Across the street from the old Dixie Donut space at 2901 W. Cary St., Perception Organic Spa owner Hang Pham decided to branch out into a new business.
“My clients were very frustrated,” says Pham. “They wanted someplace they could go that was quiet, to get a cup of coffee and something organic to eat.”
Sen Organic, opening in late August or early September, is the result. It will feature small plates of French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine. A native of Vietnam, Pham, as she is at her spa, is focused on organic, local, non-GMO products. Her carbon footprint is another concern.
“The business plan had to be for a small space,” she says. “The big places are so wasteful.” This made her decide to offer smaller dishes, to be shared among friends. She also will use no plastic, eco-friendly goods and recycle aggressively.
The menu will also be gluten-free. As a mother of three, Pham is acutely aware of food allergies and wants to create a place that alleviates those fears.
“I’m lucky,” she says. “I had my mother and grandmother to teach me traditional Vietnamese food. There was a lot of meaning in their food.” And Pham wants to create that meaningfulness and intentionality in her new place in Carytown.
“I want to bring something interesting to everybody,” says Pham. “I want them to see how Vietnam is — how special and unique.”
1. Castanea’s gelato ($3 for one scoop). Technically this isn’t a dish, although it comes in a dish and that counts, right? You probably think this recommendation seems too easy — pffft, you say, ice cream is a no-brainer. Tell me something I don’t know. But the heat makes all of us cranky. Have you tried Philip Denny’s particular gelato, per chance? Have you experienced the deeply creamy swirl of the always-a-classic-for-a-reason pistachio version? Get back to me when you do.
2. Dinamo’s seafood salad ($17). A cold salad that only needs another salad made out of salad ingredients to make it a complete meal. A wide plate comes piled high with squid, mussels, clams, shrimp and bits of red onion paddling in olive oil while the garlic blows you a lemon-juice kiss. I think I’m going to have to go get some now.
3. Mekong’s do nuong dac biet ($14.95). The noodles are cold, baby, and so are the rice paper wrappers. This platter comes with the full panoply of grilled shrimp, pork, chicken and beef for your indecisive pleasure. Put a wrapper on your plate without allowing it to stick to itself and become a useless lump of mangled rice paper, toss on some meat, slices of cucumber, shredded carrots and basil leaves. Roll it up, give it twirl of lettuce to help you hold it and dip it in a little nuoc cham. (I usually ignore the lettuce, because who needs a big bunch of greens getting in the way? And for maximum saturation, I pour the nuac cham directly onto the pile of filling before I roll it all up.)
4. Peter Chang’s dry-fried eggplant ($10). There's an idea much bandied about that eating hot things when it’s hot will cool you off. This, my friends, is actually true. And I will spend the rest of my life writing about the crispy, creamy, numbingly hot fried eggplant Peter Chang turns out in each of his restaurants until every single one of you tries it. So get on that, OK? It’s getting repetitive.
5. Rappahannock’s oysters and pearls ($18). Put anything on top of a pile of ice and I’ll think about eating it when I'm sticky and suffering. Put raw oysters on there and I’ll swallow them all. Top them with briny trout roe that pops gently against my teeth along with a tiny slush of citrus granita and I’ll shovel my way out of the shells when I’m done.
I accidentally spent $350 on a small kitchen appliance, and man, all I want to do is turn back time.
Two years ago — yes, TWO years ago — I read an article about Mellow, a counter-top sous-vide machine that could be preprogrammed to slow-cook food. I also watched the video. (Don’t watch the video.)
Here’s how sous-vide works: Food — vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs — is vacuum sealed in plastic bags and then dropped into water. The water is kept at a low, steady temperature for an extended period of time. After an hour or two or three, whatever it is you have floating in there is removed, sometimes pan-seared and served. Why is this a big deal? Because the food that comes out of it is exceptionally tender and dishes are more powerfully packed with flavor. This machine was extra-awesome because it also can bring the water to refrigerator-like temperatures so that you can program it ahead of time like a Crock Pot and not die of food poisoning.
Of course, I preordered one immediately.
It’s hard for me to look back and hazard the optimism that inspired this impulse. Maybe it was the knowledge that the machine wouldn’t be produced anytime soon, and I could figure out how to explain this exotic, extravagant piece of miscellany to my family later. Maybe I thought my financial circumstances would have dramatically changed by now — a moment of supreme optimism. And obviously, even two years ago, I must have known that I couldn’t hide something that large and cook secretly in a closet. (There aren’t even any outlets in my closets.) Who knows?
Of course, I forgot all about it immediately.
