Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lunch Period at The Cellar Door

Back-to-school week. Labor Day. Signing a petition for the Richmond Transit Riders Union. Who knows what inspired me to check out the gallery walk at the Virginia Historical Society today for the new exhibit Organized Labor in Virginia?

And considering my knowledge base on the subject of labor and unions, I was bound to learn something, always a good thing. As is typical of me (or perhaps anyone), I was most engrossed in the things I could relate to.

A 1948 strike by the Virginia Dairy milk delivery men was caused by the dairy raising product prices but not milkmen's wages. The picture of a milkman in his uniform, sleeves rolled up and holding a rack containing eight glass bottles of milk next to a horse-drawn dairy wagon reminded me of my milkman grandfather.

Another enormous image of menhaden fishermen on the Northern Neck, part of the Reedville menhaden fleet, was captivating. The old boat, with laundry strung up to dry and surrounded by fishermen working for a pittance under deplorable conditions was a reminder of the fishing culture that, for many years, sustained the area where my parents now live.

Despite the disruption of many people's daily routines, there was apparently overwhelming support for the streetcar strike against Virginia Passenger and Power Company. The headline showed the strikers with a headline proclaiming "Yesterday's Scene of Excitement at 7th and Main." They don't write headlines like they used to, that's for sure.

The whole exhibit was enlightening and fascinating in that way that history tends to be when well-presented. And now I know what a whitesmith does, something I didn't know when the gallery walk began. Nerds love that kind of satisfaction.

After history class, it was lunch period and I was eager to check out Monument Avenue's only restaurant. That would be the Cellar Door in the basement of the big white apartment building at Stuart Circle, home to countless previous incarnations.

The last time I'd been in there was when it was still Artists' Underground Cafe and it had been for a show on a hot, sweaty summer night. The first band thrashed hard and loud two feet from me, they only served beer and the place was sticky with sweat and beer. The band I'd come to hear, though, delivered a great set in a room almost too crowded to move. Ah, memories.

The Cellar Door is nothing like that. The place has undergone a renovation that leaves it looking sleek and somehow warm at the same time (a nearby bar sitter told me "You should see it at night. The walls just glow."). It even seems bigger without the tables in the center.

The star of the menu is Pollo a la Brasa, Peruvian style chicken served with two sauces. A variation of that chicken also came in soup, salad and sandwich options, but I figured it best to try it in its basic form first.

That meant I ordered the quarter chicken, a thigh/drumstick combination (it also comes as a half chicken) and for my side, went with the roasted white corn salad (other sides: steak fries, potato salad, jicama "fries" or rose kettle chips).

The crispy-skinned chicken "packed some heat" as the bartender told me, and both sauces had something to recommend them. The red was a Peruvian Ranch with the same spices as the chicken's rub. The green was a jalapeno, cilantro, olive oil and garlic sauce. I couldn't decide which I liked better, so I alternated dipping bites in both, all the while wishing I'd ordered the half chicken so I could keep eating longer, not that I didn't have more than enough to eat.

Worth mentioning is how fresh and well-seasoned that roasted white corn salad was and while corn is still so good, it's an atypical side worth checking out. It was a perfect accompaniment to the chicken, flavor-wise.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to the electrician who'd done the work there and at Sprout (although I would have guessed he was a student because he looked so young), so he'd already eaten there repeatedly and made several recommendations for my future visits, including how terrific the desserts were.

The four sweet options included two chocolate choices: Godiva Chocolate Bombe and Mexican Chocolate Torte and he personally loves the Espresso Cheesecake; they also had a Southern Pecan Tart. Not to be overlooked is a wine list that runs $6-$8 a glass and $18 - $30 a bottle.

Clearly I need to go back for dessert, wine and the glowing walls. And in all likelihood, that chicken again.

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