Food

Hot RVA Chick(en)

I was prepared to be disappointed by this place. Anywhere I've eaten owned by Eat Restaurant Partners has been overpriced mediocrity drenched in buckets of "local", "natural", and "sustainable" marketing puffery. Fat Dragon, Blue Goat, Boulevard Burger and Brew, Foo Dog, etc. It's not bad food, and I don't pass over food based on price alone, but there are plenty of better options in their respective price ranges around town.

Now there's Hot Chick (har har, another cheeky name like...ugh..."Wong Gonzales"): the restaurant group's take on Nashville-style hot chicken. I adore RVA's dining scene, but we have a habit of picking up on food trends after everybody else has had a turn, don't we? I love spicy food, though, and Nashville is too far a drive for a busy dad to try the real deal that is "hot chicken". My options are limited (but please do check out the fancy chicken biscuit at Saison Market - it's leaning in the same direction), so today I took my daughter to the new joint for lunch.

It's good. Like, really dang good.

hot chicken sandwich.jpg

I got the basic sandwich, with a brutally hot fried chicken breast on a sweet and tender roll. I'm picky, so I excluded the pickles and slaw, but this meant it was just me and the chicken. I can't speak to authenticity, nor the difference between its progenitors and the gentrification version of hot chicken, but Hot Chick is HOT. At the very least the chicken breast was dipped in some kind of hot oil or sauce, though there may very well have been some heat in the marinade and/or batter as well. But the crucial element here was the flavor—it was spicy but still tasted delicious. The waffle fries on the side were seasoned to perfection and helped mitigate the heat.

This was a $12 sandwich with a side. That's not cheap for something in this category, but is the quality worth the price? I think so. Hot Chick won't be a regular lunch stop, but I'll go back when I get a hot chicken craving in the future.

Sunday Supper Series: Louisiana Flair

crawfish boil

This past weekend was the second event in The Marinara's "Sunday Supper Series" - and this time it was on a Saturday night. I was on hand, once again, as the photographer. The venue was Louisiana Flair, and HOLY CRAP, was it ever a feast.

Chef Nate was a true entertainer if ever there was one, and he dutifully taught the crowd how to eat crawfish. The ensuing feeding frenzy around the spread in the picture above was a sight to behold as friends and strangers literally rubbed elbows in pursuit of perfectly cooked and seasoned mud bugs. Everybody eventually settled in around their tables sipping on the beverages they had brought and anticipating the next courses. And oh! the rest of the food was delicious. The gumbo threatened to steal the spotlight from the crawfish boil and, while I had never yet tasted the dish, I fear I may have been spoiled already. Any future gumbo will have big shoes to fill. There was also wonderfully crispy fried catfish (and some delicious, fiery hot sauce) and lake trout. Our dessert was king cake - a kaleidoscopically-colored confection that tasted like a cinnamon roll.

It was a great success, I thought, and I met a number of new folks including RVAFoodie. I will, tragically, be out of town for the next event. But I'm told the next Sunday Supper will be May 22nd at The Empress. Keep a sharp eye on The Marinara's site for details in the intervening weeks.

wistful grill

The website for McCormack's Whisky Grill heralds its own eventual arrival with a nonchalant "Coming Soon." That's funny because, while the Whisky Grill has been operating for months now, it feels like a restaurant that shouldn't be open yet. I was in the mood for trying out a couple of whiskies while I met up with some friends for a chat, and having not yet eaten, I figured I'd try the food as well. That was a mistake.

First problem: the menu. The variety was impressive, for a minute. Short of splitting whiskey (or whisky, as the case may be) in to Scotch, North American, and Irish, there was little to indicate what you were getting into if you were a newbie. I'm not, but I'm no expert, either. Which of the North American offerings were bourbon? Rye? Scotch-style single malt? Maybe this is to encourage interaction with the staff to ask for help? I'm not really sure (though the bar tender seemed knowledgable).

The menu was a bit overwhelming in general. The whole thing was something like 11x14 inches (or bigger?) and contained multifarious laminated pages held together in one corner by a little chain like you'd use for dog tags. There was a tiny page of beers (decent selection, all in bottles/cans), a half-sheet of wines ("exclusively Italian" said the waitress, but without further explanation), two double-sided full sheets of booze, and one double-sided full sheet of food ranging from humble to $20+ entrées. I saw a brisket sandwich, and after confirming with the waitress that they smoke it in-house, I decided on that for my dinner with a side of fries. Nothing fancy - just simple, stick-to-your-ribs neighborhood bar kinda food. Right?

