Fuel of Luv
Maat Free is entirely serious and ebullient as air when she calls herself the Oracle Portal and a brilliant visionary. Her all-vegan food business, Vegi Luv, is the result of her “innate ability to transmit positive energy through delicious plant based food,” her biography reads, and she’s an energetic enthusiast on a healthy-eating mission. Free’s signature dish, RBG love, combines tomatoes, olives and kale in nutritional yeast; Asian spices and flavor elements from the Afro-Latin diaspora are alkaline-rich “pure fuel for positive pursuits,” she says.
Free is a charismatic personal chef, caterer of Blacktastic Snacks and now runs a kiosk at Adams and Broad streets downtown. She’s also the first winner of a vegan chef challenge called Meatless Gourmet, part of the well-attended Richmond Vegetarian Festival on June 18. Her cornmeal hoe cake topped with curried black beans was a winning element of a three-dish cooking marathon. Competitors Jen Hurst (River City Vegan) and Nick Bergheimer (Whole Foods, formerly Ipanema Café and Harrison Street Café) also crafted spectacularly flavorful dishes in a mystery-ingredient cook-off that was a close race and a first for the event, moderated by food blogger Jason Guard, aka RVAFoodie.
Maat Free calls her ancestors her kitchen angels, particularly the late chef Muhammad Ndao of the former Taste of Africa downtown, who “guides her spoon as she stirs every meal.” Vegi-luv.com. 564-6163.
Bookish on wine: Todd Kliman, Washingtonian magazine’s food and wine editor, presents his new book at the Virginia Historical Society on June 30 at noon. Kliman’s “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” describes some Virginia connections and traces the return of the Norton grape. Tickets to the society’s Banner Lecture Series are $4-$6. See details at vahistorical.org.
Booze with blimp: In one of the splashier promotional tours, Hangar One Vodka rolled into the Chesterfield County Airport on Father’s Day with an Airstream trailer, a 15-person flight crew, portable bars, tables and grills, a lineup of flavored vodkas, and a helium-filled, 120-foot blimp to take passengers on (nonalcoholic) joy rides. At ground level, bartenders from Balliceaux, the Blue Goat, Wild Ginger and the Jefferson Hotel mixed craft cocktails with the California brand, which is produced in a hangar near San Francisco. The blimp tour stops in 30 cities.
The Possible Dream
He’s not the first one to look at the space — a handful of local chefs have tried to close the deal, starting with Adam Schumm of dearly departed Zuppa, and moving on to an A-list of operators who couldn’t make the numbers work. But for Michael Hall, who’s 26 years into a cooking career that’s earned him a politely fanatical following, a sleek space in Rocketts Landing is the project he’s been waiting for.
The contemporary condo tower called 210 Rock reminds him of buildings in Washington, where the food interests him and the street-front setting calls out for all-day business. Developers enticed Hall to open M Bistro & Wine Bar there at the end of this month, setting in motion Hall’s three-year business plan that brings gourmet comestibles, wine and seafood to other parts of town.
Hall, unafraid of rich flavors and Southern stylings — now to be executed on a whopping 16-burner stove — has a resumé that still seems enemy-free: five years of four-diamond ratings at the Berkeley Hotel and winning runs at Nonesuch Place and the Bull & Bear Club, which he continues to oversee for now.
“This is what chefs live for,” Hall says. “We want to call all the shots — it’s an exhilarating feeling. I want [M Bistro] to be a polished, professional place — it’s not a nightclub. We’re food, service and wine. Morning coffee, chocolate croissants, and we’ll get into making our own donuts,” he says. Anthony Williams is sous chef with eight years as Hall’s right hand; both will be visible in the open design of the 3,000-square-foot space. A mahogany bar, booths and patio seating will top out at 100 guests.
M Bistro’s small retail section will have house-made country paté, jams and olives, cases of wine, chocolate truffles and whatever residents ask for, perhaps the house-made sauvignon applesauce or fresh potato bread. Daytime service will begin a few weeks before dinner hours, with a still-secret brick bread for lunch, dry-rubbed barbecue bacon on burgers, crab cake salads and lobster rolls in the $10 range; dinner will run from lamb spare ribs to nightly fish, duck and beef, though it’s the sides such as caramel corn pudding that appear to create addictions among his followers. Private parties already are on the books.
