Have you heard? Richmond is on the rise. Again. Three years after I ate my way through Virginia’s capital, and found a lot worth a trek from Washington, I returned over the summer to discover even more to commend.
If only I lived closer, I could see myself making a habit of the drinks and minted lamb tartare at the Basque-inspired Adarra and the wicked flavors and serene scene at the Laotian-themed Temple. Not to mention the smoke lover’s fantasy at ZZQ, which got a thumb’s up from my colleague Tim Carman around this time last year.
As chef Andrew Manning, a partner in Longoven — one of two across-the-board standouts in a weekend of nonstop eating — told me, “We’ve got new things opening that aren’t the same.” Truth! And proof:
Lee Gregory doesn't have to ask for permission anymore. Since the former chef of the popular Roosevelt struck out on his own with Alewife last September, Gregory gets to call the shots. That means embracing bluefish, mackerel and skate — Mid-Atlantic fish in abundant supply and priced to please. The seafood-themed restaurant, which replaces a corner store in Church Hill, takes its name from a species of herring whose shape supposedly reminded American colonists of a plump tavern-keeper's wife.
I’m sold before I step inside, and not just because I’ve lapped up the chef’s cooking on earlier forays to Richmond, where he once worked at the esteemed Acacia and still has a stake in the Southern-accented Southbound. When I call to let Alewife know I’m delayed in traffic, the voice on the other end of the line assures me my reservation is safe. “Don’t worry,” I’m told. “The table is yours for the night.” (Imagine hearing that from a Washington hot spot on a weekend.)
The physical storefront, whose porthole-shaped mirrors shore up the water theme, is just as sincere. High pressed-tin ceilings, worn wood floors and a busy bar are easy on the eyes, if hard on the ears. Alewife takes its drinks, designed to flatter seafood, seriously. So should you. “Scenic Pastures” is one of many pleasures, swirling together tequila, smoky mezcal and a pineapple-oregano shrub.
Alewife’s sustainable catch comes in surprise cuts. Skate chop, anyone? The bone-in, kite-shaped fish is decked out with pickled pineapple that gives the dish, splayed over a pool of green curry, a sweet-sour lilt. The chef has also been known to serve monkfish rib cages, buttermilk-bathed and fried, the aquatic equivalent of pork ribs. Speaking of turf, Gregory entertains the meat-and-potatoes set with juicy pork tenderloin fanned along a puddle of refried lentils smothered with thinly sliced charred peppers — everything good to the last mop.
Dessert includes soft-serve ice cream in fun flavor combinations (chocolate-cherry swirled into a spire with banana ice cream on my visit). The cool confection is an easy execution for restaurants, but Gregory also likes how it plays into a sunny boardwalk theme. In addition, there might be moist poundcake served with whatever fruit is at its peak, all but buried under a loose drift of whipped cream.
From first sip to last crumb, Gregory’s vision is to drive for.
The menu simply refers to the appetizer as "crab." But when it's set before me, the plate is so vivid that it prompts a heart emoji. The signature ingredient is concealed under a nori crepe — an undulating green carpet the color of a golf course after a good rain — and a violet garnish of bachelor buttons. Dare I disturb the canvas, set off with dollops of onion-and-corn puree? Doing so uncovers a little treasure of sweet jumbo lump crab, pickled onion and corn that sings of summer as it pops in the mouth.
Longoven has me at first bite. Second, third and fourth, too. What began as a Sunday night pop-up at the rustic Sub Rosa Bakery four years ago became a chic, bricks-and-mortar restaurant in trendy Scott’s Addition only last summer. That’s what happens when you look at more than a dozen permanent sites, many prospects fall through and, well, life intervenes. The drawn-out rehearsal seems to have paid off for the principals: co-owners Andrew Manning, a Richmond native, and husband and wife Megan Fitzroy Phelan and Patrick Phelan. (She’s the executive pastry chef; he’s Manning’s co-chef in the open kitchen.) If you have time for a single splurge here right now, this place, the successor to a cinder block paint storage facility, is where you want to book. The restaurant’s name is a reference to community ovens dating to the Civil War, says Manning.
His crab salad has peers in just about everything else I encountered on the creative a la carte list this summer. (Longoven also offers a six-course, $65 tasting menu.) Foie gras and cream are blended into a ganache, set on crushed hazelnuts and dolloped with a white cloud, fiery with Fever-Tree ginger ale, that lasts little longer than it takes to read this sentence. Frozen grapefruit bits atop the ganache lighten the pleasure. Cured, glazed, grilled pork gets an overlay of housemade kimchi — like a lot of contemporary chefs, Longoven’s worship at the altar of fermentation — and acoustics courtesy of puffed fried rice, seasoned with furikake. Duck, lightly smoked over hickory, is served as blushing slices over horseradish cream and beside a red hedge of grilled radicchio and fermented turnips.
The courses, refined and restrained, seem designed with food critics in mind. Diminutive portions encourage more sampling. I had room, in other words, for what a server playfully described as “a birder’s” risotto. Separately toasted millet, quinoa, chia and sunflower seeds suspended in fontina fondue cross hippie food with Italian.
Patrick Phelan, an Army brat and former musician, met Manning when they both worked at Helen’s, a longtime Southern restaurant in Richmond where the untrained Phelan sometimes had his efforts judged the hard way, with Manning throwing his food in the trash. “There were definitely lots of do-overs,” says Manning, whose skills are informed in part by 11 years of cooking in Piedmont, Italy. Megan Fitzroy Phelan, a veteran of Manhattan’s esteemed Daniel restaurant and Sullivan Street Bakery, creates desserts, only subtly sweet, that are very much to my taste. Smoked vanilla ice cream is paired with black walnut mousse and finished with a caramel coaxed from miso and fig. Don’t be surprised to find manchego ice cream gracing milk chocolate-hazelnut mousse.
The interior, a mini-series of bar and two dining rooms, channels the spare thinking of Japan and Denmark. A single piece of art graces a rear wall. “We wanted the food to be the star,” says Phelan, who volunteers that customers either admire or dislike the austerity. (A post on Yelp compared the setting to a hospital. Patients should be so lucky!) Still, the picture window in the rear dining room captures a definite asset: a patio with a menu of its own. Yes, you can get wings here, and half off select wines on Fridays.
The owners see the alfresco venue as an approachable way for locals in particular to dip their toes (and forks) in Longoven. This devotee considers it another excuse to return to one of the best things to open in Richmond in seasons.
Alewife (Unrated) 3120 E. Marshall St., Richmond. 804-325-3426. alewiferva.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $21 to $28. Sound check: 84 decibels / Extremely loud. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can enter the restaurant, which includes a designated restroom, through the back door.
Longoven (Unrated) 2939 W. Clay St., Richmond. 804-308-3497. longovenrva.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: A la carte plates $12 to $25, tasting menu $65. Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access from the patio and can count on an unrestricted restroom.