I wish. The fries should have been cooked longer. The roll used for my sandwich had all the flavor and character of the bread served at Outback Steakhouse (looked like it, too). And the brisket? They wasted the use of their smoker. The meat wasn't tender - almost chewy in fact - had no smoke flavor, and bore no visible evidence of having been smoked (like a smoke ring). Maybe I would have tasted the smoke if it wasn't for their overpowering sauce. It's not that the brisket was swimming in sauce, but it tasted and smelled despairingly like a sloppy joe sandwich. The lack of tenderness in the meat would also have been less of a factor had they not cut the brisket into 1/2-inch thick slabs. Taking a bite felt like mandibular gymnastics as I tried simultaneously to cut through the meat with my teeth and not pull the contents out from the bread. I finished neither the fries nor the sandwich.

My two friends and I thought it might be fun to share an order of the funnel cake on the dessert menu, but no dice. The waitress explained that it's been on the menu for something like six months without ever having been available. Six months! What else are they pretending to serve at this restaurant? So instead I opted for their homemade vanilla ice cream. This was truly unfortunate, because it was almost right, but ultimately came up short. The flavor was great; complex real vanilla flavor with nutmeg and sweet creaminess. A pleasant companion to some George Dickel #12 bourbon. But the texture of the ice cream was way off. Tough, almost crumbly. It didn't taste freezer-burned, so maybe they just stored it too cold? I haven't made enough ice cream myself to know what could lead to this, but it improved as it melted down.

The interior of the Whisky Grill is pretty nice - for my tastes at least - and the four level shelving behind the bar is an impressive sight for lovers of fine spirits. But the food here makes me never want to return. Maybe it was just a case of the Mondays, but I felt like so little care was put into my dinner that I wouldn't want to try anything else on the menu. Huge list of whiskeys? Sure, but staggering variety doesn't automatically mean a good dining/drinking experience (or we'd all be eating at The Cheesecake Factory...). Give me a well-curated list and it'll be good whether there are 5 or 50 choices.

Skip this place. If you want passable bar food and some quality adult beverages on Robinson, you'd do far better at Commercial Taphouse.

eating my way through charleston, sc

I've been home from a long weekend in Charleston, SC since Tuesday afternoon this week, but I haven't had the time/energy to write about my dining experience with the attention it deserves. Granted, I have little excuse; I'm still on my spring break from grad school and I took the entire week off from work, but I've had film to scan and pictures to edit and all that good stuff, so here we are.

I normally research where I'm going when I travel, but for whatever reason I did no research whatsoever on Charleston. I relied, instead, on the recommendations of my wife's friend who knows more about that town than most folks do about their own hands. She gave Valerie a list of good restaurants and stuff to see and do, and off we went, neither of us having been to Charleston before. What I didn't know was that Charleston is a serious food town. Sure, lots of it is the kind of traditional southern coastal fare you might expect - crab cakes, oysters, some kinda seafood bisque, shrimp and grits, and so on - but there were a few surprises that caught me off guard in the best possible way. So rather than walk through every dining experience I had, I'll give you the highlight reel, which could be long enough on its own.

We had lunch on Saturday at an excellent little out-of-the-way place called Cru Cafe on Pinckney St. One of the specials that day was a house-made pastrami sandwich. House-made pastrami! In South Carolina! I had to try it, and I didn't regret it. I'm not kidding when I say this was some of the best pastrami I'd ever eaten. Smokey, salty, richly-flavored, and sliced up super thin in a generous pile on marbled rye bread. I could eat this sandwich for lunch almost every day. Valerie had an arugula salad with duck confit and fried onions, and we both thought the sweet tea was the perfect level of sweetness. Dinner that night at Slightly North of Broad (figure out the acronym on your own) was good, but not memorable.

We had Sunday brunch at Magnolias on E. Bay St., and while Valerie thought her smoked salmon frittata was okay, my meal was quite delicious. It was a variation on "pigs in a blanket," but in this case was made up of buffalo chipotle sausage wrapped in orange buttermilk pancakes. A fine elevation of a diner mainstay.

