Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Come On Down

Of all the ways to try to surprise me, taking me to a Richmond restaurant I haven't been to has got to be one of the more challenging.

After all, when your livelihood revolves around eating at new places and your social life involves dining out before a cultural event, you tend to cover a lot of restaurant ground. Which only makes it all the sweeter when I wind up someplace I haven't been.

Some place like Longoven.

Like most Scott's Addition architecture, the building itself was so nondescript that we passed it without so much as a side glance. But walking through the door transported us to a sleek dining room with music loud enough to hear over the many tinkling dinner conversations already in progress and a vibe that didn't immediately scream Richmond.

The roving bands of beer drinkers outside did that.

I made it halfway to our prime table in the back - away from the fray, but with a good view of the large, open kitchen - before a familiar server spotted me and I was being hugged. But of course a much-anticipated restaurant like Longoven would attract some of the best staff in the city. I mean, it's not poaching if someone wants to jump ship so they can be part of a new restaurant, right?

The meal got off to a fine start when my partner-in-crime insisted we start with Alain Vincey Brut, a perfectly delicate and crisp champagne from a small producer. Let's just say it was a fitting choice to celebrate what completely different worlds the two of us inhabit compared to last August second.

And not to mock Don Ho, but tiny bubbles in the wine really do make me feel fine.

Everything about the meal validated Bon Appetit's 2016 acknowledgement of Longoven as one of the best new restaurants in the country, even if they were nothing but a pop-up when it was bestowed. Maybe most impressive was how light and unfussy the food was, allowing fresh flavors to shine and not leaving us in a food coma, which sort of defeats the point of a really good date.

Fluke crudo was nothing short of a work of art with trompe l'oeil "cucumber slices" made of cucumber and fennel juice foam between strips of fluke, cucumber and assorted varieties of basil. Touching down on multiple hot buttons, lump crab salad rested on the creamiest of corn custards (but not heavy) with shitake mushrooms and - be still my heart - grated egg yolk. Not the least bit overdone and the flavor combination was truly memorable.

Longoven is the kind of place where your server will remind you of all the components in your dish when she sets it down, in case your wine drinking exceeds your menu memory. I actually find this to be kind of endearing. Our server was sweet, though somewhat abashed-looking every time she returned to find us so busy talking in low tones that she was reluctant to interrupt us.

With more champagne, we tackled roasted monkfish that was no kin to any monkfish I previously had and I say that as a big fan of monkfish. The lobster-like meat rested in a broth of kombu and mushroom, with an assortment of mushrooms providing all kinds of earthy flavor notes married to the bounty of the sea.

Three savory dishes earned us two desserts, which is only appropriate in a place with a pastry chef. Safe to say neither of the desserts we chose will soon show up on other local menus.

My hazelnut mousse was taken over the top with Comté ice cream (and believe me, nothing could be more obscene than incorporating such a rich cheese into ice cream), hazelnut sponge cake and hazelnut praline, while himself - an alleged non-dessert eater I'm doing my best to convert - tucked into a roulade of coriander cake with blueberry gelee, white chocolate mousse, cilantro oil and blueberry sorbet.

Toto, when it comes to dessert, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

Although the place was emptying out when we finally stopped talking long enough to get up to leave, we only got as far as the front room before I heard my name called. "I didn't even see you come in," said the handsome face behind the bar. "J. told me you were here."

After he told me how good I looked, we agreed that next time we're in, it's only fitting that we sit at the bar for dinner. No sacrifice breaking bread with a conversational bartender.

The only problem is, now that my main squeeze has had a taste of dining with me somewhere for the first time, a pleasure we'd not yet experienced except when out of town, it may be a while before we return. As he watched me drinking in the decor, the crowd, the servers, the meal, even the feel of the place, I think it's safe to say he liked sharing first-timer status with me. It may be a while.

Don't worry, Longoven, a woman never forgets her first time. Or ComtĂ© ice cream.

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