2003 Critic's Picks 

Style restaurant critics reveal their favorite moments in food.

Those are the moments, few and far between, that gustation junkies crave. Those are the moments that make all the toil and drudgery worth enduring. This is our salute to the people, places and things that have afforded us a few of those moments during the past year.

One drawback to writing about restaurants is that you don’t often get to revisit the ones that you really liked. There are a handful of meals that we guiltily find ourselves daydreaming about when we’re supposed to be paying attention to another restaurant’s cuisine. These are the places where we even — gasp! — spend our own money. Yet because one reviewer’s tartar is another’s undone steak, we don’t always agree, which is probably fine, since we know our readers don’t all have the same tastes either. So here goes:

Meals We’d Like to Meet Again

The sweetbreads at Mamma ’Zu. It’s odd that someone decided a calf’s thymus gland might taste good if sautéed just right. We’d like to thank whoever it was, as well as the kitchen at ’Zu, for such a superb delicacy.

Chef Tony Filiberti’s recipe for shrimp and grits, which he dishes up at his restaurant of the same name, should have been sent out into space on the Voyager Probe as proof of intelligent life on Earth.

The freshness and selection at Oyster Bar at City Bar & Chop House is a bivalve lover’s dream. Forget entrees, bring another dozen.

Other highlights included all of Comfort’s dressy home cookin’, The Hard Shell’s pancetta-wrapped lobster tail over cauliflower purée and the braised veal osso buco at Bacchus. Thanks to Morgan’s for their authentic french fries and Fabulous Foods for the fabulous triple-berry beggars’ purse with butter pecan ice cream.

More for Less

If you’re looking for upscale food at down-home prices, Don suggests Café Diem for sausage appetizers and crab cakes; Buz and Ned’s, now with a dining room and expanded hours, for barbecue; and Davis & Main for the town’s best burgers and chicken sandwiches. For steamed dumplings and anything curried go directly to Mom’s Siam, at its original location in Carytown or its new spot on the South Side, in the Stratford Hills Shopping Center. In that same nondescript strip center, authentic Peking Duck is always a good choice at Mandarin Palace. If you are near downtown at midday make a beeline to Chez Fouchee for light and healthy lunches and Croaker’s Spot for heavy and heart-threatening fried fish and chicken anytime.

Randall’s choice cheap eats include the Chillin’ and Grillin’ Shack near Varina for some fine jambalaya and pulled-pork or beef-brisket barbecue sandwiches. Brock’s Barbecue in Chesterfield has an all-you-can-eat lunch feast for $6 that will send you home to the couch fat and happy. South of the city, try The Nottaway Café for superb, dirt-cheap, home-style lunches and great pies. Ipanema Café on Gayton Road offers a Brazilian dinner buffet of sides and salads, and roaming meat pushers. You can founder yourself for less than $20 at dinner.

The Great Steak Out

The competition for the best steak is getting tougher — the competition that is, not the meat. Ruth’s Chris Steak House may have provided the benchmark in Richmond for fine beef, and its locale in a former plantation house makes the food even more attractive. But now another big guy has come to town, with steaks that Don thinks are on par. Morton’s is bringing some new life to the still-promising Canal Walk area.

You don’t have to stick with the chains to find a great filet, however. If you’re willing to wait, Buckhead’s offers premium meat, a staggering wine list and zesty side dishes rounded out with a selection of top-shelf spirits and cigars. A little farther west, Hondo’s chars prime steaks for loyal Innsbrook carnivores.

Working the Room

You ever walk into a place and think to yourself, “this looks like a good restaurant?” There are some places where the staff and the room greatly lend themselves to your enjoyment of your meal. Michael Ripp has turned one of the most beautiful buildings in town into the lavish and luxurious City Bar & Chop House. Just down the road, The Old Original Bookbinders offers an elegant, breezy patio with professionalism that makes you feel like a diplomat. Randall thinks there’s no better place for dessert and an after-dinner drink. (Don, however, is turned off by its overall pretentiousness.)

For a more casual setting, the room and staff of The Red Oak Café in the far West End offers some of the most comfortable surroundings and genuine hospitality available.

Appetizers Make the Meal

An appetizer is the chance to look over the chef’s resumé and call his references before you take the chance and hire him on full time. Apps are the harbingers of good things to come, we hope. Full Kee makes it possible to never actually order an entrée. Their Dim Sum (served from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.) is so much fun and so tasty that one could spend two hours and never order anything that requires more space than a bread plate. Randall is praying for the day when Sakura Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar begins to sell their squid salad by the gallon at local grocery stores. He’s also fond of Stella’s sautéed chicken livers with raspberry vinaigrette. Though Don feels that Stella’s prices are inflated, Randall says they could bump everything up a dollar or two, and he’d still rather spend his money at the cozy Mediterranean café than many other places in town. He thought the foie gras and stuffed quail (both with pomegranate reduction) at Pomegranate Euro Bistro were also superb beginnings to excellent meals. Don, however, is put off by Pomegranate’s tendency to push expensive wine.

Aces In the Hole

We both have a few restaurants or particular dishes that we treat as our go-to guys. We might call upon them when friends or family are in town, or just for reliable food for ourselves. They aren’t necessarily flashy or gourmet, they’re just good.

Don suggests taking out-of-town guests to one of these tourist-friendly spots: the Strawberry Street Café for its bathtub salad bar; The Tobacco Company for its New Orleans’ bordello décor; Havana ‘59 for exotic drinks and cigars; and brunch at The Jefferson Hotel for sheer elegance.

If those out-of-towners are more in the mood for some down-home chow, he suggests taking them — or sending them to — Dot’s Back Inn (if you can stand the smoke), Philip’s Continental Lounge and either of the two locations of Jimmy’s (chili), Joe’s Inn (baked spaghetti) or Julian’s (chicken and dumplings) — Randall disagrees about the latter.

When showing off the River City, Randall suggests you take it from the experts: Visiting and local chefs choose Full Kee and Mamma ’Zu on a regular basis. You should too.

Or for a true Richmond experience, sample one of the food carts, especially those on Main Street downtown. Compared to the standard street fare of Washington, D.C., or New York — hot dog or hot dog? — their carry-away platters are truly gourmet. Don’s personal favorite is chicken tarragon with pasta and fruit from Christopher’s Runaway Gourmay, which can be found at four locations downtown. Another carryout classic is a boxed lunch at Sally Belle’s Kitchen.

For a special night out, those two great dames, Helen’s (Fan) and Millie’s (Church Hill), are hard to top. For outdoor dining, The Thai Room’s quiet courtyard near downtown is a great choice, as is du Jour’s sidewalk café — though Randall thinks there are too many car fumes and too little good food to enjoy du Jour’s patio.

The Out-of-Towners

If you are the ones doing the traveling, here are two gems in the surrounding area Randall suggests: catfish at The White House in Providence Forge and Surry sausage and black-eyed peas at Indian Fields Tavern in Charles City County. Three in the Charlottesville area lure Don to take an occasional Sunday drive: Bizou on the downtown pedestrian mall is C-ville’s version of our Millie’s; the seared scallops with celeriac potato rosti, ratatouille and thyme buerre blanc at Jimmy’s on the James in Scottsville; and locally raised bison at The Lafayette Hotel in Stanardsville. Or head to the Northern Neck and hit the Trick Dog Café in Irvington for the flounder fillet with andouille, oyster stuffing, topped with crabmeat and wild mushroom sauce, or the Good Eats Café near Kinsale for the Thursday night prime rib special. Or hit Williamsburg for anything with Surry sausage and the death-by-chocolate desserts at The Trellis. S


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