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One Giant Leap for Armstrong

From elegant dining to fish and chips, a dual dream comes true for chef.

At age 19, he was a failed adventure as a restaurateur. After that, he made a decision to leave the restaurant business all together and return home to Ireland and college. And now, he has been named one of the 10 best chefs in the country for 2006.

That has been the odyssey of Cathal Armstrong — Mount Vernon resident, owner and chef of "Restaurant Eve" and the soon-to-be "Eamonn's: A Dublin Chipper," which will be opening in the former home of Scotland Yard at the corner of King and South Columbus Streets. His is a journey of the heart and a vision, coupled with that of his wife Meshelle, of what can be when it is believed it was meant to be.

Food and Wine Magazine named Armstrong as one of its "Best Chef's of 2006." He is only the fifth Washington Metropolitan Area chef to be selected into this elite status since 1988. He is a first for any Alexandria chef.

April 19 was the two year anniversary for Restaurant Eve. In that short period of time it has built such a reputation that weekend reservations for the Chef's Tasting Dining Room now stand at two months. And for the Bistro Dining Room, which offers an a la carte menu, a weekend reservation is a mere one month wait.

"This was the perfect place for us. It all came together," Armstrong said sitting in his Chef's Tasting dining room, looking out onto the walled patio. This is where diners are treated to his culinary creations with wines that complement each course.

Those preferring the Bistro dining room can order from an innovative menu selection. Complimenting both venues is a wine selection that offers the perfect compliment to any meal.

Restaurant Eve, located at 110 S. Pitt St., has gone through several incarnations. Years ago it was known as the Wayfarer. In that life it was the classic colonial eatery with spindle back chairs and wood hewn ceiling beams. Next came Sante Fe East, a southwestern restaurant.

IN MARCH 2003, along came Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong with their vision of "Eve," which is named for their 7-year-old daughter. Eamonn, their 4-year-old son, will be the namesake for their new venture scheduled to open this June or July.

They transformed the settings that were both the Wayfarer and Sante Fe East. The bar was moved from the rear of the restaurant to the original front dining room, the kitchen was enlarged, the wine "cellar" was relocated to the main hallway, and two distinct dining rooms were created.

None of this was accomplished without years of hardscrabble experience, particularly on the part of native Dubliner Cathal Armstrong, who started as a dish washer in an Irish pub at age 17. He then went to Europe and decided he knew enough to open his own restaurant back in Ireland at age 19.

"I came back and opened my own place in Dublin. It was a disaster. It lasted about 10 months till I pulled the plug is 1989," he said.

"That's when I came over here and went to work in Murphy's in D.C. My object was to earn enough money to go back to Ireland and college and get out of the restaurant business. My parents wanted me to get out of the business," Armstrong said.

"I was going to go home. Then my father and I had an argument over the phone and I told him I wasn't coming back," he said.

That's when Armstrong met the chef at New Heights Restaurant in Washington.

"I worked for Murphy's during the day and New Heights at night," he said. "That was also the first time I realized that the restaurant business was my career path."

Armstrong stayed with New Heights for three years while he learned the basic of being a chef. His friend left there and went to another restaurant and Armstrong followed. But, that proved a mistake. "There was never really enough business there," he said.

He left and joined another D.C. restaurant on Capitol Hill where he was the chef for four years. Then he spent another four years as the chef at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill.

In the midst of all this career orientation, Armstrong was also doing some part time work at Cities in Adams Morgan making pizza.

There was a hostess/manager there named Meshelle.

"I always knew how good he was as a chef. It's great to know that others now agree," his wife of nine years this month, said.

A native Alexandrian, Meshelle attended St. Mary's School as a child.

"I started hostessing at a restaurant to help out a friend and it got into my blood. I was getting paid for getting dressed up and enjoying myself," she said.

She is looking forward to opening Eamonn's. "It's is going to be a lot of fun — totally different from here [Eve’s]," she said. Primarily a fish and chips eatery, it will have limited seating on the first floor, approximately 18 seats. It is designed as primarily a carry-out, according to Armstrong.

The second level will feature a lounge/bar with music. It will also have approximately 25 to 30 seats for in-house dining, Armstrong explained.

"We've always toyed with the idea of doing something more casual. I haven't seen anything like what Eammon's will be anywhere in the state," he said.

"We are truly blessed. I love being here, back in Alexandria. It's like having a dinner party every night. It's a pleasure to come to work," said Meshelle.

AS A RESULT of his being selected by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the 10 best chefs in the nation, Armstrong will be featured, along with his counterparts, on the magazine's July cover. It hits the newsstands June 15; the same month he and his wife will travel to Aspen, Colo., for the 27th Food & Wine Festival, where he will not only mingle with the nine other top chefs, but also have the opportunity, along with his colleagues, to prepare dinner for 800 people Saturday night of the festival.

"Talk about stress. All the top chefs will be eating that meal," Armstrong said.

Following Aspen there will be a number of events throughout the next year. "Being chosen also exposes us and Eve's on a national and international level," he said.

Those who discover Eve as a result of this notoriety will also discover that Armstrong is a constant innovator of cuisine. "My object is always to get the food from the source to the plate as soon as possible," he said.

"We buy a lot from small local farmers. We try to buy local products that are in season. I deal with approximately 160 vendors on a regular basis," Armstrong explained. "The object is to have fun with food. We change the menu daily. Some days we might change one ingredient in a particular dish. Other days we might change eight entire dishes."

To accomplish this Armstrong and his wife employ 57 full-time employees to cater to diners at 80 seats in two dining rooms plus the front lounge\bar, which also serves the full Bistro dining room menu.

Restaurant Eve is also one of Alexandria's smoke-free establishments. "When we figured out the cost of having both a smoking and non-smoking area it was prohibitive. So we decided to go totally smoke free," he said.

"It's also better for the diners. I'm a smoker, but I know it is much better to be without smokers when trying to enjoy fine dining," Armstrong said.

Looking back on that failed experience that nearly ended his restaurant/chef career, Armstrong admits, "I was immature and had no real experience. That has changed."

Eve's reservation list will attest to that. However, those willing to come in Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday need only call a week ahead. "We always try to accommodate walk-ins if we have a last-minute cancellations," said Meshelle, the consummate hostess.

"The thing to remember is to enjoy yourself. This is dinner — not a life or death experience," she said.