Del Ray Cafe

205 E. Howell Ave.
Alexandria, VA  22301
Del Ray Cafe on Urbanspoon

I have to admit that I have a man crush on Del Ray.  I've been in and around this area for practically my whole life and I'm wondering why I've never been to this great part of the DMV neighborhood before.  It's a quaint, quiet little neighborhood that has some chic little storefronts and feels like its brimming with quirkiness and creativity.  It's like a countrified Brooklyn when Brooklyn isn't trying to hard to live up to its hipster reputation.  I went to lunch at Evening Star a couple of weeks back and I read about a new restaurant opening up just around the corner called Del Ray Cafe so I decided to give it a go.

"Opening up" is literally true in this case.  The restaurant is just over a week old and when I walked up to it, workmen were still building out the seating area on the front porch.  It just got its liquor license approved and the decorations are still a bit bare bones.  I don't think they're fully staffed yet since I heard the manager talking up a customer saying that they had plenty of positions available in the service staff if they knew anyone.  I found the concept to be pretty unique though.  The restaurant sits in what I'm assuming used to be someone's home just off the main thoroughfare in Del Ray.  They've renovated it to included a wrap around porch, two floors of dining, and a beautifully landscaped front lawn complete with a bike rack.  They seem to have opened up pretty ambitiously also with services for breakfast/brunch, lunch and dinner seven days a week. To me, it's almost like a diner-ish (in the way that the diner provides good quality comfort food at almost all hours of the day) concept mixed with a french country house complete with french country cooking.

I've never really been a big fan of french cooking.  It's not necessarily the flavors because french food done well is pretty amazing. It's just that the refinement and delicacy of french cooking is to such a degree that, to me, it doesn't quite evoke some of emotional responses I like to get from food and this is why I prefer Italian food (yeah, yeah I know I buy into the stereotypes).  The type of french cooking, however, that I do enjoy the most is best described as rustic and provincial.  Something like Les Abeilles in Sablet (in Provence) which I had the pleasure of visiting about two years ago.  Del Ray Cafe may not be as creative or ambitious as that place but the feel and atmosphere is definitely in the same ball park.

To start of my meal I ordered the Soup de Jour (Soup of the Day for you Dumb and Dumber fans).  It was Carrot and Ginger which sounded good so I had that (thanks folks, I'm here all week).  To me, the soup was a little too thin which was odd since there clearly was a ton of cream, or creme fraiche or some other type of creamy substance, in the flavor of the soup.  In fact, the creaminess was a bit more prevalent than the carrot and the ginger, especially the ginger which I only got tiny hints of here and there.  I do prefer my soups to be more cream based than anything so I enjoyed the comfort and rustic feel of the dish.  I also enjoyed the simple presentation of it all.  It was just soup with some fresh herbs on top with no other flourishes.

I decided to stick to a classic French staple and order Mussels Meunière for my entree that was served with toasted country bread and french fries.  There was an option to add saffron or curry so I decided to include the saffron.  They bring out the mussels in a covered pot that reminded me of a mini-lobster steamer and when the lid came off, the mussels were still steaming (literally) hot.  It's hard not to appreciate presenting food like this and definitely fit in with the comforting, rustic vibe the restaurant is going for.  The mussels came out sweet, fresh and cooked perfectly.  The broth (which is always the best part) turned into this yellow-orangish color due to the saffron and turned out to be this rich tasting soup of mussel juice, saffron, garlic, butter and wine.  While I loved the presentation of the mussels, the container was a bit too high-rimmed which made it awkward to get at the soup.  Also, I had totally forgot about the toast until the very end since the container really did dominate the plate and I couldn't see the toast.   I think its tradition to serve french fries with mussels or at least I've seen it done in many places but to me, they were such an afterthought.  They were also not crispy enough for my tastes but they did sure taste good when you dipped them generously into the broth.

For dessert, I got my customary coffee and the chocolate mousse.  It was a simple presentation of mousse with a whipped cream, a basil leaf and a strawberry placed on top of a cup of a chocolate mousse.  I dipped the strawberry into the whipped cream and chewed on that pensively and then I mixed the rest of the whipped cream with the mousse.  I had expected the mousse to be a little smoother and sweeter and not so chock full of chocolate flavor.  I had also expected to take my time eating the mousse while enjoying my coffee.  Neither of those outcomes occurred.  The mousse was gone in approximately 2.3 seconds.  I know its an easy combination to make but I enjoyed this mousse tremendously.  It wasn't quite the consistency of pudding but was thick and dark and the whipped cream helped smooth it out a bit instead of just being a side item on top.  I know its hard to get excited about a mousse but I just did and I'm happy I tried it.

Del Ray Cafe is even more of a work in progress than Green Pig Bistro with construction still going on in the front and light fixtures with no light bulbs as of yet.  But, the concept is big and grand and ambitious and I hope it succeeds.  I've never quite come across an all day restaurant that offers comfortingly rustic french cuisine but from the setting and feel to the elegant yet simple dishes I saw on the menu, I really enjoyed the meal and I am very excited about the vision of the place.  I am most excited about trying out their breakfast since it gives an option beyond traditional diner fare or the local fast food breakfast burrito.


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