Sommelier Spotlight: Todd Thrasher, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Virginia

Sommelier Journal, October 2009

Todd Thrasher is a sommelier who’s not afraid to experiment.

Todd Thrasher has Top Gun hair. The style is similar to Iceman’s, but better: a little spiky, slightly windswept, GQ bedhead. It’s noon on a Saturday, and he’s already sharply dressed in a crisp, white button-down shirt and a hot-pink tie, slicing strawberries behind the bar at Restaurant Eve in Old Town, Alexandria, Va.

“The strawberries are from the Old Town farmer’s market,” he says. “We have a small organic garden out back. This summer, we’ll harvest all kinds of melons, herbs, and vegetables.” Thrasher was born and raised in Arlington, Va., 6 miles down the road from the restaurant. “My grandparents lived near Solomon’s Island in southern Maryland,” he says. “They had a massive garden I would always help them in. That was summer—the garden and riding motorcycles.” He pauses and smiles. “A good childhood, I’d say.”

Thrasher moved south for college, drawn to the vibrant School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. “I went to study fashion design,” he says. “I wanted to design tennis shoes and work for Nike. Can you imagine?”

Yes, actually. Thrasher now designs sublime concoctions and provocative pairings by the glass. He participated in the sixth annual Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans this year, received the 2007 award for Wine and Beverage Program of the Year from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and was a 2008 nominee for James Beard Foundation Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year. Thrasher has also earned Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Wine List award for 2005.

His own food and wine education began behind the bar. After two years at VCU, Thrasher left the books in 1990 for bartending at the Carlyle Grand Café in Arlington. Four years later, he transitioned to a bartending position at Gabriel, where he first met Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, now good friends and business partners. “I loved the interaction with people,” he says. But it was not until his next job at Café Atlántico, at age 25, that he realized it could be his career.

Thrasher left Gabriel to help open Café Atlántico in 1996, where, under the direction of chef José Andrés, he found his calling. “Six months after I started, I took over the wine program,” he says. “It didn’t have a focus at that point. Because of the cuisine, I really wanted to concentrate on the areas where the food came from.” To complement the Nuevo Latino kitchen, Thrasher created what was, at that point, the largest South American wine list in the United States: “I had 450 bottlings from South America. We had Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, everything.”

Thrasher “decided this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, and that’s when I started studying wine.” He took courses from the Court of Master Sommeliers, but he continued to develop his craft bartending and mixology by night. Inspired by Andrés’s alta cocina , Thrasher experimented with cocktails, translating foams, hot and cold airs, and other mystical techniques from the kitchen to the glass.

After six and a half years at Café Atlántico, Thrasher left with the intent to take some time off and then open his own restaurant. In 2003, he and his wife Maria were married, and he became a certified scuba dive instructor. “We were two weeks from moving to Bonaire to dive and teach,” he recalls, “when a friend called.” The friend’s brother-in-law, chef Cathal Armstrong, was looking for a partner in a new restaurant. “I had a grizzly beard at the time,” says Thrasher, “and we were all set to move to the Caribbean.”

Thrasher decided to help open the restaurant while his condo was on the market, but to head south as soon as it sold. “Five years later, we are still here,” he says, “and we own four restaurants together.” He manages the wine lists for all four, but his mainstay is Restaurant Eve.

“Chef’s cooking is steeped in the traditions of France,” he says, and the list reflects that orientation: “It’s about 40% French, the rest balanced with representations from the winegrowing regions of the world.” He buys “a lot of wines people haven’t heard about. I try to put the list together so there are not a lot of big names, and customers are encouraged to ask for help. I think it adds to the overall dining experience when you have someone to talk to about the wine.”

Three sommeliers work the floor Thursday through Saturday nights for 92 seats. “We give very personalized service here,” says Thrasher. “It’s an intimate restaurant, and we want it to feel like you are walking into someone’s home.” Guests can choose from three different dining experiences: the lounge, the bistro, and the Tasting Room, which features five- and nine-course prix fixe tasting menus with wine pairings.

Thrasher’s pairing philosophy matches his personality. “I don’t think there are any rules any more,” he maintains. “I don’t believe in white wine with fish and red wine with meat. We have this Ivory King salmon dish on the Tasting Room menu. It’s completely white and beautiful, but massively high in fat. It has scallions and chives, onions, and a spring garlic purée.

I tasted it and I thought, ‘This tastes like a Languedoc to me.'” He opens a bottle of 2004 Château Saint-Martin de la Garrigue Cuvée Bronzinelle, and it works. “It’s rustic,” he explains. “The wine has a bit of oniony flavor to it, and it goes so well with the dish. My philosophy is as long as it tastes good, it goes together. You don’t have to follow the straight-and-narrow pattern that people have set before you.”

Thrasher smiles and slides a plate of fresh strawberry slivers across the table. He pours a taste of his latest wine cocktail: strawberries macerated in Fracchia Voulet Malvasia di Casorzo, a dash of almond-flavored liqueur, rum, and tarragon. “You can taste outside the box,” he says. “People love it.”

Restaurant Eve
110 S. Pitt St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 706-0450