It’s now winging its way to my doorstep as a reward for my early, early support for the company. I shouldn’t keep it when it arrives, and I don’t want to keep it — but maybe I might keep it. We’ll see.
At any rate, it’s reminded me of all the other things I’ve either purchased or demanded to be given to me for my kitchen. Here’s the short list. Please add yours to the comment section below.
“Where’s the beer, Jack?”
This is one of the first things Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe says to me as he gets out of his SUV at the back entrance of the Richmond Greek Festival, surrounded by aides and men with ear pieces, men who I presume would snap one of my arms off if I even looked at the governor wrong.
How did we get here?
On Friday, the governor called 103.7 Play to chat with my morning radio show partner Melissa Chase and me, and I jokingly asked him if he’d like to accompany me on a “bro date” to the Greek Festival the following day. Shortly after the call, his aide hit me up and said that the governor would love to hang out — meet them there at 1 p.m. Like him or not, when the governor accepts your joke bro-date offer, you put on a nice shirt and you get your butt to the festival by 12:30 p.m. (I do actually like him.)
True to form, McAuliffe likes to have a few cold ones, and I immediately buy three Greek beers — one for him, his aide and me. The multimillionaire governor never returns the favor, but I figure now I can hit him up for tickets to a fancy ball or a grant of clemency somewhere down the road.
The Richmond Greek Festival, also true to form, is packed to the gills. The line for gyros has at least 200 people in it. But, as in years past, the food is spectacular and no one seems too put out by the wait. When you see restaurateur Johnny Giavos sweating it out with the other cooks, you can usually be assured of a great meal.
Luckily for me, now that I’m part of the governor’s entourage, I don’t have to wait in line. Trays and trays of everything the festival offers are brought to a waiting table. Getting to that table is another story.
From his arrival at the back entrance of the festival to the front entrance where our table is located — a journey of maybe 200 yards — takes about 45 minutes to traverse. Say what you want about his politics and friends, but don’t say that McAuliffe isn’t a genuinely charming individual. He shakes so many hands, poses for so many pictures and has so many in-depth conversations with people in those 45 minutes. And remember, this guy isn’t even running for anything. I think he just likes to hear from Virginians.
He wasn’t the only politician there either. We happen to run into his former Secretary of the Commonwealth and current Richmond mayoral candidate Levar Stoney shaking hands and kissing babies. Former city councilman and proud Greek Bill Pantele is also there volunteering and brings heaps of food for the governor and his cronies, a crew of which I am now part.
The real star of the show is the food — sorry, Terry. The dolmades, souvlaki and spanakopita are highlights. McAuliffe also requests some of the new-to-the-festival lamb sausage — also excellent.
It’s surreal sitting next to the governor, drinking beer and eating food. A cool experience to be sure. And the Richmond Greek Festival was on point as always, although I do recommend going with a famous politician. The first round of beer was $15 out of my pocket, but skipping the food line was priceless.
Brux’l Café in the Fan announced on its Facebook page that it would close Sunday, June 12, as first reported by the Times-Dispatch. Two years ago, it set up shop in a tough spot — Main Street and Allen Avenue. Restaurants there have come and gone over the years: Dogwood Grille & Spirits, Cirrus, Plaza Mexico, Mainstream and Peacock's Pantry. It’s hard to pin down why this particular spot seems more difficult for a restaurant than say, the building down the street that houses Heritage, or two blocks in the other direction, the one Bacchus has occupied for the last 17 years.
Owned by Xavier Meers and Stephanie Danis-Meers, who closed their Midlothian restaurant, Belle Vie, to open Brux’l Cafe, it serves traditional Belgian fare. In 2014, reviewer Karen Newton wrote, “Bring your appetite for the mitraillettes, translated as submachine guns, but here meaning baguettes stuffed with meat or vegetables, cheese and fries. Yes, fries in the sandwich. Don't knock it till you've met the killer rib-eye version.”
With seven days and counting, it’s time to pull up a chair and get a taste of Belgium. “We hope you will continue to patronize our restaurant so that you can enjoy all your favorites one last time,” its Facebook page says.
Richmond has been waiting. And waiting. But last night, Peter Chang’s new restaurant in the Hofheimer building at 2816 W. Broad St. previewed its new menu with small bites and opened today at 11 a.m. (You can read more about the James Beard Award finalist here.)
The Richmond food media was out in full force, sitting underneath the long, bright red panel dancing with golden dragons, along with building owners Annie and Carter Snipes.