Sunday dinner was at Poogan's Porch on Qeen St, and it was absolutely tasty. And speaking of "a fine elevation of a diner mainstay," I can't recommend the macaroni and cheese appetizer enough. The menu stated, simply, that it had Tasso ham and smoked gouda, but the more-than-an-entrée-sized pile that arrived was the richest and creamiest macaroni and cheese I've eaten. Valerie, who's not a huge fan of macaroni and cheese, had to force herself to stop eating it in order to have room for her main course. I thought it was so good that I attempted my own variation (with Serrano ham) once I returned home.

Monday was our last full day in Charleston, and while we had a nice-enough lunch at Melvin's BBQ, our best eating and drinking of the trip lay ahead of us.

Neither Valerie nor I brought anything nicer than jeans, sneakers, and comfortable shirts, so while many of the restaurants downtown looked nice, we felt underdressed for most of them. We shared this concern with our cab driver that afternoon, and he assured us that with the exception of a handful of establishments in town, we had naught to worry. Armed with this advice, we made reservations at McCrady's Restaurant on Unity Alley. I double-checked the dress code and the host assured me that we would have no trouble. So wearing a long-sleeved New York Giants t-shirt, jeans, and running shoes, I showed up at the restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock. Not only has Brock worked under Alinea's Grant Achatz, but he also worked his way up to executive sous chef at Lemaire in my beloved Richmond's own Jefferson Hotel. The food was almost all local/regional, with many of the ingredients coming from the restaurant's own farm in nearby Wadmalaw Island. While credentials are nice it's the food, of course, that matters. Valerie and I both agree that McCrady's was the finest meal we ate in Charleston.

This was modern haute cuisine without a doubt, executed masterfully in preparation, appearance, and flavor. We shared a first course of butter poached lobster and sea scallops with "sorrel bubbles" (an airy green foam) and a little parsnip croquette in the middle made up of a parsnip slice, parsnip puree, and coated in panko bread crumbs. The entire dish was also sitting in a popcorn purée and had little pieces of spiced popcorn as well. Valerie's dinner was grilled swordfish with shaved root vegetables, and she enjoyed it. My entrée, though, was called a "duo of pork." It looked like a zen garden with a little meat hill in the corner, and it was extraordinarily enjoyable in every respect. There was an exquisite peanut "granola," banana purée, and a number of preparations of salsify root. There was braised salsify that was savory and rich, a deep-fried stick of salsify that looked like a miniature log (but tasted much better), and an intensely flavorful salsify purée. The pork duo turned out to be a small piece of deep-fried pork belly from the restaurant's own farm, along with succulent slices of pork loin from the same. A little stream of cooked-down jus flowed under the pork across the plate. This dish was so good with all the flavors combining perfectly, and Valerie was completely distracted by the striking visual arrangement of my plate of food. Such inventiveness, attention to detail, and execution make me weak at the knees.

Bellies full of awesomeness, we shambled up the street to check out The Gin Joint, our final destination before heading home the next morning. This place is what would happen if you took the craft bar of Acacia here in Richmond, and mixed it with the casual small-plates atmosphere of Secco. Looking at their food menu made me wish I'd discovered it earlier in the weekend (I was too full for any more food), but the cocktails were some of the best I'd ever consumed. Whether it was the house-made cola syrup or the perfect proportioning and mixing of ingredients, or just the right amount of ice, this place knows how to serve some booze. I appreciated the careful pairing of the right gin or whiskey with the right juices and syrups, too. Be sure to check out the short video of the owner mixing up a libation (and ignore the cheesy Acoustic Alchemy music). Details, my friends. You know what? It's probably better that this place is 7 hours away or my friends and family would think me an alcoholic.

So there it is. I drove further south looking for nothing more than relaxation and a change of scenery, and I came back with a few extra pounds (like I needed that) and a well-satisfied palate. We saw some interesting historical sites in a beautiful town, but I'd go back to Charleston in a heartbeat just for the food.

Sunday Supper

dinner

This past Monday evening I was fortunate enough to participate in a practice run for the upcoming Sunday Supper series, organized by The Marinara himself, Matt Sadler. I was on hand to take promotional photographs, but my wife and I were also sharing in the event and the delicious food that came with it. This practice session, and the first official event in the series, focus on chef Carlos Silva of Bistro 27 in downtown Richmond. Matt is selling tickets for the meal on March 27th at 7 PM.

