The challenge for Hall, a veteran Richmond chef who came to the Berkeley last November, is to attract more locals to the dining room. It now relies on business guests of the hotel for customers during the week, leaving the room largely empty on weekends.
Those who venture into the mahogany-paneled restaurant will be rewarded with a menu that features innovative versions of classic Southern dishes. While the food contains out-of-the-ordinary ingredients like truffles and liquor-infused sauces, the result doesn’t always rise to the level of the prices, which run $20-$32 for entrees.
Crab cakes, for instance, were creatively held together not by bread but with puréed scallops, which are stuffed into a lobster tail along with medallions of lobster.
Hall, whose experience includes several years as pastry chef at the late, lamented Butlery caterers, displays his pastry skills in entrees such as a grilled bison strip-steak with wild mushroom bread pudding. The bison, a holdover from the wild-meat-loving previous chef, is tempered with a shallot merlot sauce that masks any gamy flavor. But for my taste, it still falls short of the highest quality cattle beef.
Taking a cue from business travelers, who often ask for specific brands of liquor at the bar, Hall has laced several dishes with alcohol, which provides a subtle but distinctive flavor.
Colorado lamb rack is marinated in Knob Creek whiskey and seared with pan jus (a smaller portion is offered at lunch). A petite chateaubriand — served for one rather than the usual two people — gets a jolt from sweet potatoes awash in Maker’s Mark whiskey. Armangnac, more commonly reserved for after dinner, provides a silky marinade for snapper that is pan sautéed in buttermilk-almond flour and comes with a white-corn flan.
Several notable appetizers run approximately $7-$12. Hall’s pastry experience is also evident in a tart in which portobello mushrooms and smoked fontina cheese are baked in a savory shell and drizzled with a white balsamic reduction.
Lobster risotto consists of claw and tail meat cooked with seasoned Arborio, a short, fat Italian rice infused with truffle oil. The pungent aroma of truffles also appears in a gnocchi soufflé. Slivers of the rare fungus are baked along with Black Mountain cheese and caramelized onion.
Hall wound up at the hotel after a discouraging stint as a corporate chef. He helped open Magianno’s in the Short Pump Town Center, where he missed the chance to put his own imprint on the menu.
Some of his former customers from the celebrity-owned None Such Place and his own Vine in the 6th Street Marketplace might notice that Hall is newly svelte, having lost 95 pounds on a modified low-carb diet, which fortunately has not spilled over into his offerings at the hotel. To lure more customers, the Dining Room’s management might consider going on its own diet by reducing prices. Like too many good-but-not-great local eateries, the risk-reward ratio is out of balance for patrons not on an expense account. SThe Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel ($$$$)1200 E. Cary St.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 6-10 p.m., Sunday 6-9 p.m. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily with Champagne brunch on Sunday; Breakfast: 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Monday-Friday, 7:30-10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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