As promised, it’s a different kind of restaurant than the others Chang owns. The design is modern, the seating is sleek and comfortable, and the staff darted around in matching Chinese jackets, delivering the chef’s food in a steady stream, while Chang paused at the kitchen door, flanked by wife Lisa Zhang and daughter Lydia, to gaze at the crowd in his high white chef’s hat each time he brought out new platters to be passed.
What was on offer? Ah, let me recollect through my ma la haze. There were sweet and spicy lotus roots deep-fried and with sticky rice filling, a version of shu mei on a mushroom cap, pan-fried dumplings, smoked salmon with salmon roe in a cucumber boat, buns filled with duck and bites of Chang’s famous bamboo fish. My favorite? Lisa Zhang’s excellent sesame balls with sweet bean filling, fresh from the fryer, were airy, sticky, nutty and I ate three of them. I thought it might be rude if I surfed around the room trying to snag some more.
Bar manager Derek Salerno had a full selection of wine and whipped up an intriguing cocktail menu that included my first choice, the Wuhan Mule made of Hua Jiao vodka, ginger, tamarind and lime that came in a classic copper cup and a sesame-washed gin with cucumber tonic I had a sip of later.
It’s a different sort of experience than what you might be used to if you’ve visited the Short Pump location. The new dishes are an intriguing and complex mix of styles — but plenty of old favorites such as the cilantro and scallion-laden dry-fried eggplant and the New Zealand lamb chops, laced with cumin and numbing Sichuan peppercorns that made guests last year at the James Beard House scream — from both the heat and happiness —are still on the menu.
My suggestion? Go now, go immediately, do not waste time finding a seat while the man himself is still behind the stove.
The restaurant’s hours are 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Saturdays, and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. on Sundays. For details, search Peter Chang on Facebook.
Tom Pizzica made a name for himself searching for the hottest wings, the most gigantic pizza or the most monstrous burger on the Food Network’s “Outrageous Food.” Before that gig, he headed up the kitchen at his parents’ hotel on the Eastern Shore. He came to Maryland from a small French restaurant in San Francisco, and when his girlfriend decided to go back to the city, he followed her. Pizzica competed as a contestant on season six of “Next Food Network Star,” and although he didn’t win, he was a finalist. Now, he’s the chef and owner of Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burger, where he serves burgers made of ground pork belly. He’ll be in town Saturday, June 5, for Off Broad Appétit, a benefit for FeedMore that brings chefs from across the country to show off in Richmond.
Style: What were you doing before the Food Network show?
Pizzica: When I left Maryland, I bought a $700 van in Camden, New Jersey. It had no tail lights, it had a kickass air-conditioning system, and it had no power brakes. This thing had holes in the floor. My thought was that I only needed to get this 3,000 miles and I could junk [it] when I got to California. A U-Haul would cost me thousands of dollars.
When I went to pick it up, they asked me where I was going. I said, “I’m going to San Francisco.” And they said, “I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store in this.”
I packed it to the gills, I had an engagement ring with me, I took my best friend and we did this road trip across America. The van made it — there were some miraculous moments where we thought it was over, but it pulled through.
I came to San Francisco and when I got there, I said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with my life.” My girlfriend told me about an open audition for the “Next Food Network Star.”
You finished the show as a finalist but got your own Food Network show anyway. How did that happen?
The way I look at it is that I didn’t win, but I never got kicked off. All of us knew [fellow contestant Aarti Sequeira] was going to win. … so I was plotting the whole time. I just had to do enough to attract attention and they’d want me for something else.
What was it like working on “Outrageous Food?” I was scrolling through the show page and there were a lot of burgers — a lot of gigantic burgers.
There were a lot of burgers, wings, pizza, things like that. They never really ran with the show the way I always wanted them to do. The Food Network wanted to stay away from the expensive stuff, but I thought that was stupid. That’s what people go to TV for — to escape. You know what I mean?
But I’m a small business owner now, and I just really liked the fact for these other small businesses, that when this thing aired, it was going to blow them up. That was the really rewarding part of it — you were really helping some of these folks out.
What came next?
They just never called me back. We finished filming the second season … it’s just a brutal life. I was waiting around for the phone to ring essentially. And the phone never rang. They didn’t want to tell me, “Hey, go fucking do something else with your life.” They should have! They just don’t do that. That’s what I wanted to hear! I was super depressed.
And then there was Belly Burger.
I had this concept to do the pork belly burger while I was on TV. I did an event for the Pork Board and did it as a demo in Napa. Burgers were really huge and pork belly was becoming really big in America. Everybody has a bacon burger or mixes it with other stuff, but nobody’s had the balls to just take pork belly, grind it, patty it and make a burger out of it.
