Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A New Deal for Richmond

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Roosevelt, Church Hill's new restaurant, opened with a nearly full house despite no ABC license. Even so, neighbors and friends kept the tables turning over all night.

When I arrived, there were two men working on the side of the building, repainting the old advertisement that had been painted there decades ago. I complimented their work. "Wait till you see how good it looks when it's done!" one guy said as I walked underneath his cherry-picker to go inside. I intended to.

Because of all the glass on the corner building, diners get to enjoy an ever-changing light level, from early evening sun right through softly-lit nighttime glow. I was meeting Southside friends where I was greeted by a familiar face behind the bar who served me a Sprecher root beer to whet my whistle.

Evidence of the achievements and the creative effort of The Roosevelt are myriad. The former Que Pasa has been transformed from a garish orange and yellow shell into an enticing New Orleans dining room, a well-dressed lady hinting at pleasure.

Kendra Feather does it yet again.

Pale blue hand-stenciled walls set off an enormous old map of Richmond, vintage black and white photographs and WWII posters ("Eat More of These!"). A hundred details express the creative effort that went into this place. A wooden box turned on its side and hung on the wall houses small plants.
A black beaded chandelier hangs over the bar and an ornate black-framed mirror is over the fireplace. Ferns frame the front door. New Orleans-style jazz plays on the sound system.

Toto, I don't think we're in Richmond anymore.

The creativity extends to Chef Lee Gregory's menu, which was everything I expected out of a culinary whiz who's been on my short list for years. How could I not be devoted to the man who, unbidden, introduced me to my first crispy fried pig's head?

Everyone's already talking about his Double Downer, a double burger made with Sausage Craft custom patties, cheddar and bacon jam. I know I'm a lucky person because not one but two people offered me bites of their burgers.  One told me it was the best burger in Richmond. Believe him.

But with a chef like Lee, you get the satisfaction of a burger but you also get potted pork (rillette-like) on crostini with onion jam. You get smoked bluefish salad with radish, cucumber, egg and the tenderest butter lettuce in a buttermilk dressing. The smoked fish melts in my mouth like buttah

Pimento cheese is served with house-made potato chips. Sliced candy striped beets are roasted and served in an orange juice and ginger sauce that has everyone raving. Mussels, roasted with  vermouth and garlic, are served with grilled bread. Gnocchi, mac and cheese style, melts in everyone's mouth and causes rapture for its delicate flavor and decadent texture.

And that's just what I ate. Still to come for me are the Frogmore stew, Kentucky fried quail and the roasted pork belly with red eye gravy.

By about 8:00, the place was in full swing, tables busy, servers hopping and music lost in the crowd conversation. "You'd never know it was opening night," my friend observed. True that.

The staff was on point, food was coming out steadily from the kitchen and every dish except the mussels elicited the same response.

"This isn't like any other dish in Richmond," was how my friend put it repeatedly. "Lee Gregory," was how I responded each time he did.

All three of us got dessert. The winner for most Southern was the peanut butter pie, which had much more of a peanut taste rather than peanut butter. Very real tasting. For best use of a seasonal ingredient, my roasted peaches with caramel ice cream scored high points. Even with my peach allergy, I finished every bite of the classic peaches and cream pairing.

And (drum roll) for most charming and creative presentation, the award definitely went to the buttermilk panna cotta, which is made in a small Mason jar. It arrives with the lid on; once that's opened, a layer of local blueberries sit atop the panna cotta, which has a delicious tang from the acidity of the buttermilk.

Once the crowd began to clear out, the music became more integral to the vibe and the room took on a more relaxed feeling. Had alcohol been available, I feel sure the bar would have been mobbed. Who wouldn't be curious to check out the all-Virginia wine list knowing it's the first in Central Virginia?

As it was,  a couple of single neighbors stopped by only to find the kitchen closed (well, it was almost 11:00) and no alcohol being served. Both enthusiastically promised to be back. Frankly, I'd be surprised if anyone in the room chose not to come back for five-dollar desserts and entrees that top out at $17 (and there's only one of those).

The Roosevelt appears to already have a handle on where happiness lies.

At least the kind you can find in a neighborhood restaurant.


  1. I'm moving in down the street this weekend. I have been supremely excited to try the Roosevelt, and your excellent review has made it that much harder to wait!

  2. You are lucky to be moving into a neighborhood with such a great restaurant.

    If you become a regular, maybe I'll see you there eventually!