice, and there was something “unusual” about this rice that I simply could not place, despite trying my hardest for over thirty minutes. At first, I thought that there was a touch of rancidity in the oil; then, that something had just started to ferment; finally, I concluded that it was inconclusive, and it could have been something as simple as kidney beans mixed with bits of red pepper – there were also some corn kernels, and maybe a very light application of oil, but not much. I pride myself in being able to peg scents and flavors, but at the end of the day, I’m still left wondering what it was about this rice that has me so perplexed (I finished every bite, mainly in a vain effort to try and satisfy my curiosity). But, forget the rice, because it was just a side dish: The tacos were the star of the show, and deservedly so – this is a great dish for vegetarians.

I nursed these tacos, along with my “one or two glasses” of Baker’s, for the entire basketball game, making sure to leave a generous tip for the bartender, but I knew I’d be hungry later, so I also ordered a Chesapeake Crab Cake Sandwich ($16), figuring that I’d have it for lunch the next day if not later in the evening. Virtue has a single crab-cake appetizer for $14, and it’s a better value springing for the sandwich since it comes with a cast-iron-seared brioche bun, and an order of hand-cut fries (you also have the option of pasta salad or seasonal vegetables). Eaten much later, and not reheated, the fries were at room temperature so cannot be judged fairly, but they were still very good, and I can verify that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the oil. The sandwich, despite also being at room temperature, was very tasty, seemingly consisting mostly of claw meat, and fairly priced at $16.

This was a much different experience than my previous visit to Virtue Feed & Grain in March, 2014 – the ship has righted itself, at least somewhat, and … I’ll come out and say it now: My previous trip was a disaster; not so any longer.

And they have three flat-screen TVs behind the bar!

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