And part of the problem is that the AAA travel guide tilts toward fancy dining rooms in hotels, apparently because out-of-town reviewers seldom venture much beyond the lobbies of the places they’re staying. Otherwise, how could AAA declare Lemaire better than any restaurant in the Washington-Baltimore region, let alone superior to such Richmond gems as Millie’s, Helen’s, Mamma ’Zu’s or Pomegranate?
Yet whatever the minor criticisms, Lemaire is a fine place to entertain visiting relatives and expense-account poobahs (who appear to constitute the majority of its customers). There’s much that’s praiseworthy about Lemaire, which is named for Etienne Lemaire, the White House maitre d’hotel during the Jefferson administration. The Frenchman is credited with introducing cooking with wine to America.
Charlottesville-born chef Walter Bundy, 35, apprenticed with Thomas Keller at one of America’s most celebrated restaurants, the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Bundy has infused the Lemaire menu with a wonderful array of Virginia products. As a result, there’s hardly a better place to sample the commonwealth’s abundant homegrown delicacies, from hams and peanuts to its lesser-known but equally outstanding sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
Lemaire last fall reduced its prices, which are now no higher than those in some less formal restaurants. Most entrees are in the $20-$30 range. Nightly specials, such as a fennel-encrusted filet of halibut ($34), may be higher, largely because of expensive ingredients such as truffled mushroom broth that elevated the dish.
A tour of its Old Dominion gastronomic treats should begin with a bowl of peanut soup ($7) from Smithfield, enhanced with applewood-smoked bacon and black-eyed pea relish. It’s the real deal.
Another great starter features those fabulous but lesser-known Hayman sweet potatoes from the Eastern Shore. Lemaire’s version comes in the form of sweet-tasting bisque ($9) with chestnuts and house-made marshmallows.
Chesapeake Bay crab cakes ($14 as an appetizer) get an inventive flair from Bundy. They’re seasoned with a lemon parsnip puree and pepper buttons, and accompanied by Granny Smith apple slaw.
Even a simple salad ($8) with hearts of romaine lettuce, topped with a Caesar dressing and shaved asiago cheese, comes with croutons from Billy Bread, a few blocks away in the Fan.
Gulf shrimp and littleneck clams ($28) present a genuine down-home flavor thanks to Surry County sausage and stone-ground grits from Byrd Mills in Ashland. Chesapeake rockfish ($28) is complemented by country bacon, a sweet corn emulsion, a Hanover tomato and shitake mushroom succotash.
Other Virginia products appearing regularly on the menu include maple vinaigrette from Highland County, lamb from Summerfield Farms in the Shenandoah Valley, Kites country ham from Smithfield and littleneck clams from Hog Island.
One area where a Virginia product also would be welcome is on the wine list. Although the house wine ($7 a glass) is labeled Jefferson, it comes not from the excellent winery bearing that name near Charlottesville, but from California.
Yet while the menu is heavily tilted toward Virginia food, chef Bundy has not ignored chef Lemaire’s French roots. The menu abounds with fresh herbs and light sauces.
The service is formal and can be stilted. At one meal, the waiter seemed more preoccupied with making sure the plates were served over the proper shoulder than whether we needed anything, such as salt and pepper. On the plus side, the waiter noticed that we didn’t eat much of a dessert — a strawberry pound cake that was dry or stale — and took it off the bill.
Lemaire seats 118 patrons in eight intimate dining rooms, all within earshot of a grand piano in the entryway. My favorite room is the glass-enclosed Victorian conservatory, especially at lunchtime, which is less pretentious. S
101 W. Franklin St., in the Jefferson Hotel
Breakfast: Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m.-10 a.m., Saturday 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m., Sunday 6:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday noon-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.