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The clambake is Armstrong’s homage to the sea and late summer.

FEATURES

Flight of Fancy

By Nevin Martell

Photography by Greg Powers

08.29.17

Culinary maestro Cathal Armstrong delivers another gem with Old Town’s Hummingbird.

IRISH-BORN CATHAL Armstrong is best known for Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, which celebrates the culinary traditions of his birthplace. However, through Society Fair and the Majestic (he is no longer associated with the latter), the award-winning chef has explored the cooking of his adopted homeland. He digs down into those roots further with Hummingbird, a coastal-themed venture inside the recently opened Indigo Hotel on the banks of the Potomac.

Look across the river. You’ll see the outlines of DC’s District Wharf, which is set to open later this fall and feature two more concepts from Armstrong’s group: Southeast Asian-minded Kaliwa and Potomac Distilling Company. The distilling venue will produce its own rum under the watchful eye of the chef’s partner, decorated barman Todd Thrasher.

Turn your eye back to Hummingbird, and you’ll find servers in fetching gingham shirts flitting about the 65-seat restaurant, which includes a main dining room, a semiprivate space, a small lounge area and a 40-seat patio. The tones throughout are largely nautical—dusky navy blues and bright whites—with subtle silver-and-copper accents, like the fittings on a ship. Just a few steps from the marina, it possesses a chic yacht-club sensibility.

The seafood-forward menu emphasizes prime ingredients. Armstrong puts the star in starters. Crabcakes are made with barely any binder, well-complemented by a mustardy remoulade. A tender tentacle of octopus curls around capers, green olives and cherry tomatoes that add sweetness to balance the bounty of brine. For a more terrestrial kickoff, a grilled Gruyere and Virginia ham sandwich on brioche is simple and highly satisfying.

A dessert tray with mini salted whoopie pie, plus fig and salted chocolate-chip cookies.

Entrees are as generously portioned as they are excellently executed. Sold as a single serving, but big enough for two, the clambake brims with lobster tail, littleneck clams, mussels, andouille sausage and corn on the cob. A well-composed bite overflows with rhapsodic flavors—deep brine, fiery spice and flickers of sweetness from the kernels.

Soft-shell crabs, minus claws, are lightly sauteed to emphasize their crunch. Two of the beautiful swimmers rest on succotash, illuminated with lima beans and red bell peppers. It’s a lingering taste of summer.

One of the most Instagam-worthy presentations is the grilled whole branzino, its skin crackly as a pork rind and its tender flesh flavored by the herbs and wheels of thinly sliced lemon stuffed into its belly. A miniature milk-bottle caddy with four condiments—lemon anchovy oil, Thai-chili lime sauce, chimichurri and gremolata—accompanies it. Purists might want to skip the sauces and focus on the fish. The sweet, succulent meat is its own reward.

If you’re looking for a monster meal, the Beastly Burger lives up to its name. Crisscrossed with applewood-smoked bacon and sporting a capelet of melted cheddar and piled high with lettuce, tomato and onions, it’s a two-hands-required proposition. A thatch of crispy fries on the side is exactly what Dr. Feelgood would have prescribed.

Desserts are designed to simply satisfy. The restaurant’s namesake cake is a respectable rendition of the Southern favorite. Similar to a carrot cake, the moist double-layer treat is instead forged from bananas and pineapples, but still iced with plenty of cream-cheese frosting. Another winner: an honest Key lime pie that’s just tart enough with a classic crust of crushed graham crackers. The only difference is that it arrives as a thin rectangular bar rather than as a thick wedge.

A tray of cookies worthy of anyone’s inner child features revolving selections, such as a miniature salted peanut-butter whoopie pie, a fig cookie crusted with crunchy turbinado sugar, and a dark chocolate-chip cookie with sea salt. A cold-milk chaser will arrive if you ask—a comforting ending to a meal built for elegant simplicity and satisfaction at every turn.  

DC bar genius Todd Thrasher keeps the cocktails classic—Manhattan, Negroni and the like. He gets more playful with the seasonal frozen sippers, like the not-too-sugary pina colada forged from coconut milk, coconut water and fresh pineapple juice that’s capped off with a golden rum float. And the icy, blushing pink cosmopolitan is refreshingly tart and perfect for beating September’s heat.

HUMMINGBIRD 
220 S. Union St., Alexandria, Va., 703.566.1355
Appetizers, $8-$14; entrees, $19-$27; desserts, $9
Sun., 11:30am-3pm and 5-9pm; Mon.-Fri., 7-10am, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm; Sat., 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm