There can be no better news for oyster lovers than the arrival of Rappahannock, a downtown restaurant which opened to instant crowds in mid-December. Stylish millennials and food cognoscenti are filling the corner space for exquisitely fresh oysters, tuna and a spare but specialized menu of raw-bar and seafood entrees. Virginia scallops are unexpectedly paired with oxtail and curried cauliflower; pork belly and pancetta are the only nods to meat. Rappahannock oysters are the star attractions, arriving on the half shell with pearls of caviar, briny and bright.
Cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton have parlayed their great-grandfather's oyster business into a growing series of food adventures: a tasting room Merroir in Topping, which draws a pilgrimage to its picnic tables; a raw bar in Washington's Union Market just named one of Washingtonian magazine's top 10 new restaurants; Rappahannock here at 320 E. Grace St. in the unrecognizable former quarters of Louisiana Flair; and a potential expansion into Charlottesville.
Their product is sought-after by chefs from here to New York and beyond, and their serving method is fine-tuned without pretension. Prosecco sparkling wine on draft, local craft beer and a select list of spirits keep the three-sided bar busy and convivial. There are concrete floors and giant windows, English dishware in a shrimp-pink, speckled pattern and blues guitar on the play list, giving the space a casual appeal that adds energy to a once-vibrant retail corridor.
Rappahannock serves dinner nightly except Mondays. Luncheon hours begin in January and reservations are taken through opentable.com. 545-0565. rroysters.com.
Now serving: Saison craft beer, contemporary Southern-Latino small plates, cozy neighborhood setting. Dinner and bar nightly. 23 W. Marshall St. 269-3689.
New Year's Dining
Cafe Rustica: Chef Sam George presents a four-course feast for New Year's Eve that promises a hearty good time in the intimate downtown hideaway, at $45 per person or $70 with wine pairings. 414 E. Main St. 225-8811. caferusticarva.com.
Hanover Tavern: Homemade doughnuts are one of the dessert choices in a special New Year's Eve dinner at this historic dining room. A three-course menu for the evening is $45 per person. See details at hanovertavern.org or call 537-5050.
Tanglewood Ordinary: Out in the Goochland countryside, this log cabin serves Southern food family-style, including fried chicken and string beans. Acoustic music on New Year's Eve and other enticements make this a road trip to a different time, with flavors that hold their own. 2210 River Road West, Maidens. 556-3284. ordinary.com.
Siné Irish Pub: New Year's Eve gets a double celebration at this Shockoe Slip landmark. First it's a toast at 7 p.m., which is midnight in Ireland, with no cover charge; the party continues toward Richmond midnight and beyond with a special menu, live music inside and out, heaters on the patio and a $10 cover. sineirishpub.com.
Cinébistro in Stony Point Fashion Park: Chocolate and strawberries, champagne and 1920s costumes give this movie theater experience something different on New Year's Eve. A live feed of the festivities in Times Square will be accompanied by toasts and balloon drops with prizes; costumes are optional but encouraged. 864-0460. cobbcinebistro.com.
It's not really edible, and it weighs a ton, literally, but for wunderkind pastry chef Sara Ayyash the point of the gingerbread train at the Jefferson Hotel isn't taste, but memories. "When I step back and look at it," she says of the holiday spectacle, "I think what I would have said as a kid — more glitter, more candy — so I continue to add more until I reach my wow factor."
The steam engine on display in the hotel lobby departs from the usual gingerbread houses, and its cylindrical shape caused a construction challenge that took three weeks to finesse into art. Working in absurdly contortionist poses to apply pans of hot gingerbread around the wooden frame, Ayyash and assistant Katie Liddiard got a few burns among the laughs. Then they stirred royal icing to the consistency of mortar for "an intense week of gluing candies," Ayyash says. The result is on display until the end of the year.
Once visitors have whetted their visual appetite, they can find Ayyah's desserts nearby — apple spice cake with mulled cider sorbet at Lemaire, and ginger spice bread pudding with cream cheese custard and marshmallow ice cream at TJs. The 24-year-old Ayyash has some impressive pastry credentials, with the Townhouse and Blackberry Farm her first gigs after culinary school. This is her third holiday structure for the hotel. And does the chef prefer savory snacks when she's finished baking? "I can eat a bag of jelly beans any day," she says.
