Richmond dining: surprising, seasonal, sophisticated

August 28, 2013

When Lee Gregory talks about “a special time” in Richmond, the chef of the youthful Roosevelt restaurant isn’t referring to the Washington Redskins’ recent first-ever training camp in Virginia’s capital or the city’s ongoing celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. What Lee is describing is a dining scene engaging enough to merit a drive from Washington,
a path this diner made twice over recent weekends.

Locals say corporate establishments in Richmond are giving way to more personal independent restaurants, a trend spurred in part by what Travis Croxton, a local oyster purveyor, calls a greater cultural awareness among diners and “chefs pushing each other,
in a friendly way.”

Here’s to their shoving match.

Expect to be surprised at Dutch & Company . Almost everything you eat comes with a flourish that will make you want to order everything else on the menu.

What appear to be lumps of coal on a plate of juicy Sun Gold tomatoes are the rockfish brandade fritters you’ve ordered as a first course, their tempura crust tinted black with squid ink. Instead of tomatoes, the kitchen slips peaches in its gazpacho, which picks up a delicate crunch from roasted marcona almonds and hints of mint and basil from threads of shiso. Mahi-mahi is a fine piece of fish elevated by a squash blossom blimp hiding a lamb tamale inside. (The curiosity succeeds, brilliantly.) Even the steak, rosy and juicy, bucks tradition. The sliced meat is garnished with charred peaches and centered on a pool of creamy peanut puree, a combination that speaks both to Virginia crops and the chefs’ affection for pad Thai.

If you haven’t noticed, this is food that pushes the envelope — and all the right buttons.

Credit for the imaginative plates goes to two chefs, Caleb Shriver and Phillip Perrow. Watching over the customers is Michelle Peake Shriver, Caleb’s wife, who, like Perrow, is a veteran of the esteemed Acacia in Richmond. (Shriver hails from the Mediterranean-themed Aziza’s.)

The dining room, trim and neat, looks as if it were flown in from Amsterdam. Pots of herbs catch rays from their perch on the window sill, and sketches of villages, landscapes and boats drawn by Michelle’s mother and Phillip’s grandfather adorn gray-blue walls. An old church pew enjoys new life as a banquette with orange bolsters, while mirrors collected from thrift stores round out the decor in what used to be a laundromat. “We wanted to be as cost-effective as possible,” says Shriver, who also turned a Hungarian baby bath into a champagne “bucket.”

Unlike so many restaurants, this one, opened in January, doesn’t lose steam come Act III. I adore stroopwafel, two wafer-thin cinnamon waffles stuck together with rich caramel and served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. But I’m enchanted by the honey pot: vanilla-honey pudding arranged with hibiscus ice, edible flowers, lacy brittle and macerated fruit inside a small ceramic “hive” — a distinctive Dutch treat.

Rarely is a single server a case for recommending a restaurant. But if you find yourself in Richmond and want to see an argument for cloning, reserve a table at Rappahannock in the City Center District and ask to sit in whatever section Alexandra Tenser is assigned.

She happens to be blond and beautiful, but she also knows the menu as if she had written it herself and talks so enthusiastically about the food, she can make even the chicken sound compelling. “It’s local,” she tells my posse, “and really well taken care of.” A special of dumplings is compared (favorably) to “tuna noodle casserole.”

Oysters are a signature at Rappahannock, which nurtures its own bivalves on three Virginia farms; owners and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton come from a long line of oystermen and have extended the family business over the years to include Merroir in Topping, Va., and the popular Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington’s Union Market. When Tenser sets down a platter of shucked specimens, she uses her fingers to point out the virtues of each of three types, ending with advice to slurp the Olde Salts from Chincoteague Bay, which are “the saltiest, because they’re close to the ocean.”

Seafood is a sure bet elsewhere on the menu. Steamed Olde Salt clams — grown alongside Rappahannock’s oysters — kale and house-made lamb sausage in a spicy, sherry-laced broth comes with toasted bread for sopping up the heady juices, and sweet seared scallops share their plate with a ring of basil-laced shrimp salad and a garnish of popcorn, a nod to the way Peruvian seviche is sometimes finished. There is typically a whole fish as well, perhaps branzino on a bed of rice colored green with tomatillo and cilantro and flanked with tender baby carrots. The smoky perfume wafting through the dining room can be traced to a wood grill in the open kitchen.

With a few tweaks here and there, Rappahannock, which set sail last December with chef Dylan Fultineer at its helm, would be an even better restaurant. Its octopus terrine, an edible mosaic offered with a swipe of edamame puree, should lose some salt. And the glossy pork belly would be better with corn cakes that weren’t as tough as these are (twice). But those are slips that are easily righted.

The 33-seat, U-shaped bar dominates the center of the airy corner restaurant. “We wanted to encourage a communal dining experience,” says Travis of the space allocated to the concrete-topped counter. Rappahannock’s sophisticated cocktail program (a veritable herb garden lines the bar) was developed by Katie Nelson, a veteran of the chic Columbia Room in Washington.

A subtle nautical look prevails in the rustic yet stylish dining room. Close inspection of one of the vintage family photos on the walls shows the future owners of Rappahannock sitting on a couch sharing a box of Ritz crackers, a childhood snapshot Travis likes to call “our first board meeting.”

A weathered advertisement for bromide on the side of the building and a front door that creaks when it opens do not prepare the casual customer for the swank cocktails and the fried rice with kimchi waiting inside The Roosevelt .

The 48-seat dining room in Church Hill takes its name from the 32nd U.S. president, an interest for co-owner Kendra Feather, who opened Roosevelt two years ago “solely as a neighborhood spot,” says chef and business partner Lee Gregory.

More than nearby residents should know about his cooking, which is southern in spirit and sophisticated in style. The go-for appetizer is a plate of crisp smoked chicken wings draped with a twist on Alabama white sauce: mayonnaise, vinegar, black pepper and horseradish that deserves to be sold by the quart. I thought the moist catfish zipped up with a vibrant pureed salsa verde was my favorite main course, but that was before I tried the smoked pork shoulder and its cool cradle of coleslaw. The porcine pleasure splays across spicy red beans and comes with a ring of yellow barbecue sauce that reveals the chef’s South Carolina roots.

That pungent and eggy fried rice, dropped off in a cast-iron skillet, is Gregory’s wish to “be just a hair different” from the competition, although he points out that Korean food shares ties with Southern cooking: a reliance on rice, cabbage, fermented flavors and barbecue, among other bonds. The only disappointment in recent visits: desert-dry corn bread.

Roosevelt’s drinks, from Thomas “T” Leggett, rival those made by Washington’s best stirrers and shakers. The Kitchen Sink lives up to its name, powered as it is with gin, tequila, honey liqueur, the wine-based aperitif called byrrh quinquina, an absinthe rinse and (my!) kumquat bitters. Imagine a negroni crossed with a Manhattan. The only proof you know you’re drinking in Richmond is the price of the pleasure: $9.

★★½ star

(Good/Excellent)
Dutch & Company

400 N. 27th St., Richmond.
804-643-8824. dutchand
company.
tumblr.com.

SOUND CHECK:
80 decibels/
Must speak
with raised voice.

★★

(Good)
Rappa-hannock

320 E. Grace St., Richmond.
804-545-0565. rroysters.com/
restaurants.htm.

SOUND CHECK:
77 decibels/
Must speak
with raised voice.

★★

(Good)
The Roosevelt

623 N. 25th St., Richmond.
804-658-1935.
rooseveltrva.com.

SOUND CHECK:
80 decibels/
Must speak
with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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