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Chef Marron Challenges Alexandria’s Top Toques

Jordan Wright
By Jordan Wright
Posted on Apr 08,2009
Filed Under Food And Wine , Local Tastes,

To awaken the palate our journey at Morrison House began with Tuna Tataki
topped with Red Tobiko and served with watermelon slaw.

Imagine it is the latter part of the 18th Century and you're on your way to see General Washington at his 6000-acre Estate at nearby Mount Vernon.

It’s been a long and dusty ride as your driver pulls up to Morrison House in Old Town Alexandria for dinner and overnight lodging before continuing your journey.

You disembark your carriage beside the fountains and ascend the marble double staircase into Federalist grandeur. The footman attends to your horses and beckons you in. Sounds of merriment, a piano and singers, pour forth from the publick room and you settle in for the evening’s amusements.

The Braised Veal was over-the-top divine -- my
runaway favorite -- the sweetbreads, creamy and
crispy too, and the root vegetables that were
hand-carved into spheres the size of pomegranate
seeds, each contributing its pure identity in
harmony with the others.

The reality is hardly altered from this historical fantasy.

Switch carriage for car, footman for doorman, publick room for bar, and you have a portrait of this exquisite Kimpton hotel, named by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the 500 finest in the world. Built 24 years ago, it replicates the elegance of the period, and dovetails seamlessly into its neighborhood of 200-year old homes.

One balmy evening last week I sampled the creative efforts of Chef Dennis Marron, the executive chef at the Mobil 4-star Morrison House hotel at 116 S. Alfred Street in Old Town.

I had already heard positive buzzbites about Chef Marron, formerly of DC's Bistro Bis, and when I saw a couple leaving The Dining Room (the actual name of the formal dining room) I asked if they had enjoyed their meal. The gentlemen agreed with his wife, “Yes, very, very much!” and he gave me that wait-till-you-try-it look, with one eyebrow raised, that spoke of a new conspiracy.

Our expectations were high.

We had begun at the bar tasting Mixologist Rosen Ivanov’s special Spring cocktails….a sassy pear and ginger refresher with vodka, and a very untraditional yet luscious properly hand-muddled pineapple bourbon julep.

From the menu one can choose from a three-, five- or six-course dinner with the option of wine pairings. We chose the six-course meal and with trusted wine and spirits expert, William Smith -- formerly of Domaso Restaurant at the Hotel Palomar Arlington and now director of Food and Beverage at Morrison House -- we knew we were in capable hands.

To awaken the palate our journey began with Tuna Tataki topped with Red Tobiko and served with watermelon slaw. Then a whimsical deconstruction of Waldorf Salad with Gala apples, grapes, butter lettuce, a disc of in-house made apple fruit leather, crumbled walnuts and grape jelly medallions spoke to the chef’s sense of playfulness.
I took it as a message from the kitchen to buckle up…we were in store for some clever interpretations.

Morrison House has captured nearly every award
imaginable. The AAA 4-diamond hotel made Condé
Nast Traveler's  "Gold List" every year from 2005 to
2009 and is on Travel + Leisure magazine's list of
Best 500 Hotels in the World.

Our first wine was a Napa Valley Chardonnay, and for starters, a Caesar Salad with Grilled Romaine, Parmesan Tuiles and large Brioche Croutons filled with Caesar dressing partnered beautifully with an oaky Sonoma Valley Chardonnay.

An elegantly simple Apple Parsnip Soup with Cinnamon Mousse, Duck Confit and apple chips floating atop the velvet liquid paired perfectly with a Barboursville Pinot Grigio..

Crudo, prepared with sliced raw Fluke, alongside marinated calamari and preserved lemon and capers, was accompanied by a sparkling champagne-style wine from the Loire Valley.

It was around this time that the opera singers and balladeers voices began to filter into the dining room and we felt as though they were singing for us and the evening took on new meaning knowing that the singers and the chef were putting out a huge effort in the adjoining rooms, vying for our pleasure with arias, Broadway ballads and fabulous food.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” escorted in our olive wood Grilled Rockfish with Clam Air, Swiss chard, Yukon Gold potatoes and miniscule baby clams supporting large chunks of Bacon Lardons.

Unfortunately the clams, which cooked faster than the bacon, couldn’t hold up to the hefty pork flavor, but the regal Rockfish was smoky, crispy and juicy, all at the same time.

A cunning transition called a Progression of Scallops went from Diver Scallop Crudo, to cold Smoked Scallop topped with a pastille of Meyer Lemon, bursting with a sweet tartness, to a day boat Scallop seared in butter, its golden dome lathered in Bacon Espuma.

Chef Dennis Marron

Lastly, classic Coquille St. Jacques, bedded down in its shell, was, sadly, the singular glitch as the hazelnut-sized Scallops were over-cooked and rubbery (which often occurs when smaller sizes are employed), the cream sauce indiscernible and the expected hint of French vermouth notedly absent.

But for a few minor missteps, these dishes on balance reflected a dazzling command of technique and a willingness to push the epicurean envelope. Plates arrived dressed to perfection, some with impasto slashes of deep-flavored sauces and inventive interplays of ingredients, many locally sourced.

Each course revealed another layer of Chef Marron’s personality, imagination and intensity. (This just in…Chef Marron has just been named the Executive Chef of Jackson 20, the restaurant at the Hotel Monaco on King Street. He’ll cover both sites and redesign the menu for Jackson 20. I’ll keep you posted.)

An intermezzo of Pineapple Sorbet with champagne cleared the way for Braised Veal Breast with potato puree, crispy sweetbreads, root vegetables and a truffle jus.

The Braised Veal was over-the-top divine -- my runaway favorite -- the sweetbreads, creamy and crispy too, and the root vegetables that were hand-carved into spheres the size of pomegranate seeds, each contributing its pure identity in harmony with the others.

Sounds of “What I Did For Love” ushered in Roasted Duck Breast with persimmon and Foie Gras side-by-side with Duck Confit and Wild Rice Pilaf.

My thoughts drifted to Shakespeare’s passionate sentiment from Twelfth Night:  “If food be the music of love, play on.”

We made a plan to return to The Grille for the piano and sing-a-longs before the night was over. Long time accompanist, Ms. Pat, plays Thursday nights for a colorful group of sophisticated locals including some Washington National Opera cast members who come here on their off-nights. We hoped to join in.

The denouement of this marvelous meal appeared before me as a Flight of Coconut, poised on a rectangular china palette.
Beginning with Saffron-Coconut Marshmallows the size of Dipping Dots, to its right tender Coconut Macaroons atop coconut whipped cream, then a dessert so light and scrumptious I longed for a bowl of it.

The Coconut Mousse moved me to tears. Well, just a few, and it might have been the wine, but it was absolutely transcendent. A perfectly serviceable Chocolate Coconut Cream Pie played second fiddle. But how could it not?

A special cheese course of Monocacy Ash Goat Cheese from a farm in Maryland, halved by a line of ash to separate the morning from the evening milking, sat atop a toasted brioche (I’ll bet you can order that from room service for breakfast), with roasted strawberries and crumbled macadamias with a port reduction.

The glass of Tawny Port took this dish over the top and that's exactly where I like to be.

Keep your eye on this exceptionally talented chef who has a spring menu debuting as I write this review. I feel sure that he will be challenging our other top toques in Alexandria.

Highly recommended.

Contact the writer at
If You're Going...
The Dining Room at The Morrison House
116 South Alfred Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 838-8000

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