Thursday, November 6, 2014

From Richmond with Love

Now that Zagat has named Church Hill one of the ten hot food neighborhoods around the U.S., it seemed like a good night to remind myself why.

When I pulled into Dutch & Co., there was one regular at the bar and a favorite bartender behind it. He had a quizzical look on his face and immediately said, "I expected you would be at Alton Brown tonight." Too costly, I explained and he nodded knowingly.

He said one of their staff had spotted Alton at Sub Rosa Bakery earlier when she went to pick up bread for the restaurant. And that was after he'd been to Lamplighter, Black Sheep, Saison and Sally Bell's.

Richmond will wear your tail out.

Before long, I overheard two servers trying to decide on the evening's music, pleased as could be when they went with Washed Out. As one server put it, "Kinda mellow, not too loud, sort of druggy."

That's my idea of an ideal sonic landscape for a fine meal.

As he was pouring the house white wine - the crisp La Galope Sauvignon Blanc - the barkeep made a few recommendations for eating and I took him at his word.

I'd already been eyeing one of the blackboard specials - white anchovies with beluga lentils, cucumber, apple and watermelon radish - and his praise of the dish was all I needed. The combination was full of contrasts (texture, sweet/salty) and the glistening tiny beluga lentils were perfectly cooked.

In between our conversations about Fire, Flour and Fork and the dangers of Richmond becoming a big-time food town, it was hard not to notice the bartender adding sugar and mixing a vat behind the bar. Turns out he's working on a batch of root beer to go with the back door dogs next week.

Since I'm a huge fan of root beer, he gave me a taste of the still-brewing liquid, explaining that the sugar at this point was to feed the yeast and aid fermentation, not for sweetening's sake. We puzzled over how root beer is a love it or hate it beverage with few people neutral about it.

"I just assumed everybody grew up with it and loved it, like me," he shrugged. Amen. I have five sisters and they all hate it while my parents and I love it. Go figure.

For my next course, I had a killer plate of jerked blood sausage with plantain cornbread, coconut-braised nuts, Aji dulce peppers and plum slices. An unabashed fan of blood sausage, I was especially taken with the coconut-braised nuts, a unique rendering of something hard and savory into something sweet and tender. Leave it to the D & Co guys.

The pleasure of dining alone is all about the conversations you overhear. One was about Katie Ukrop saying that she'd gone into Graffiato's and not seen a single face she recognized. That dovetails with my Graffiato's experience, where everyone around me at the bar was from the counties, on the scent of a celebrity chef.

Another came from a gentleman approaching the bartender asking when the neighborhood had been gentrified. Um, sir, it's still a work in progress.

Witness the guy on a bike pulling a suitcase on wheels as I walked to my car. Th-thump, th-thump.

My second pit stop of the evening was at Camden's for a screening of "From Italy With Love," a quasi-reality show where three Americans get whisked off to Italy to prove they can live and cook as Italians.

Good luck with that. I've been to Italy and they're  a different breed.

The screening began with wine, hardly surprising since the sponsor of the show was Zonin Family Estates, owners of nine Italian wineries. Given a choice of Chianti or Prosecco, I took a few sips of the former before switching to the latter.

A guy near me observed, "I think there's nothing wrong with starting the day with bubbly. If you're going to drink before noon, it should be sparkling." He should know; he said he's woken up in bar in the morning before.

The small crowd who'd gathered to watch the screening was a lively, wine-drinking bunch and wasted no time in mocking the TV show, which began with a very Olive Garden-like look. From there, it showed the three (embarrassing) American contestants as they arrived in Italy and were welcomed into the bosom of an Italian family.

Perhaps it was the wine, but from there, we were catcalling the contestants and mocking their selection since they clearly had no cooking or wine skills to speak of. When told to cook whole branzino, one guy admitted he'd not only never cooked fish, he didn't even like to eat it.

And you got selected for an Italian cooking show?

They went to a jovial butcher in Tuscany who graded their meat cutting and cooking skills, finding them lacking. Their final stop was a Zonin winery where the hapless trio attempted to blend wines. Epic fail.

Not so for those of us watching because we were enjoying Zonin's wine along with house-cured salami, prosciutto and pastrami along with cheeses, pickled vegetables and more of the wines while making non-stop commentary about the show.

As a people, Americans represent so poorly as to be comical.

Twenty minutes after the show ended, two women showed up to join the party, delayed by Alton Brown's performance at CenterStage, bearing pictures and tales of over-sized E-Z Bake ovens and songs about shrimp.

In a typical only-in-Richmond moment, one of the women turned out to be the girlfriend of a long-time music friend, a talented singer and drummer I've known for years. I knew as much about her boyfriend as she did.

One of the guys at the party had me in stitches joking about some of the attendees and their resemblance to the clueless contestants on "From Italy With Love." Meanwhile, we wasted no time sipping the very Prosecco so prominently placed in the show we were watching.

Conversation flowed with the attendees, ranging from William Shatner to Pulp to Dr. Who (who?). A guy told me I seemed "very cool" while some of the attendees did not (he pointed out examples and grinned). One guy leaned in close and asked what I do.

Apparently I go behind Zagat and watch Italian reality TV...and that's not the half of it.

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