Hall laughs about his reputation as a likeable guy. “I think I’ve always been cordial and spoken through my food,” he says. It was his salmon salad at Nonesuch that attracted Hall’s first celebrity guest, when Jimmy Sneed came in regularly to order it for lunch. “Jimmy put me on the map,” Hall says, by inviting him to do fundraisers and market himself as a chef. Now Hall is running with an opportunity that feels well-timed; he’s spending far less than the nearly half-million-dollar budget erroneously reported elsewhere, but is fully invested in the goals while maintaining humility. “It’s gonna be the hottest place opening on this side of the tracks,” he says, kidding — knowing it’s also the only one. 4821 Old Main St. 652-2300. mbistro-rocketts.com.
Out of it: Just a few weeks after Liberty Valance turned up on the casualty list, the Fan steak and burger classic Davis & Main shut its doors, posted a “closed today” sign, turned off the voice and email and otherwise signaled an ending. Both places had been listed for sale after 20 or more years of once-robust business. Also this month, Byram’s Lobster House changed hands, and Posh club in Shockoe Bottom was ordered closed for tax problems.
Still in: Café Gutenberg, a corner fixture in Shockoe Bottom with a driven team of chefs, remains open. Although partners Jen Mindell and Garrett Berry are looking for buyers (as Style Weekly reported in April), they’re still serving vegan and carnivore foods every day but Tuesdays while they search for smaller quarters elsewhere. 1700 E. Main St. cafegutenberg.com.
OMG Café: The owner at this new Church Hill spot, Deandre Johnson, says the restaurant is selling 100 orders of chicken and waffles a day from a list of soul food options. “We have large portions and we don’t use any canned food,” he says. Smothered chicken and pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes and fresh cabbage are other menu highlights; most entrees are less than $9. 412 N. 25th St. 269-0531. omgcafelounge.web.com.
Subs and More: Over near the Amtrak station, Jenna and Faysal Aridi have operated a small sandwich cafe for three years in a former Stuffy’s. Handmade burgers, meats grilled on premises, house-made marinades and dressings and gyros, barbecue, grilled subs and salads give this 30-seat business a stealth following. It serves Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Sundays. 7304 Staples Mill Road. 266-8917.
When asked how ridiculous it is to try to open two restaurants in the same year, Johnny Giavos sputters, “I didn’t intend for that to happen,” and switches topics to the regional high school volleyball and soccer teams he coaches. Giavos takes possession of Philip’s Continental Lounge next month at 5704 Grove Ave, which he hasn’t been inside in six years. The Shaheen family continues to own the building.
“I tried to buy that building 15 years ago,” Giavos says; instead he went on to open 3 Monkeys, Kitchen 64 and its seasonal ice cream shop Sweet 95, Gibson’s Grill at the National (sold this year; posting strong sales, he says.) His additional holdings at Kuba Kuba and Sidewalk Café give him buying power and the rare ability to back his own projects.
At the same time, Giavos and his wife Katrina are preparing for the opening of Stella’s, a Lafayette Avenue venture that returns Stella Dikos to the culinary spotlight five years after closing her Fan District restaurant. Hedging bets, the family expects to open Stella’s by mid-July.
At Phil’s — Giavos has yet to decide on a new name — Giavos says he’ll serve rotisserie-cooked roast beef, chicken and corned beef sandwiches (“a neighborhood place with American classics, nothing fancy”). It will have a full bar, not dissimilar to the approach that kept Phil’s in business since 1939. Phil’s lumpy vinyl booths, club sandwiches and beer were as predictable as plaid shorts; a wave of dismay swept its regulars and most recent operators Kyle and Katy Measell, who end their run June 25 and are trying to reopen elsewhere.
Giavos expects the completely gutted and redesigned restaurant to open by the end of this year.
Famous food: Still secret is the upcoming appearance of the Black Sheep — the pride of Carver — on an episode of “Road Eats,” a new Discovery Channel series that sends three pro truckers “looking for America’s best food.” Chef Kevin Roberts prepared the chipotle roasted pork battleship the USS Congress for series co-star Meleese Mabery, who “was wonderful to work with and made herself a welcome addition to our kitchen that day,” Roberts says of the recent taping. An air date has not been announced.
Also, the tres leches cake at Kuba Kuba got some glory on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” produced by former Richmonder David Hoffman, which aired earlier this month.
Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert, who bill themselves as the good and evil of celebrity chefs (though both get more air time than knife work these days), take the stage at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale now for $44.50-$99.50; the latter astonishing VIP price gets access to a book-signing after-party at Ten Japanese restaurant. Details at theparamount.net.
John Mariani, beloved by the Jefferson Hotel for bringing notice of the new Lemaire to Esquire magazine readers, is honored with a dinner there next week. An Evening with John Mariani on June 22 is now waiting-list only; the menu of Italian food and wine is inspired by his book “How Italian Food Conquered the World.” Chefs Walter Bundy, James Schroeder, Patrick Ehemann and new pastry chef Sara Ayyash will collaborate on the four-course, 160-guest dinner. For more on Mariani, see p. 37. jeffersonhotel.com.
Bistro 27 hosts a three-course dinner June 20 to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The event honors Dr. Krista Kumrow, a Richmond veterinarian who plans a three-day fundraising walk this summer; part of the $38.50 dinner tab goes to the nonprofit. 780-0086.
Veggie fest: Bands, vegans, restaurants and nonprofits come together for the Richmond Vegetarian Festival 2011, promising a good time for dogs and humans. The free, annual event — recently recognized by Parade magazine — is June 18 from noon until 6 p.m. in the azalea gardens at Bryan Park in the city’s North Side. Attendees are asked to bring a can of vegetables for the Lamb’s Basket food pantry, and an appetite for meat-free flavors from all over the map. veggiefest.org.
Hermitage Grill: After more than a year of post-fire construction, this 11-table North Side spot is identified by the meat smoker outside — barbecue is a menu staple. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday, dinner Saturday, brunch Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 6010 Hermitage Road. 264-7400.
Filled to overflowing: At Caliente in the Museum District, the Luther bacon cheeseburger served on glazed donuts, and the Vegetarian’s Nightmare — a half-pound burger topped with pulled pork, brisket, ham, bacon and two cheeses — are selling well, says owner Dave Bender, along with more figure-friendly options and some old recipes from the former Texas-Wisconsin Border Café on a menu introduced last month. calienterichmond.com.
Just a few months back, Style Weekly noted the rare examples of live music during dinner hours at Richmond restaurants. Suddenly there's almost a surfeit. Some examples include jazz Saturday nights at 7 at Barrel Thief on Patterson Avenue; bluegrass and country music at Grandpa Eddie's at 8 p.m. on weekends; local acts at Nuevo Mexico in the Shops at Stony Point on weekends; also at Sunset Grill and Enzo's in Goochland and Big Al's Sports Bar.
Other local restaurants with music before late-night include Commercial Taphouse, Legend Brewing, Best Café at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bogart's in the Fan, Brunetti's and Gus' in Mechanicsville; Tobacco Company, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Jimmy's Restaurant, the County Seat in Powhatan, Ellwood's Café, Robin Inn and Davis & Main, among others.
Gibson's Grill at the National now features Sunday brunch with an acoustic guitarist; Marshall Street Café has a jazz pianist at its Sunday brunch. In a town where working musicians are glad to start early, get a free meal and an appreciative audience, the formula seems to be picking up steam.
Pete's Great Food has opened its concession-stand operations at the Landing at Byrd Park, replacing last summer's operator there, Sally Bell's Kitchen. Owner Robert Peters says the business won the bid in March and opened over Memorial Day weekend. So far, falafel sandwiches are top sellers from a menu of classic sandwiches; house-made potato chips, come with every order. Boxed lunches can be served on a Frisbee by request, and customers can call, email or fax in orders via petesgreatfood.com. Open from 11 a.m. until dark daily on the lake. Pete's also rents paddleboats at the site.
CC Wok Chinese Café has opened in the former Zen Asian Bistro space in Midlothian. Lunch and dinner are served Tuesday through Sunday in the cafe which has a traditional Chinese-American menu and a pending liquor license. 11400 W. Huguenot Road in the Shoppes at Bellgrade. 893-3087.
Open since last fall is Twiggy's Take Out at 212 W. Brookland Park Blvd. Owner Odilka Gomez, formerly of Panama, brings bright colors and reggae music to the space, along with authentic Panamanian, Caribbean and American recipes and island-inflected hospitality. Dishes include oxtail, vegetarian stew, cow-foot soup, fish, crab cakes and seafood salad among other specialties. Closed Mondays. 525-6613.