Almost as soon as the barstool next to mine at Saison was vacated, it was claimed by a man who closely mirrored the description that Richmond chef Jason Alley had provided of local diners drawn to new, inventive restaurants: He didn’t have much in the way of a neck, but he had plenty of tattoos and chains. “Three oxtails,” he instructed the bartender.
I remarked that the sopes preparation, featuring lime cream and curtido, must be pretty special to merit ordering in triplicate. “I’ve got people coming,” he snarled.
Later that August evening, while I was in the thick of my attempt to take in as many of the currently essential Richmond restaurants as I could in one night, I saw the guy and his buddies again. And at the next restaurant I visited, I randomly ran into Alley.
Contemporary dining in Richmond is something of a cult pursuit. It hasn’t yet emerged as a point of municipal pride, as in Charleston: None of the residents I encountered outside of dining rooms had heard of any of the restaurants on my to-eat list, save Alley’s celebrated Comfort, which more than a decade ago dared to suggest Southern cuisine was as viable of a menu strategy as French and Italian cooking.
Since then, the dining scene has plowed ahead, as its chefs have dug into the local larder and puzzled out what it means to serve food in the far southern reaches of the mid-Atlantic (judging from the menus I scanned, it means more trout than we see in South Carolina.) Food lovers elsewhere are increasingly taking notice – Bon Appetit last month named Southbound to its list of the nation’s best new restaurants, for example – but it seems like Richmond’s general population isn’t yet totally clued in to all of the cool stuff going on.
And there’s no shortage of it. Here, a few highlights from my brief 36-hour stay, during which I split my time between traditional sightseeing and culinary explorations. (If you haven’t attended the free Second Virginia Convention reenactment at St. John’s Church, I highly recommend it.) A few caveats: I focused exclusively on newish, upscale restaurants within walking distance of downtown. I’m certain there are terrific soul food joints and global cuisine specialists further from the city’s center, but I’ll have to save those discoveries for my next trip.
It’s not necessary to travel all the way to Richmond to sample Rappahannock Oyster Company’s wares: Because the farm is so meticulous in its methods, its oysters are tasty year-round, and thus appear at many Charleston oyster bars in summertime. Still, it’s worth visiting Rappahannock if only to sit before an expert shucker who makes sure every bracingly briny Olde Salt is pristine. The restaurant also serves a complete menu based around its wood grill.
Located just down the block from Rappahannock, Pasture is a rustic antidote to the oyster bar’s industrial vibe. Alley’s second restaurant is slightly more experimental than his first, but the core of the menu is elevated picnic staples, such as fried pickle chips, sheer and sweet, served with tangy comeback sauce. I was equally taken with the tangles of salty fried clams and smoky pork ribs, slathered with white sauce. Small wonder: Alley is a spokesman for the National Pork Board, and a pitchman for Duke’s Mayonnaise. As you might imagine, Duke’s isn’t going to fool around with anyone who doesn’t produce outstanding pimento cheese. Alley’s recipe, including shallots, tarragon and Worcestershire sauce, has been printed in multiple magazines. It’s just about perfect.
Every serious restaurant in Richmond sources its bread from the estimable Sub Rosa, a wood-fired bakery inspired by the owners’ Turkish upbringing. Its croissants are reportedly magnificent. But when I swung by the shop in the middle of a run, I opted for the morning bun, a sticky, nutted bun that was a wonder of butter and caramelization. But it was saltiness that set the pastry apart from every other breakfast sweet. Before leaving town, I went back to Sub Rosa for another batch of baked goods.
I don’t have many regrets from my Richmond trip. But I am really sorry that my packed eating schedule kept me from enjoying a full meal at Saison, which struck me as the most dynamic of all of the restaurants I visited. My conclusion is based entirely on a witty plate of shishito peppers, which took the form of a deconstructed chili relleno. Here, the griddled peppers sat in a puddle of spicy white cheese, pooled with the rich yolk spilling from a five-minute egg.
Few words make me happier in a restaurant context than “German-inspired.” Metzger serves the requisite potato dumplings, sauerkraut and wild mushrooms, but its specialty is housemade meats, such as the rosy pink pastrami, sliced thin as tissue paper and draped over horseradish quark (I didn’t know anything about quark until I went to Wisconsin earlier this year: It’s a fresh cheese that’s kin to farmer’s cheese.) The dish gained a lovely pop from Dijon mustard and pickled peppers.
As Sunday’s first brunch customer at The Roosevelt, I couldn’t figure out why the manager was so reluctant to sit me at a table, as opposed to a bar. Within minutes, his concern made sense: The comfortable Southern eatery is exceedingly popular. Its kimchi fried rice, embroidered with country ham, made for a stellar last bite of my trip.