When I first moved to the Museum District 20 years ago, a savvy neighbor gave me the lowdown on the area known as the Devil's Triangle. He advised that the only reason to go there was to drink, shoot pool or do laundry. With no need for the last two and plenty of more appealing places to drink, I couldn't be bothered.
Fast-forward and the Triangle is its own little destination, with Deco Ristorante, Arianna's Grill, Caliente and Bandito's Burrito Lounge each attracting a specific customer base. It's the owners of those latter two restaurants, David Bender and Sean McClain, who decided to add another niche to the mix with the Viceroy.
The former Café Diem has been scrubbed clean of years of smoke saturation and light floods in from the all-glass front. The L-shaped, 15-seat bar is the heart of the place, with high bar tables and booths for everyone else. When you can hear the music — a Pandora mix based on Brazilian Girls on one of my three visits — it sets just the right mood. But the room quickly becomes noisy to the extreme and it's lost.
Chef Ryan Baldwin, formerly of Tastebuds and Accanto, calls his menu "rustic, eclectic," which is chef talk for lots of elements in each dish. Torched house-made mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto with grilled fig syrah balsamic and baby arugula ($11) is a sensual delight, the fig balsamic marrying the beautifully made, oozing cheese and salty ham. The expected accouterments, blue cheese and celery, accompany harissa buffalo frog legs ($12) along with black-garlic-lemon crema to cool the tasty, hot chili-sauced legs.
Seldom seen on menus, split green pea soup ($7) with white corn ice cream emulsion, sunflower shoots and smoked bacon is rich enough and generous enough to share. Southern-fried pork cheeks ($18) are so crispy every bite brings a shower of fried bits and pair well with green tomato jalapeño marmalade. But it's the accompanying white cheddar poppy seed corn bread pudding, falling somewhere between corn bread and spoon bread, that I'm still remembering the next day. Charred filet of Angus shoulder chimichurri ($21) is perfectly medium rare and has a laundry list of accompaniments, including blue cheese and arugula. So why are crispy Yukon gold gnocchi, supposedly tossed in bone marrow, absent that deep flavor? Likewise, fennel-grilled nectarines are delicious but missing any hint of fennel.
At lunch, things settle down, making it a choice time to enjoy the Viceroy's food and vibe. Shaved prime rib-eye french dip ($12) — with white cheddar, charred herb au jus, fresh horseradish and watercress on a crusty french roll — will satisfy a steak craving in a matter of bites, but I guarantee you'll finish it all. Crispy fried chicken thigh on a french roll ($9) is dressed with fromage blanc, baby kale, black garlic aioli, cilantro and red onion, but it's the grilled pineapple jalapeño marmalade that delivers the requisite sweet to the thigh's saltiness.
Bittersweet endings, desserts, are as varied as avocado-key-lime-cheesecake popsicles and beer-battered peanut butter and jelly. Grilled pineapple pound cake ($7.50) sails superbly into piña colada territory with coconut ice cream and dark rum butter, but the accompanying red popcorn disappoints. For traditionalists, the Colombian dark chocolate terrine ($8.50) with espresso mascarpone and cherry cabernet glacé is classic.
Stop by during happy hour and you're bound to see ghosts of the past. Many former Café Diem regulars still appear for Michelob Ultras and even more passersby stop in just to marvel at the transformation. To that point, one look at the snack menu ($6) says it all: Blue cheese deviled eggs are wrapped in bacon then fried, and at three to a plate are satisfying with a drink. Ditto fingerling steak fries with duck fat aioli, sea salt and fresh herbs. But not everything works, and crispy chicken skin Gouda beignets taste chalky and processed — even the brilliant, jerk-spiced local honey can't make them palatable. Fortunately a beer list of close to 50 drafts, bottles and cans and a wine list heavy on California but with a nod to Virginia — King Family, Barboursville, Cardinal Point, and Jefferson — ensure a dedicated drinking crowd.
There's an unfortunate movement afoot to rename the Devil's Triangle something blander. True, the pool hall's gone and the place is down to just one Laundromat, but its legacy as a good place to drink is firmly intact. Now that it's a devilishly good dining destination, a dated warning turns into a solid recommendation. S
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. till closing
Dinner daily 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
600 N. Sheppard St.