When David Shannon returned to his native Richmond in 1997 after a year-long stint as chef of the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., the first restaurant review he read in the Richmond Times-Dispatch gave him pause.
It was about a new McDonald’s in Carytown.
Shannon, who also spent eight formative years at the esteemed Inn at Little Washington, asked himself, “What have I done?”
“The great thing about the city now is how far restaurants have come,” says the chef behind one of Richmond’s most intriguing establishments, the two-year-old L’Opossum. Not only are there more and better restaurants, he says, but they also offer a world of flavors.
Within the past year alone, the mix has expanded to include a promising Southern source (Spoonbread Bistro), a casual regional restaurant from a fine-dining chef (Shagbark) and yet another branch of Peter Chang, the much-hyped creation of a former Chinese Embassy chef of the same name. And one of the best modern German restaurants I know — indeed, one of my favorite destinations in Richmond — the youthful Metzger Bar and Butchery in Union Hill is poised to open an Alpine retreat in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood early next year. The 4,000-square-foot brasserie, Brenner Pass, will draw on accents from the mountainous areas of France, Italy and Switzerland.
Chefs and restaurant owners say they’re attracted by a wave of adventurous eaters moving in from the suburbs and by the relatively moderate cost of doing business. Travis Croxton, co-owner of the popular Rappahannock seafood eatery and the new Rapp Session saloon next door, says the rent for those combined 4,500 square feet is one-third of what he pays for his Rappahannock Oyster Bar — a mere 600 square feet — in the District’s Union Market.
Richmond’s vibrant arts scene infuses the food arena, too. Insider tip: The (free) first-class Virginia Museum of Fine Arts displays a fetching bar with a postcard view.
Tastemakers can’t seem to stay away from the Virginia capital. Brandon Fox, the food and drink editor of Richmond’s Style Weekly, jokes, “We’re always on the verge!”
But that’s changing, and fast, says Maureen Egan, co-founder of the six-year-old Real Richmond Food Tours. The success of her culinary excursions — and a bit of “Charleston envy,” says Egan — helped spawn a food festival in Richmond called Fire, Flour & Fork in 2014. The first year, 1,600 people showed up. Next month (Nov. 16-20), Egan expects 6,000 attendees and close to 50 events, including farm tours, cooking demonstrations, wine dinners and food seminars.
“Richmond,” she says, “deserves a stage to tell many more stories.”
Here are some of mine:
There’s no cheekier restaurant in town than L’Opossum, home to a dim dining room dressed with replicas of Michelangelo’s David, large and small, and a menu that describes a salad as “a tawdry & salacious” mix of mesclun “bound by the frigid embrace” of cucumber with a “happy Thai basil ending.” Ring a bell (maybe a gong)? The Inn at Little Washington’s signature humor clearly rubbed off on chef-owner David Shannon, 54. Silly verbiage, he says, “lowers everyone’s defenses.”
Consider the name, a wink at French pretentiousness but also a throwback to the time he took a break from cooking: “playing dead, like a possum,” explains the chef. Behind the goofy labels is some serious cooking: Filet Mignon of Beef “Swellington” translates to six ounces of beef on a port wine reduction with a phyllo purse of mushroom duxelles and foie gras held together with a rosemary-sprig “hobo stick.” (“Older diners recognize it right away” as modernized beef Wellington, says Shannon.) The gimmicks make sense on the tongue. Instead of using Pernod in his delicious riff on oysters Rockefeller, the chef relies on absinthe — sprayed via an atomizer over the baked bivalves at the table.
Bottom line: The comic can cook.
626 China St. 804-918-6028. lopossum.com. Entrees, $18 to $32.
Fate seems to have determined the flavor of the restaurant opened two years ago by Brittanny Anderson and her two business partners. One of them already owned Sausagecraft, a respected local link maker. The location, on Union Hill, was in an earlier century dense with German immigrants and billed as “butcher town.” For her part, Anderson, 34, a former line cook at the popular Roosevelt restaurant, had long been interested in Eastern European and German food. Thus was born Metzger Bar & Bakery, a storefront dining room that retains the building’s original pressed-tin ceiling and delivers an enlightened version of Teutonic cooking.