Now I'm biased because I was working for/with Matt on this practice run, but I did still eat the food, and it was delicious. The experience of sharing a meal with the chef in this intimate setting was fantastic, and the conversation built up by the end of the evening added to the convivial nature of the event.

So go ahead! Get a ticket or two while you still can. Let's make this first event a smash hit so Matt can organize more of them in the future.

jaks bagels

Look, I wanted to like Jaks Bagels. So Badly. The prospect of bagels in Carytown was wonderful. I like Cupertino's well enough (though they're no Bagel Oven up in Jersey), but they're all the way out near Innsbrook and I live downtown. Having a shop about ten minutes from home would be great. Sadly, it is not (yet) to be.

Now let me get this straight - I don't want any of this to come across as mean, because I understand that these folks are new. Not just new to a Carytown storefront, but new to bagel baking as well. But I'm not going to sugar-coat my review for the sake of politeness either. This is a business, and they want people to spend money on their wares.

I went in on Saturday morning with my wife. She had one bagel with cream cheese, and I had two different bagels, each with butter. Rather than a long, draw-out narrative, here are a few long, drawn-out points:

1. Service was terribly slow and inefficient from the start, with the people ahead of us already having ordered. The woman who took my wife's order was having some serious issues cutting the bagel with the knife and nearly mangled it in the process. There should be a better bread knife, or a drop-in slicer, I think. If a knife, I'm hoping a week of customers has been enough practice to speed that up.

They were also using a 4-slot consumer toaster. This is less than ideal for more uniform, commercially-produced bagels, but for Jaks, it was worse. These bagels were more amorphous and, having been cut unevenly, had to be shoved into the toaster slots. After the slow toasting time I watched as another server had to dislodge half of a bagel with the slicing knife.

Also curious was the storage of the butter and the cream cheese. The servers used individually packed condiment cups even for our eat-in bagels. I can understand keeping those around for take-out, but pulling little cups out of the bottom of the fridge case meant extra firm, barely-spreadable condiments that added more time to the order as our sever struggled to coat the surface of the bagels (the second of my two bagels was missing butter entirely).

I'm going to cut a lot of slack on these service issues - I understand they only opened on 2/2 and I visited on 2/5. I wish they had better prepared for customers, but these problems can be ironed out.

2. The bagels. Oy. Where to start? The outside, of course. I had a salt bagel and an asiago cheese bagel. The mention of salt bagels on their website had me excited about the place prior to their opening. It was a sign that, perhaps, the owners were familiar with proper bagels from Up North. But this salt bagel seemed to have only a light dusting of...kosher salt? Yeah, I think it was kosher salt flakes. The outer skin of the bagel was rough and uneven, as if it had been stretched but not rolled afterward. There was no faintly crisp skin, no shine to its surface. The asiago, on the other hand, was just so covered in the cheese that the skin/crust/whatever was less of a factor.

Taking a bite out of the bagel highlighted the real problems, though. The dough was too dense, so instead of the expected slight, tender chewiness it felt more like the bagel simply tore apart. The density wasn't uniform, though, so each bite varied slightly, and you could see some darker spots inside on my wife's bagel and mine where it seemed too much moisture had prevented part of the bagel from cooking all the way through. It wasn't un-cooked or doughy, but perhaps not as cooked as it could have been.

The flavor really wasn't there, either. I'm no baker myself, but It seemed to me that the floury taste hadn't fully cooked out of the bagels. But there may have been something else, too; if they par-boil their bagels - as any proper shop should - perhaps they are using baking soda in the water (some shops do this instead of honey or malt)? If so, maybe they're being a bit heavy handed with it? Not sure. I only ate the top half of each of my bagels.

I give a lot less slack for the food than I do for the service. I feel like something as simple in concept (though certainly not simple in execution) as a bagel should be all set before you open to the public. This reminds me of Pie in The Fan, a restaurant where the branding appeared more fully-formed than the dough recipe when they opened. People have strong opinions about pizza and bagels, so it's risky to serve something that isn't ready for prime time.

So.