Glitz gone wild: Style Weekly food writer Don Baker recommends more holiday cheer at Nick's Roman Terrace, 8051 W. Broad St., in the Westland Shopping Center. "It's the place for a kitschy holiday meal," Baker says. "Delicious truck-stop chow — go for the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and green beans." 270-2988.
Blowtoad closes: Less than 10 months after opening, chef Jimmy Sneed's coal-fired pizza pub shut its doors last week in Carytown. Persistent rumors of its demise kept staffers on edge, and some customers complained about the chef berating his kitchen crew well within earshot of tables. Blowtoad did some things right — its promotions with the Byrd Theater, sourcing of Edwards and Sons meats, a late-night pizza window, delivery and an ample selection of craft beers were well received. Loved less were the giant plastic signs on the patio railings and the swinging balls that made their way onto pizzas and TV news. Sneed is considering his next move.
Bite back: In Goochland, Nadolski's Butcher Shop reopened Dec. 6 after a three-week fiscal cliff that forced it to suspend operations. Now, with a plan for vertical integration in place, the specialty butcher and gourmet shop has added a sister corporation to raise livestock specifically for the business. Sustainable, local meats and other products will be sold daily through the holidays, with prepared meals offered Tuesdays through Thursdays, at 2913 River Road West near the courthouse. 556-4888. Nadolskisbutchershop.com.
Light dining: A local tradition combines dinner and a light show when Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden opens its tea house for holiday dinner from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. through Jan. 1, although it's closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It is part of the GardenFest of Lights outdoor display, and separate admission is required. The menu features chicken in champagne and artichoke sauce, vegan pumpkin curry, pork chops, crab cakes, salmon and sticky toffee pudding and pumpkin praline cheesecake, with children's choices available and a final dessert hour beginning at 8 p.m. Reservations are recommended at 262-9887, ext. 329. Lewisginter.org.
More room: Just in time for holiday bookings, the space that was River City Cellars in Carytown has shifted function and is now an event and private party space. The Room at Secco is calling customers to action with descriptions such as "stylish and secluded" and the wine bar's trademark humor. See details at seccowinebar.com.
Kroger opened its largest grocery store on the East Coast last week in one of Richmond's less obvious places. The former Cloverleaf Mall was once a shopping vanguard that fell out of fashion. Now the mall has been demolished and a newly named Marketplace at Stonebridge has replaced it. Shoppers are getting more merchandise and aisle space — 123,600 square feet — to pick up $299 recliners, $320.99 bottles of Salon Le Mesnil champagne, vacuum cleaners, live lobsters at $12.99 a pound, and 20 flavors of gelato along with their groceries.
It's a scene of American expansiveness dropped into a vacant streetscape of stucco rectangles waiting to be leased. But inside Kroger, astonishing displays keep customers distracted from the construction zone (and developers' hopes) outside. Market demographics show that a quarter of customers at this grocery will be Hispanic, so there's a strategic focus on prepared tamales, Mexican beer, pumpkin empanadas, salsas and spices.
"We're hanging our hat on fruits and organics," produce manager David Munn says — "and a whole case of exotic peppers and things like the cherimoya that tastes a little like custard." Or Buddha's hand, a citruslike fruit with yellow tentacles that's priced at $6.99.
Soups, sushi, Starbucks, olives, craft beer and critic-ranked wines share space with while-you-wait customized cupcakes, dog food, diapers, panino makers and dining-room tables. Kroger says this store created 375 new jobs for a diverse work force, and by posting the photos of department managers at the front door, it's "connecting with community," more than one staffer remarks at a media opening.
Chef Seth Goulston says the open kitchen's two $17,000 Rational ovens "are amazing, with five sensory probes" that calculate cooking times and help the production line turn out smoked Gouda mac and cheese, Carolina-style barbecue, meatloaf and Tuscan-marinated salmon among dozens of prepared entrees. "Kroger is shifting the way they do things," he says, with more natural foods and organic products in the mix. But fried chicken and pies still crank out daily.
Across the street, an unrecognizable new building for Carena's Jamaican Grille is rising from the rubble of its former location a few yards north. It's a neighborhood in transition, again, and this time it's getting a taste of Short Pump scale with some key merchandising distinctions.