Anderson’s steak tartare reveals the care lavished on every plate. The appetizer relies on dry-aged sirloin that is chopped by hand; mixed with smoked paprika, roasted garlic oil and shallots; then finished with what looks like a raw egg but is in fact a dollop of turmeric aioli. Just as echt is the chef’s schnitzel, end pieces of pork chop pounded to the thickness of a plate and dipped in an egg wash spiked with mustard before being floured and fried to a pleasing gold. My fork darts between the crisp meat and the accompanying fingerling potatoes, fried in duck fat and just as irresistible. (No surprise, beer lends its charm to everything from brines to glazes here at Metzger, German for “butcher.”)
White subway tiles and an old map of Berlin make for a cozy tavern, and a compliment about the handsome bar gives Anderson a chance to share its backstory: The oak top was cut from a tree that once stood on actor Robert Duvall’s property in The Plains, Va. One of the most scrumptious Black Forest cakes in memory is also one of the most beautiful, thanks to upright chocolate tuiles that populate its surface like edible trees.
801 N. 23rd St. 804-325-3147. metzgerbarandbutchery.com. Entrees, $18 to $32.
The splashiest of retreats in chef Peter Chang’s far-flung empire is restaurant No. 11 (out of a dozen), a 90-seat Chinese model that finds parasol-shaped lights floating over patrons’ heads and outsize masks on either end of a shimmering red-and-gold wall. Home in on the seasonal specials. Fall rewards customers with shredded chicken that’s first deep-fried, then stir-fried (typically without oil) and rounded out with pungent cilantro, onions and sesame seeds. Like many dishes here, the “dry-fried” chicken numbs the palate with tingling hua jiao, or Sichuan peppercorns. Another hit is calamari, whose pleasant heat is tempered by a dipping sauce made fruity with pineapple juice and applesauce. The cooking is meant to be washed back with booze; a handsome cocktail bar obliges.
2816 W. Broad St. 804-728-1820. peterchangrestaurant.com.
Entrees $15 to $22
How to handle crowds if you’re a busy restaurant? When you’re the seafood-themed Rappahannock in the City Center District, you send diners to your saloon next door, the clever Rapp Session, for sips and snacks. Introduced in February by oyster farmers and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton, the former insurance office operates nearly round-the-clock, dispensing coffee and pastries in the morning and smoked bluefish dip and oyster rolls later in the day. (The best eye-opener of late: a brunch of oysters shucked before my eyes; steamed shrimp spiked with what smacked of powdered fire; quiche treated to chanterelles and blue cheese; and a bloody mary that captured summer in its tomato juice.)
The narrow space opens with a little market, where customers can find items used by Rapp Session’s neighboring sibling: Carolina Gold rice, Virginia beer and wine, fish including croaker, oyster knives. The focus is Mid-Atlantic, with one exception: snow crabs from Alaska. “We cheat a bit,” says Croxton, who calls the seafood his guilty pleasure. “With melted butter, there’s nothing like it.”
318 E. Grace St. 804-545-0565. rroysters.com/restaurants/rapp-session. Small plates, $8 to $10.
For 18 years, Walter Bundy distinguished himself at Lemaire, the grand dame of Richmond restaurants in the historic Jefferson Hotel. Shagbark — a venture of his own in the Libbie Mill-Midtown development, so new a GPS doesn’t pick it up — is the veteran chef’s attempt to chase his dreams and answer a nagging question: Did audiences like Walter Bundy or did they like Lemaire? The early answer suggests the chef, 48, has nothing to worry about. Three months in, he’s offering a winning combination: food that embraces the state and the South (fried green tomatoes, Frogmore stew, a bodacious pork chop from Autumn Olive Farms) and Bundy’s passion for the great outdoors.
See the rockfish on the wall? The chef, an avid hunter, caught it. Plump chicken-fried oysters on creamy stone-ground grits are easy to finish, as is a charcuterie board that counts among its pleasures house-made, bacon-wrapped pork pate with pistachios and pickled grapes. Fans of his cooking at the hotel can look forward to his buttery Vidalia onion bisque come spring. The expansive setting is airy and handsome, with chandeliers fashioned from whitetail deer antlers and a grand communal table made from the shagbark hickory tree for which the restaurant is named. While Shagbark’s walnut tables go uncovered, they’re set, just like old times at Lemaire, with fancy Villeroy & Boch plates.
4901 Libbie Mill E. Blvd. 804-358-7424. shagbarkrva.com. Entrees, $17 to $29.
There are only two dishes on the menu featuring the namesake creamy-centered cornmeal pudding. Chef Michael Hall, a Richmond native, simply likes the way spoonbread conveys Southern comfort at one of the more anticipated restaurants of the season, open since mid-September. Hall, 52, graduated in 1988 from the Culinary Institute of America, having trained as a pastry chef. That bit of résumé should steer you to two enchantments on the menu, both first courses. One appetizer is a quartet of deep-fried “rolls” (wonton skins) stuffed with collard greens and diced pork tenderloin marinated in Sriracha. The stubby snacks form a bouquet in a small bowl with sweet chili sauce for dipping. Fancier still is Hall’s delicate raft of house-made phyllo dough over bites of lobster in creamy cheese sauce, a look that supports the “Pop Tart” in its billing.
For sure, the chef is big on presentation. His steak arrives on a pink slab of Himalayan sea salt, while sauteed sea bass shares its stage with a pool of crab beurre blanc and tasty fried oysters set on the signature spoonbread. (If I have a quibble here, it’s that some dishes tilt sweet.) The dining room is a big embrace. “I want people to come in and feel comfortable,” says the chef.
He means that literally. The padded Parsons chairs ensure as pleasant a three-course dinner as the vintage china displayed on the walls, the stained-glass windows and a color scheme of earth tones throughout the handsome, two-story restaurant and bar in the Fan District.
2526 Floyd Ave. 804-359-8000. spoonbreadbistro.com. Entrees, $18 to $29.
Portland, Ore., boasts one of the best baking scenes in the country, and Beth Oristian had the honor of learning from one of its champions, Kim Boyce, owner of Bakeshop there and author of the James Beard award-winning “Good to the Grain.” Why would she leave the fragrant Pacific Northwest? “I spent five Christmases away from my family,” members of which are scattered around the country, says the baker, 31. “That’s the way it is in the food business.”
When Oristian decided to break that streak, she relocated to Richmond, where she has a brother, and discovered a community not unlike Portland’s, with a river running through the city and “a lot of tattoos.” A year ago, she opened Sugar & Twine, which, true to its name, sends customers away with boxes of pastries and sweets bound in string. Smart cookies know to ask for Oristian’s moist apple bran muffins, cheddar biscuits, croissants laced with fontina and fresh thyme, and the pretty, sugar-dusted hand pies. The last are filled with whatever looks good in the market: strawberry with rhubarb in warm months, apple with blackberries in the fall
Meanwhile, a breakfast sandwich of egg, cheese and sausage is what McDonald’s can only hope to accomplish, and it’s best washed back with a thick pottery mug of local Trager Brothers coffee at Sugar & Twine’s pine counter. “Light is really important to me,” says the baker. While she works in the back of the Carytown operation, her customers, many of them in creative fields, enjoy a sense of the outdoors with abundant natural light and white walls set off with botanical art. “It makes me feel I’m working with artists. We’re all doing our craft.”
2928 W. Cary St. 804-204-1755. sugartwine.com. Pastries and sandwiches, $2 to $6.