I want Jaks to succeed for selfish reasons. I want good bagels closer to my house. But I cannot tell my friends to go eat bagels that I don't like just to keep a restaurant alive. I may not have to, though. Plenty of people might love Jaks. They may very well survive on the palates of Richmonders, and that's fine, I suppose. Most folks in my fair city did not, after all, grow up in the Tri-state Area, so they have different tastes and that's okay. But if other people feel the same way I do, it could be a rough road for the new shop. One of the most important parts of a brand is what you're actually selling, and no website or clever slogans can hide that.

For the time being, I can only hope the new Cupertino's location (now open on Main between 12th and 13th) is open on weekends so I can get a serviceable bagel without having to drive out to the West End. If anybody DOES repeatedly eat at Jaks Bagels, however, and notices improvement over time (and consistency is established), I'd love to give it a second try. But I'm not going to pay to be a test subject.

tough gristle

A friend of mine informed me that Belmont Butchery's Tanya Cauthen is suing Sausage Craft, the nascent wholesale sausage company started by former employees Chris Mattera and Brad Hemp. While the Style Weekly article and Mattera suggest this is about the sausage itself, Cauthen intimated that the wholesale sausage business was the cause for concern. I don't know the main parties here on a personal level, and I don't think I could expect Tanya to discuss this during business hours with a semi-regular customer like myself, but I do have some lingering questions about the whole situation, because this whole thing leaves a bitter taste in my Richmond-food-scene-loving mouth...

1. What IS the suit really about? Is it the recipes? The wholesale sausage concept/business model?
2. Did Mattera and Hemp actually plan and start executing on this idea while Cauthen was away?
3. Is Sausage Craft actually an idea stolen from Cauthen? That is, was it a firm plan in motion (about which at least Mattera or Hemp was aware) that Sausage Craft preempted? Did Mattera and Hemp work with Cauthen on the idea under false pretenses?
4. Most important, I think...Was there any kind of non-compete contract?

Without a contract I don't think there's much support for this suit because, regardless of the ethics behind the formation of Sausage Craft, this is a lot closer to a carpenter saying he's going to start building cabinetry, and his partner parts ways to start a cabinet business first. Making and selling sausage is trade craft, not trade secrets, and the concept of wholesale commerce is older than the city of Richmond. If Mattera and Hemp did anything sneaky (and I don't know enough to say whether they did or not) than it sure dues suck, but I just don't see grounds for legal action.

Now I like Chris and Brad and Tanya, and I like their work a lot. I always liked chatting with the guys when they were still at Belmont, and I still like chatting with Tanya when I go in there. I've always felt like, for a layman like myself, they were able to assist and inform me when I needed help or suggestions. I don't really want to take sides here, but I'm honestly kind of miffed that this lawsuit even exists.

Why not simply try to compete instead? Belmont Butchery is already well-established. Wouldn't they, then, have an advantage over Sausage Craft if they wanted to move into the wholesale business? They have an existing reputation on which to trade and existing facilities to get started. That, at least, could have been a head start over Sausage Craft. But Sausage Craft is making deliveries today and Belmont, to my knowledge, doesn't yet have a wholesale operation. I say just let the market and consumers decide this one. I buy sausage from both outfits, and I buy plenty of other products from Belmont Butchery that Sausage Craft never intends to sell. Perhaps we'll find that Richmond has plenty of room for both companies.

out-cooked

Why not, says I. I'll write about that new (to Richmond) burger joint, Cook Out, in the old Bullet's location by Regency in the West End. When RVAFoodie posted about this place today, he remarked that his wife, "couldn’t recall what a Five Guys burger tasted like, but she couldn’t imagine it could possibly taste any better." Having just enjoyed Five Guys for dinner last night, I made the terrible decision of having a bacon cheeseburger two meals in a row and headed down Parham Road on my lunch break.

Yes, the menu is pretty cheap. This is, indeed, fast food - both in speed and prices (more in the Wendy's than Mickey-D's range). My combo was ready by the time I drove up to the window - surprising for something that was freshly-grilled - and the cashier pleasantly delivered her valedictory, "See you tomorrow!"

The problem is that the food also tastes cheap. It's not bad - it's certainly better than McDonald's, Burger King, Sonic, and Wendy's (but only slightly), but I won't be making the slightly out-of-the-way trip for another Cook Out burger any time soon. The fries were decent, if not crispy enough, but the other side (you pick two sides!) consisted of generic, formed chicken nuggets. I really enjoyed my mint chocolate chip milkshake, actually, but that was the only high point. The burger? Consider this my dismissive, "meh." Let's just say that grilled doesn't automatically equal good. The first bite or so was nice as the vague Burger King-esque charred flavor gave way to real flame cooking. But the burger patty itself was just boring. The bland bacon and cheddar cheese "sauce" didn't do much to help. If RVAFoodie's wife liked it better than or thought it equal to Five Guys, that's fine - she's not wrong, we just have different taste. For my part, though, I'd only go back for a milk shake.