Fanning out: The Peacock's Pantry at 1731 W. Main St. changed its business focus Nov. 1. The decorative corner restaurant is now a boutique catering company and "a premier party destination," says owner Elizabeth Lee, a dentist who moonlights preparing fine foods and paintings for the space, where she says "entertaining is our specialty." 732-3333.
Last supper: In case you weren't sure what to serve for your Mayan calendar end-of-the-world dinner Dec. 21, the publicists for "Flavors of Belize: the Cookbook" recommend a lighter, tropical Mayan meal to contrast with the usual holiday spread. That could be turkey soup, grouper in banana leaf and Mayan chocolate cake for dessert. Belizean cuisine, it turns out, is heavily influenced by Mayan culture — and this might be one last push to sell cookbooks before they're no longer needed.
Now serving: Lemon Cuisine of India, 3215 W. Broad St. 204-1800. lemoncuisineofindia.com.
New on Broad
Jami Bodhan is the new owner of the Empress and Imperial Catering at 2043 W. Broad St., near her other workplaces at the Republic and Metro Grill.
The Savory Grain Restaurant and Drafthouse will be an 85-seat business with 24 taps and a chalkboard menu of new American food. Bodhan hopes to open in mid-January, and says "it's always been a dream to have my own place and I'm very excited" about the project.
Bodhan says she'll eventually pull away from her managing duties at Metro Grill and the Republic, which are facing tax and legal issues, including a recent lawsuit filed by Metro co-owners Richard Masters and Travis Bacile. They claim co-owner Tony Hawkins is funneling money from Metro into the Republic, which reportedly owes $300,000 in back taxes and is in bankruptcy proceedings. The Republic remains open for business.
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Richmonders are at their best when standing in line for takeout and socializing across otherwise wider divides. Lately they've been chatting, salivating and figuring out the chalkboard menu in a new kitchen that's lusty with smells, accents and ink, queuing up to purchase the trendiest food in town.
The instant embrace of Proper Pie Co. last month set off a bit of panic. Chef Neil Smith says he and co-owner, Nikki Price, were caught so off-guard by the long lines Nov. 14 from hour one that they had to regroup to find a way to muscle through a lot more dough. They pounded out a thousand pies in the first three days and added staff far beyond the "simple pie and coffee shop we had planned," Smith says, pleased but exhausted by the longer hours required.
Big sellers are the chicken, beef and vegan pies with various savory fillings, $5-$6, and slices of fruit pie for $4.50, or the deliriously chocolate Afghan cookies Smith grew up eating, a steal at $2. Natural butter or vegan shortening, unbleached flour and "lots of love" go into the dough that holds the portable meals together. International travelers and ex-pats have been the happiest to see their favorite snack making its debut in Church Hill. "We had 12 New Zealanders and some South Africans in here right away," Smith says, and a batch of them already are regulars. Proper Pie Co. serves Wednesday-Sunday, noon until 6, with seating at the window and a few tables in the cozy storefront. 2505 E. Broad St.
Ironfish partnership: Manuel Micheo has joined the team at Ironfish by Pescados in the far West End. As former owner of Spanish Imports, Micheo deals in wines, olive oils and other products, and will oversee business operations at the restaurant. Chef Jon Watts, whose résumé includes Spago and chef Wolfgang Puck and a stint at Pescados, is running a winter menu with braised short ribs and lamb shank, Southern vegetables and desserts, with daily fish specialties. Local craft beer is a focus and party space is being readied for the season. 3061 Lauderdale Drive. 249-4515 ironfishrva.com.
Bust goes bust: How many jokes will the Chapter 11 filing of local Hooters franchisee Cornett Hospitality inspire? For those who dreamed up the pantyhose-with-polyester uniform for servers, and the puny come-ons aimed in one basic direction, some will feel no sorrow. For others who view a trip to Hooters as a rite of passage or an escape from reality, they'll be relieved to know that the three Richmond locations remain open.
New in the Fan: Mediterranean Bistro is serving moderately priced Greek and Italian fare in a renovated corner cafe. The owners are a longtime food industry family. 2301 W. Main St. 901-8650.