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.

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.

hair today

It’s a cliché to claim that a barber is a counselor or an advisor, but it’s a claim with merit. That a proper barber possesses skills in the cutting, trimming, and shaving of all things growing from a man’s capital follicles goes without saying. But any barber worthy of his chair provides much more for the common man than a simple ear-lowering.

You see, a man makes himself vulnerable in a barbershop – trusting his own flesh and blood to the scissor- and razor-wielding hands of another. Such trust, cemented over time and trimmings, opens one up to his fellow man. Perhaps it starts (and indeed may stop) with talk of sports, fishing, food, or events around town. Eventually, however, a loyal customer may feel comfortable sharing the minor trials of life and work. Nothing shared in a barbershop ever passes from those walls. One leaves his stress and clippings behind as he steps out beside the candy-striped pole, refreshed.

True barbershops become more difficult to find every year as fewer men enter the trade and the old professionals retire or pass away. This is problematic for me because I have such finicky hair; it grows out rather than down, almost fro-like. Most unisex hair salons, consequently, ask little more than what guard size to use on my head. I see no point in paying for what I could do myself (and certainly no point in tipping for such lack of imagination). So I was excited, several years ago, to discover a younger barber working at the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop here in Richmond, VA. Dave was only in his later 30’s but possessed the demeanor and skill of the elder barbers of my youth. After a few months he needn’t ask me how I wanted my hair cut; he simply told me to have a seat and got started. I left each month feeling like my hair had a style and shape heretofore unavailable to a Brillo-headed boy like me.

Dave was from Pennsylvania. So each month when I parked my tukhus in that chair we extolled the virtues of a real deli and a genuine pizzeria. We lamented the paucity of decent bagels in Richmond, talked about the real New Jersey Shore, and traded jabs over the Giants (my team) and the Jets (his). Dave wasn’t perfect and he had his issues, but he was always affable and a welcome sight on a Friday afternoon when I walked in with a head full of fuzz. One time my wife and I even ran into him at the bar in Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel and he bought us each a drink. Each month I tipped him well (I believe) and tipped much more in December before Christmas. And Dave called me Danny. You see, everybody generally calls me Dan or Daniel, except my family. Now Dave was hardly family, but he sounded like my family in his manner of speech, so there was something reminiscent of my Yankee childhood when he greeted me.

Today I stepped into the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop just as I always do on the first Friday afternoon of the month. Dave’s chair was empty, and when I asked the short Slavic woman where he was she informed me that he left.

“Day off?” I asked.

“No, he left. He’s gone.”

Gone? He’d left without notice, it seems. Too dumbstruck to simply walk out, and no back-up plan in my head, I sat down in her chair.

“What clipper size? Number two on side and three on top?” she asked. She proceeded to give me the most boring haircut I’ve had in years. She rushed those clippers over my head with all the style, grace, and craft of military in-procesing.

I don’t think I’ll be going back to the William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop anymore.

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.

vcu advances to the final four

Quick update: VCU gave me a scare on Friday night beating Florida State by 1 point in overtime, and University of Richmond fell hard to Kansas. But my VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY Rams soundly defeated Kansas this afternoon 71-61 to advance to the Final Four.

Looks like I’m watching more basketball next weekend!

river city sweet sixteen

I earned my bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m working on my business degree from the University of Richmond right now. Each of these schools face challenging opponents tonight in the Sweet Sixteen round of play in the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. It’s the first time both schools have been in the Sweet Sixteen together, and VCU’s first time making it this far at all. Here’s hoping for victory for both of my schools so they can face each other in the Elite Eight on Sunday!

Here’s to watching nearly 5 hours of basketball this evening…

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 11×14 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.

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.

Creatives, Subject 4: The Hand Crafter

phil

Phil Barbato makes fantastical plush creatures, prints, paintings, cartoons, and whatever else his mind impels his hands to create.

Having studied fine art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Phil had spent a number of years working as a web designer here in Richmond before deciding to make hand crafting his vocation. Whether it’s drawing a bear a day for a year on his iPhone, a wall of small paintings, or hundreds of hand-sewn monsters, bears, robots and sea creatures, Phil’s work is unified by a playful aesthetic, reminding me that even serious art can be silly and light-hearted.

Oh, and buy his stuff, ‘cuz it’s pretty awesome.

Portra 160NC
Graflex Speed Graphic

P.S. I promise I didn’t ask the last three subjects in a row to dress with any formality. Purely their choice, but I like how it worked out. I think I’ll go for more casual shots on the next few, though.