Marrow Fat Beans at Nina May // Photo: courtesy of Nina May

Dynamic Duos: Vermilion & Nina May 

Marcona Almond Tart at Vermilion

The room is dimly lit by candles and blurred from rich, red wine coursing through my veins. Replete with a meal of suckling pig and rabbit sausage, a tart with a generous scoop of ice cream melting daintily across the golden-brown top appears. 

I inhale the warm scents of vanilla, amplified with a hearty pinch of Maldon salt. My spoon descends into a gooey, textured interior and within seconds, the plate is bare. 

Surely it is only so good because I’m drunk? Because I had just had a spectacular meal? Because I’m in good company? To investigate, I return.

Month after month, on date nights, solo dinners, and even an occasion where I arrived in my pajamas just to eat the tart before bed.

It becomes more than just a dessert. For me, it epitomizes joy that glows and comforts simultaneously. 

Vermilion’s Marcona Almond Tart is both an ode to tradition and a celebration of simplicity.

“It’s really [Chef Joshua Abrams’] baby,” informs Executive Chef Thomas Cardarelli. “We wanted to do a really good nut tart. Josh was researching classic recipes. We had never found an almond tart like this one.”

After three recipe experiments, the tart presented itself onto the dinner menu.

“People come back for this dessert. People come here for lunch and beg for it because it’s not on our lunch menu. People order one and then immediately order another,” Cardarelli shares, incredulously. “We thought it was good but the reaction from our diners exceeded expectations.”

The tart embodies a pâte brisée (a standard butter-based pastry dough) and filling. Rather than preparing the recipe with sliced almonds—a perfectly respectable option as proved by Chez Panisse with their famous almond tart—Vermilion uses “the queen of almonds,” the Marcona almond from Spain. 

A sweeter option than the classic almond variety, the Marcona has a buttery quality that lends well to baking. The unassuming vanilla ice cream that melts seductively onto the tart is enriched with Madagascar vanilla beans. Needless to say, each batch is prepared daily and baked to order. My enthusiastic help aside, Vermilion sells up to 30 tarts a night. 

1120 King St., Alexandria, VA; www.vermilionrestaurant.com

Stewed Marrow Fat Beans with Oyster Root at Nina May

I hate beans. Nothing personal, old bean—not everything can be loved by everyone. When I must, I tolerate you. More often, I eat around you or avoid you completely. 

Avoidance proves difficult when a ceramic dish of plump beans in a creamy sauce is set at the table; part of the second course of Nina May’s rather generous “Chef’s Choice” menu (priced at $39 with a fluid number of courses). 

I politely take and taste a tablespoon of the dish – then another. And another. Suddenly, I find you…charming. 

Perhaps my precaution towards beans lies in the textural element. Whether baked or canned, they’re disturbingly mushy. I haven’t come across many fresh beans on menus. Chef Colin McClimans of Nina May thought the same. 

“The whole point of being a seasonal restaurant was to keep the menu fresh,” McClimans says of Nina May’s promise to source ingredients from within 150 miles and change the menu to reflect what’s available. “When I was doing R&D, fresh beans were available. We were calling ourselves a New American restaurant and I wanted to do something I perceived as super American for the menu.”

This dish is a Chef McClimans’ play on baked beans.

“I wanted the same flavor profiles—smoky and creamy—but not like baked beans at all.”

The dish was featured on the opening menu and stayed for a couple of weeks, until McClimans’ supply of fresh beans from Moon Valley Farm ceased due to seasonality.

“When I took the beans off the menu, I thought there was going to be a riot.”

Finally, McClimans partnered with Path Valley Farms to purchase their supply of shelled beans they had dried during the season. Every day, the beans are rehydrated with water for 24 hours, after which they’re accented with butternut squash, oyster root mushrooms, goat cheese, and a rutabaga puree. Together, it makes the best darned baked bean dish I would have never thought to try on my own.

“That’s the point of our chef’s choice menu,” McClimans continues. “I wanted to put things on there that you might normally ignore. Me, personally, I would never order a vegetarian dish when there’s other stuff on the menu. So, to put something that people wouldn’t be as excited about and to then have it be their favorite dish is the whole point. It allows us to say, ‘Trust me, you’re going to enjoy.’”

Well, Chef. You’ve certainly earned my trust. 

1337 11th Street NW, DC; www.ninamaydc.com