One more thing, just because RVAFoodie asked me about it on Twitter: the whole religious angle of the company. It turns out that cups and other packaging come with a mixture of Biblical scripture references and religious/patriotic phrases. Of course, I'm a Christian. I make no effort (consciously) to hide it, so I'm not offended by the sight of a scripture reference - especially now that I've looked them up. I'm also trying very hard not to be cynical about the reason for including religious material on food packaging. I don't know whether they're sincere or being manipulative, so I'll make no conjecture.

Does it bug you that the business owners publicize their faith on their own products? Don't support their business. I don't agree with the humanistic messages of many manufacturers, but if I was offended enough by one I'd simply take my money elsewhere. Does it bug you that the owners have religious messages on total junk food? I guess a Christian should never sell triple cream cheeses, either (I'm not comparing the quality of the two types of food - but nobody can tell me that regular consumption of triple cream cheeses is good for your arteries). I am, however, bothered by the conflation of religion and patriotism, but only barely in this case. It's not in my face, and its not spelled out in much detail (Triteness aside, if you like where you live and you believe in a God who blesses, why not ask Him to bless where you live? That's hardly threatening on its own.).

Ultimately, it's the food that counts here as far as I'm concerned. And it doesn't add up to much. Unless I'm near Regency or have a sudden craving for one of their shakes, I'll probably forget about Cook Out by the end of next week.

Restaurant Week: Acacia

I'll be out of town this weekend, so tonight was my last chance to take advantage of a restaurant week menu here in Richmond. I suppose I took the easy way out going to a restaurant I've visited before, but any opportunity to eat at Acacia is tough to pass up. Besides, with a frequently changing menu and prices that keep me from being a regular, it's not likely I'd be eating something I've had before.

So let's get right to it. 'Cause this meal was THE JAM.

First course: duck confit with gnocchi, swiss chard, cranberries, and pomegranate molasses. I'm pretty easy to please with duck confit, and this didn't disappoint. The chard was tender but still a pleasant bright green. But oh, the gnocchi...

I've eaten plenty of gnocchi in my short life. I've made some crappy gummy gnocchi of my own, I've eaten fantastic examples in New Jersey, New York, Florence, and hell, even at Acacia. But these gnocchi were the most pillowy-soft, perfectly cooked nuggets I've had. It seems they'd been in the pan with the duck because they had a fine browned exterior and smacked of the savory essence of the confit.

I had mixed feelings about my main course, if I'm totally honest. I ordered the rib eye, a cut of which I'm not too fond. It's generally a little fatty for my taste, but it was cooked perfectly and tasted delicious. But I ordered this course for one of its accoutrements: the bone marrow pancake. This fluffy, rich, buttery disc was the most delicious thing I'd eaten in a few months. How something could be so light yet so lip-smackingly unctuous I cannot fathom. I would have eaten a short stack had I the chance. Worth the price of admission.

My dessert was the cherry sherbet with black forest cake. Now somebody's already complained about the size of this offering and, taken on its own, yes, it's smaller than Acacia's desserts I've had in the past. But I'll say two things about it beyond how delicious it was. First, after a meal this size, the portion was just right for me. I was able to eat and enjoy the entire dessert without stuffing myself. Second, the execution of this dessert was nearly flawless. I say nearly because I think the sherbet had been sitting on the plate a bit, having melted about 30% by the time it reached my table. But the cherry "paint" on the plate, the little chocolate pebbles, moist nuggets of cake, and the sweet flavor of the sherbet were a delight both visually and on the palate.

So yeah...incredible meal, incredibly satisfying. I don't have to sell Acacia too hard in this town.

I've been fortunate to have experienced a trifecta of great dining experiences during my first year participating in Richmond's restaurant week. I hope that next year I can hit up at least two places - places I've never been - and keep a good thing going. They can't all be hits, but adventure always comes with at least a little risk.

