Jan 312010

Last Saturday Gabriele and I enjoyed a nice dinner at Columbia Firehouse in Alexandria, on the site of the long-time Portners and the very short-lived Bookbinders. It was our second meal there, and it’s obvious that the Firehouse is another success in the expanding Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG).

A lot of the links on their site don’t seem to work, but their restaurants sure do. Columbia is another hit, following in the steps of personal favorites like Evening Star Cafe, Tallula, Vermillion and Rustico. The unifying theme seems to be places that take both the bar and the dinner menu seriously. The emphasis may differ — at Tallula wine rules, at Rustico beer, and at Evening Star a good restaurant shares space with a funky neighborhood hangout.

One of several dining rooms

At Columbia, the beautiful and venerable bar from Portner’s looks to have been carried over. You walk into a buzzing bar scene that connotes a nice feeling of energy and popularity. But there are plenty of tables far enough away from the bar to allow for a quieter dining experience. Our first visit we were seated in a detached dining room off to the left (pictured above), and Saturday we were straight back and down a level from the entrance. Both locations allowed for easy conversation, and there is an upstairs which presumably removes the bar feedback entirely.

The menu at Columbia is small, with everything seemingly done well. Both times we started with delicious mussels, offered steamed with a choice of accoutrements. I’d recommend them with the bacon, arugula and parmesan. Saturday we also had a tasty plate of “sliders”- sausage, burger and roast beef. It was delicious comfort food, elevated to a high level. Service was friendly, attentive and timely.

Gabriele loved her scallops, and I decided to stay with the comfort food theme, going with a delicious brisket sandwich paired with a beet, bleu cheese and walnut salad. To go with dinner, we chose the Mitolo Jester 2006 Shiraz. It’s a smooth, delicious Shiraz with just enough acidity to keep its big fruit in line. If you’re looking for complexity you should look elsewhere, but this is a solid Aussie that is sure to please. And a fair value at $40, with a retail price around $20.

Wine alert — if you’re in the mood to splurge, there looks to be a great value on the wine list. I don’t remember the year, but there is a d’Arenberg “Dead Arm” Shiraz on the list for $70. That’s not chump change, but the wine retails for between $50-60.

I really like what the NRG seems to be all about. When you’re spending the money it’s nice to go to a place that aspires to please on multiple levels — food, libations and ambiance. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Try one of their places soon, and drop me a comment if you agree – or disagree!

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