This past Sunday, being an unseasonably lovely day (what global warming?), my girlfriend Eliza and I decided to take a walk about Old Town Alexandria. I don't make it down to this area nearly as often as I'd like, so it was interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same.
An interesting new addition to the Alexandria gourmet scene is Grape + Bean, a little shop right on South Royal Street just off of King. Ramona actually tipped me off to this place about a week ago, so when I spotted it out of the corner of my eye I thought I'd check it out.
Housed in a comfortable little space with a very 'Old Town' feel (wide-planked hardwood floors, exposed brick, etc), the Grape + Bean specializes in artisanal coffees and eclectic wines. Though the shop was full of browsers when I wandered in, I was immediately greeted by the barista (whom I assume is also the owner, given the nature of the business), who offered me a sample of several wines they were tasting at the time. Sipping on my Thorn Clarke Sparkler (which incidentally is a very nice, dry-finishing Australian bubbly, well worth the $15 price tag), I took a moment to peruse the shelves. The wine selection, while small, was actually very interesting: in a shop with maybe 50 facings, I was surprised to find such oenological oddballs as Lagrein rose, Rias Baixas Albarino, and various obscure wines from Iberia, all pretty reasonably priced.
Amongst the wines were sprinkled a selection of high-end wine and food related knick-knacks— by and large the usual William Sonoma sort of affairs, though there was a fascinating looking salt well featuring a rainbow of colored rocks that reminded me how little I know about the mineral. The cold chest was a bit bare, but there were a some nice beers being offered such as Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Dale's Pale Ale out of Colorado, and amongst the several cheeses was Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog, one of my favorites.
The coffee menu featured about 5 or 6 coffees from Counter Culture, a well known roaster out of Durham, NC, dedicated to sustainability, fair trade, and really good java. The descriptions were ample and detailed. After a good amount of consideration, I ended up selecting an Ethiopian, single-village coffee called Harfusa. Coffees are made on a cup-by-cup basis using the shop's single Clover unit. While the system is much touted for making coffee in the freshest, most correct manner possible, one thing the Clover machine is not is fast. From ordering to service, my coffee took 10 minutes to arrive— I didn't mind, what with more wine to sample. At about $4.00 a 14 oz. cup, the price was a little steep, but the coffee was quite tasty. This being my first experience with this type of coffee maker, I wasn't sure what to expect— the flavors were indeed fresh, but the texture was unusual, a more evident suspension than your average cup of joe; you could actually feel the particles in the liquid, as in espresso, but with less intensity. It was very unusual, but a must try for any coffee nerd out there.
After a refreshing cup of hot black coffee, I developed a hankering for seafood (obviously). Strolling a bit further towards the water, we stopped at one of those establishments that never seems to change: The Fish Market.
Ensconced in a 19th Century shipping warehouse constructed of old ballast stones, the Fish Market gives off a much "homier" vibe than many of the upscale eateries that have popped up on King over time. The dining room features the full complement of Neptune's bounty, in large portions, and you can "have it your way," broiled or fried. Homey, sad to say, does have its pitfalls. Those looking for a plethora of beer and wine choices to accompany innovative seafood dishes will be quite let down— the fare at The Fish Market is decidedly simple from both behind the bar and from the kitchen.
Fortunately, our tastes were leaning toward the simple side that day, craving nothing more than beer and oysters; in this department, the Market was unlikely to disappoint. What I wasn't prepared for was the bounties of happy hour (4 PM to 7 PM, Sunday thru Thursday). While nothing superb, the Market offers a small selection of 32 oz. beers for less than $8.00, and the wines are blah blah BLAH ... the oysters were 69 cents apiece!!! Normally $8.25 a half dozen, during happy hour that price is halved, making this the best shellfish deal I've come across, Ebbitt's and Hank's (blessed though they might be) be damned! And these Blue Points were huge, too, and perfectly sweet and briny even so late in the season (though to be fair, we did come across one gritty one in the dozen). The raw clams were similarly priced and also fresh, although the flavor did not make me a convert. Overall, I was truly impressed with the quality to price ratio. If you can find the time, make a point to swing by the Market before this best of all seasons runs dry. Trust me, Sam Adams tastes like ambrosia when paired with a dozen shucked oysters the size of your cellphone.
Grape & Bean
118 South Royal Street
The Fish Market
105 & 107 King Street