What you going to cook for Off Broad Appétit?
I’m looking forward to cooking something other than burgers. I have a concept in my brain but I haven’t done it yet. I’m going to do a crispy sea scallop crusted with polenta, and then I’m going to do a pig parts and black lentil gravy with some pickled apricots. So, it’ll be rich, you’ll get the tartness from the apricot and obviously, scallops are amazing, especially when they’re fried and crispy. I’ve done all of the components, but never put them together. It should be tasty — I’m sure it’ll be tasty. You know, if something doesn’t work, we’ll adjust on the fly and we’ll do it. We have, what? Seven chefs? Six? We’ll do it.
Chef Michael Hall has been away from most of us for too long. After M Bistro and Wine Bar closed, Hall moved to Church Hill’s 2300 Club, and if you were a member or a member’s guest, you were lucky enough to get a taste of Hall’s food.
“Customers have come up to me since M closed and told me how much they missed my food and that was the motivation for me to enter into this venture, because I do believe that we offer something special on the Richmond culinary scene,” he said in a news release.
Now Hall plans to move into the former Jorge’s Cantina spot at the corner of Floyd Avenue and Robinson Street and open the doors to his latest venture, Spoonbread.
”I knew that it would be a perfect spot to transition into the minute I laid eyes on it,” says Hall.
The renovation should take about six weeks and the plan is weave copper throughout the design — he’ll even have copper-colored flatware and stemware. Hall is shooting for a late July or early August opening.
On the menu, you’ll find Southern and French-influenced fare, including smoked and roasted chicken with a spoonbread waffle and the Cat Sea Pig: a scallop wrapped in both catfish and applewood-smoked bacon.
Spoonbread will be open Mondays-Saturdays for lunch and dinner and for brunch on Sundays.
You can get an early taste of Hall’s truffle spoonbread at Broad Appetit on Sunday, June 5.CORRECTION: When first published, this article cited the wrong date for Broad Appetit. It also implied a June opening for Spoonbread, but that will actually happen in the late summer. Both errors have been corrected.
Rancho T owner Tuffy Stone, the tall, rangy barbecue pitmaster who’s also a classically trained chef, doesn’t want to speak for his new chef, Richmond native Danielle Goodreau. Nonetheless, he has a lot to say about her. Lots and lots.
“There’s a bunch of layers to this,” he says. “I get resumes all the time. I like the fact that she went to [University of] Michigan. I like the fact that she went to Cordon Bleu [College of Culinary Arts] in Chicago, and I like the fact that she worked a total of three places there and that lasted about 7 1/2 years — longevity when most guys might work three months here and three months there.
“And I liked the fact that she worked at Marcus Samuelsson’s C-House — I had worked a weekend with him years ago at the Masters Food & Wine where I volunteered, and he’s a great guy and I like what he does. And I like that she went to Sonoma. I’d just come back from teaching at the Culinary Institute in Napa. Without even knowing her, I knew she’d used a lot of good product, and reading her resume, there was only good experience and no bad experience.
“I wasn’t familiar with Alembic [Goodreau was most recently sous chef there] but I love San Francisco and I pulled up that website and looked at those foods,” he says, without pausing or seeming to take a breath. “And I liked them.”
Stone invited her to Richmond. “Three good interviews and I thought, ‘But can she cook?’”
He put her to the test. Along with Stone’s wife, Leslie, friend and well-known Richmond chef J. Frank and Rancho T co-owner Ed Vasaio, Stone sat at a table at the front of his catering firm, A Sharper Palate, and waited.
“I could tell she was nervous,” Stone says. “I had come earlier to help and realized I just needed to stay out of her way.”
“Could you see my hands shaking?” Goodreau asks.
All four diners were impressed. A couple of the dishes from that day are now on Rancho T’s menu: shrimp gnocchi with a bagna cauda foam and rockfish with confit potatoes and maitake. Goodreau ended the meal with a brown butter rosemary ice cream.
“I like the way she puts food on a plate,” he says. “Her food is so pretty, unplaced and natural.” The food’s texture was great, and Stone — who isn’t particularly a fan of new technology — was blown away by the bagna cauda foam.
J. Frank, according to Stone, stated at the end of the meal that no one in Richmond was cooking like Goodreau.
She was hired.
Right now, the Rancho T menu is in transition. Everyone is trying to figure out the happy medium between what customers want and what Goodreau would like to cook. Former chef Aaron Cross, soon to assume the sous position at Walter Bundy’s Shagbark, took the name of the restaurant and put an emphatic Latin American stamp on its food.