Restaurant Week: Secco

I know. I've written about Secco a few times. I've been there over 25 times since May, and I gush to nearly everyone I know about the place. So please, for your own sake, take what follows with a healthy dose of Maldon sea salt...

I wasn't expecting to dine at Secco for Restaurant Week. What, after all, is the point of going somewhere you already know and love when there are untested (untasted?) restaurants to explore? Tonight, however, was Valerie's last night of a class at The Visual Arts Center and, as she's only halfway able to taste anything while she recovers from a cold, she gave me the all-clear to get in one extra night of dining by myself. Fortunately I was able to score a table when I arrived just after 6:30, and I came ready to order from their Restaurant Week menu (though they appear to be serving from their standard menu as well).

I started with the velvety cream of cauliflower soup, poured over brown butter, sweet curry, and dark chocolate. I've had this soup before, and tonight was an improvement on what I already enjoyed. The curry stood out a little more and the chocolate was just subdued enough not to overpower the light flavor of the other ingredients. I had a glass of pinot blanc from Alsace to wash it down, and it really brought out the butter in the soup nicely.

Secco's special menu allows you to choose two items for the second course. This is, I'm sure, because of the "small plates" nature of their offerings, but it also makes for a serious value at the restaurant week price. I went with the braised octopus and the lemon-infused maltagliati with duck ragu. I'll start, as I did while dining, with the octopus.

This was the third or fourth time I've eaten octopus in any form, and I suppose it comes with the territory that it's a little chewy. I'm not talking rubber bands now, but it does require a little more jaw work than most seafood. That's not to say it wasn't delicious. The braise added plenty of flavor, and it was clearly finished over some fire which gave it a nice crisp exterior. My cephalopod was accompanied by Yukon Gold potatoes that Tim smoked using a nifty kitchen gadget. Lovage, a green in the celery family, rounded out the dish and balanced the smoky flavor of the potatoes.

This was the second time I've had the maltagliati, a rough cut pasta that, in this case, was served with lemon zest and a rich duck ragu. This dish is one of my favorites at Secco because it's simultaneously complex, fragrant, and comforting; the perfect cold weather dish. I'm not sure whether it's duck confit or braised, but it's super tender and generously applied.

My dessert was completely new to me, however. A chilled plate arrived with a scoop each of olive oil gelato and rosemary sorbet. Holy daring flavors, Batman! Tim informed me that he used a nice sweet finishing olive oil in the gelato, and it added just the right hint of fruitiness. But oh my, the star of the plate was that rosemary sorbet. Full disclosure - there was a bit of a frozen chunk in the middle. That was small, though, and it still tasted wonderful. The rest of the sorbet was as smooth as you could ask for, and the aroma and flavor of rosemary was just right. I'd love to stir a healthy dose of this stuff into a quality gin to make a cocktail :-)

Sadly, I have class tomorrow and Thursday, so my next (and final) Restaurant Week adventure won't be until Friday, but I'll be sure to report on that excursion as well.

Restaurant Week: Six Burner

I'll keep this simple and to-the-point. Dinner at Six Burner, for the first night of Richmond Restaurant Week, was awesome.

My appetizer was snail risotto. Yes, there were land mollusks in my rice. There was also deliciousness in my rice. Warm, tender arborio, just the right amount of what I think was wine in the mix, and oh my, the snails were delicate and flavorful.

I went for the 56-hour braised short ribs. Gimmick? Maybe. Bursting with richness and complexity? Absolutely. These were short ribs as tender as a perfectly-cooked piece of sirloin at least, and the crispy/browned bits on the outside of the meat were the Maillard icing on the beefy cake.

Dessert came with a bonus - I'd ordered the panna cotta with local honey and fresh fruit (baby kiwi in this case!), but the waitress accidentally dropped off the arroz con leche - an incredible rice pudding tasting of cinnamon with fresh raspberries on top. The waitress realized her error and dropped off my proper dessert which was, in fact, superior.

Recap: super tasty from start to finish.
Coming soon: Acacia on Friday. But I already know I love that place :-)

Belmont Pizzeria

There's a 2-day-old pizza place in town, Belmont Pizzeria, near Patterson.

RVAfoodie mentioned it this afternoon after West of the Boulevard News linked to an initial review from One Way Richmond. So I checked out the place tonight.