Goodreau considers herself a Cal-American chef. “That experience in California influenced me the most,” she says. “You’re not pigeonholed in one specific flavor profile.” She’s bringing spices such as zatar and sumac to the menu, a sweet and spicy Calabrian chili jam that coats green olives and a burger fancied up with maitake, gruyere and aioli. The Latin American influences are still there in some dishes, but that might gradually fade away.
Still, Stone says: “People ask every single day where the tacos went.”
In San Francisco, at Alembic, head chef Ted Fleury encouraged his two sous chefs to collaborate with him. “It was very cohesive and everyone really worked together to put stuff on the menu,” Goodreau says. “The clientele was very adventurous and you could be as unrestrained as you wanted to.”
As she finds her footing at Rancho T, she thinks about the long list of ideas that she put in a Google Doc and shared with Frank, Vasaio and Stone. Like Cross, she has an all-star support team in place to help her discover the right food for this reboot of the restaurant.
“I think some of the flavors I’ll do may be new to Richmonders,” she says, “but I’ll think they’ll be fitting — they don’t know they like them yet.”
Let me make one thing clear. This post isn’t for all of the smug folks who trek north and make regular stops at Wegmans or the Northern Virginia transplants who can’t believe we’ve never been inside of one of its stores. This is for the newbie — the Wegmans virgin, if you will — and the rest can peruse the story and roll their eyes — quietly, please.
First of all, you, the newbie, will be overwhelmed. Expect that. The store is enormous, 115,000 square feet — which is a lot — and as everyone has told us ad nauseam, you really haven’t seen a grocery store this large before. Remove all the clothes and other nonfood items from a Wal-Mart or Target and then imagine that space filled with a bakery, sushi bar, a coffee shop, a full-service restaurant and many other things and you have an idea as to its size. Add a lighting design akin to a theater, and you will be dazzled.
When I visited this morning, a crowd of workers was making handmade signs out of bakery paper, Styrofoam packages and whatever else was on hand to mark where different products were to be placed before Sunday. There was also a training session about to begin for the produce department. Exotic purveyor Melissa’s Farm Fresh Produce was introducing the group to the more unusual items that the store will be selling — things such as gai lan, rambutans and dragon fruit. Things, in other words, that Richmond doesn’t normally see outside of an Asian market.
The business that started in 1916 remains family-owned and run by the third and fourth generations of Wegmans. Right now, the chain clocks in at 89 stores. And with 500 employees, the single store in Midlothian is on the scale of other small companies. Store manager Jerry Shelly moved to Richmond last March, and began working with groups such as FeedMore, awarding scholarships to local schools, all the while setting up a hiring office and preparing for the upcoming opening. When asked how many people he expects at 12501 Stone Village Way on Sunday, Shelly simply said, “A lot.”
The prepared food section is enormous and there are two Asian hot bars, one for barbecue, a vegetarian bar, a fresh fruit bar, a bar for summer salads that changes seasonally, a pizza station and a sub spot. I could go on and on. You’ll find things such as pork florentine, stuffed peppers, jerk ribs and brown-sugar salmon ready and waiting to take home for dinner.
Executive chef Craig Haines, whose wife Kathy is director of restaurant operations, moved to Richmond around Thanksgiving. He likens the prepared food setup to that of a hotel — and he should know, he spent 8 years working for Hyatt. "The chef’s pace and style of the production is very similar," he says. Having everything ready to go on Sunday will be Haines' biggest hurdle — after that, he and the staff can tweak and modify the production process to fit the store.
Wegmans is committed to local craft beer. Stacked cases of beer from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Strangeways Brewing are front and center when you move into the dining area, and, along with Center of the Universe and Stone Brewing, you'll find that they're the first brands you see when you go to the massive section in one corner of the store — long glass refrigerators on two walls are packed with every different kind beer of you can possibly think of.
The wine section is even larger. It’s got a sizable Virginia presence with major and minor wineries well-represented. In the wood-lined, humidity-and-temperature-controlled area that houses the store’s most expensive wines, I try to imagine the person who would buy the $1,300 bottle of 2010 Haut-Brion or even the 1969 Volnay Santenots in the $200-plus range. Hopefully they aren’t the same people who snag all the cast-iron oyster pans that are for roasting the bivalves on your grill — I’ll be back for one myself on Sunday.
And, as my guide, Jo Natale, vice-president of media relations, told me, “We do have groceries!” And Wegmans does. Large, large quantities of grocery items. But what else would you expect?