It looks like a real pizzeria - only a counter for sitting, a drink cooler, and a menu with typical pizzeria fare. Meatballs for a topping, garlic knots! The pizza wasn't bad, but on reflection there are issues.

RVAfoodie later described the pizza as "... huge, thin, greasy, + cheesy So... New Yorky. The crust is light, limp. More spongy than chewy." I agree with most of his assessment except for the light, spongy, and "New Yorky" parts. My medium was a bit too dense (perhaps too much dough for that size pie), and hence kinda toothy in the wrong way. Not the chewiness I love in good crust. And the "New Yorky" part, well, if all these dings are true about a pizza, it's not representative of New York pizza (not to this Jersey boy, at least). There's bad pizza everywhere, even New York, but even touristy Little Italy in Manhattan has more good pizza than bad, using better mozzarella, just the right amount of sauce, and crust that holds up when it's folded in half.

That aside, though, there are real problems. It's a shame, too, because it looked and smelled pretty good. But let's start with what was right on top. The cheese. I always order a plain cheese pizza when I try out a new pizza joint because I figure they oughtta be able to get the basics right. Well the cheese on this pizza was some seriously low-grade mozzarella. The pool of grease was a big tip-off, and unfortunate.

The sauce was forgettable - literally, because I don't remember anything about it. At least there wasn't too much.

And the crust...well, that's the most troubling part. There's some actual decent flavor to the crust, but beyond that the texture isn't right. Whether that's from my suspicion of too much dough in the medium pie, or because they didn't give the dough enough time to rise, it still means it's kinda dense.

I'm not throwing out the leftovers, but this doesn't replace Capriccios, JoJo's, or Carini for me. Maybe I'll try out Arianna's next, since it's a block over from Belmont.

Alamo BBQ

beef brisket sandwich

I've been waiting to write about this until I had this photo back from the lab. Alamo BBQ in Church Hill has been open for a few years already, and I'm ashamed it's taken me this long to stop by. I went once a couple of weeks ago on word that their brisket was supreme in the River City, but they were out when I was there (to be fair, mid-afternoon - they were waiting for another brisket to finish), so I had what I felt was so-so pulled pork.

Last weekend, however, I took Valerie up the hill for lunch, and I finally had my brisket. I skipped the default onions and jalapeños (not a fan of the flavor), but the sandwich still had plenty of zing, no doubt from copious amounts of black pepper in the rub.

I still like Buz and Ned's pulled pork better, but this is a new winner for brisket in my book. Beats Ronnie's, too (though I still really need to try those ribs...). Get it.

new bagel shop coming to carytown

A friend of mine recently told me that his wife saw a yet-to-be-opened bagel shop on Cary Street. Well today I saw it for myself in Carytown on my way from the bank to the farmers' market.

Jaks Bagels & Deli is expecting to open late October, and I'm pretty pumped. All you have to do is search my site for "bagel" and you'll get the picture. They're not likely to supplant my craving for porkroll, egg, and cheese sandwiches on poppy seed bagels that only Cupertino's can fulfill (in the Richmond area), but having a bagel shop closer to home has me pretty excited.

Five Guys Burgers and...that's it.

I found it interesting that Five Guys recently won the ranking of "best fast food burger" in the US from Zagat.

I'm not upset about that, either. They're from Virginia, the patties are thin so they get a little crispy and extra brown, and the burger buns are pretty tasty, too. But it reminds me. The full name of the restaurant is Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and I know plenty of people in different parts of the country who also love their fries.

But I hate them.

They're always a little too soggy and way undersalted. I don't want a salt lick instead of french fries, but I do want my fries to have at least a few crystals of sodium chloride across their collective surface. What is it about these fries that you folks love so much? What am I missing?

black and white and Rome all over

As much as I love to cook, the main reason I've been such a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain is his writing. I've never eaten food prepared by the guy, but I've consumed his words on many occasions, and they're almost always fantastic. I'm also a huge fan of his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Here my love for food and travel mixes with my love of good film making as his crew has continued to push the boundaries of documentary television production.

With the love of his writing and No Reservations in mind, Mr. Bourdain's post today about the upcoming Rome episode is outstanding. The episode could end up being a flop, but reading about it was entertainment on its own. The care for detail, nerdy film references, the willingness to take risks even while riding high in critical acclaim, all rendered expertly in words that were a joy to read.

But I have a feeling the episode won't be a flop. I'm quite looking forward to it.