At 1 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Shockoe Bottom's newest eatery is packed. But that's not saying much. The 18th Street hole-in-the-wall has only five tables, and even so, the door bangs into the back of my chair every time it opens.
With such tight quarters, it looks as if Zuppa Soup & Bakery needs to move 'em in and out a few times per meal in order to keep afloat, but Chefs Adam Schumm and Bryn Purser know better. They're banking on downtown takeout business to keep the food tickets turning faster than the tables. Once word gets out about their kitchen, those orders are sure to flood in like Gaston. The soup and sandwich menu isn't fancy. But it is good, damn good.
It also happens to be quite a different adventure for the young partners, who met while working for Diversified Restaurant Management, whose holdings include Ruth's Chris and Bottega. Both chefs are culinary school graduates and have 30 years of experience between them.
So with all this experience and training, one might ask, "Why soup?"
"We started talking about what we liked to do, and we knew there were no soup kitchens in Richmond," Schumm says. "Nobody was going to do anything like this."
Anyone unsure about a soup-centered menu can rest assured — there's something here for every taste. Options range from velvety she-crab soup to rich, but not too salty, lobster bisque, to a remarkable Parmesan-garnished tomato soup that had me asking where they buy their tomatoes (Acme in the Bottom, as it turns out) and a sweet and spicy Thai chicken noodle that's bound to knock your socks off.
Zuppa's sandwiches are complemented by house-made breads and range in flavor as widely as the soups. Some of the standouts include the Zuppa grilled cheese with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, tomato and pesto; and the smoked chicken salad, which gets a nice lift from toasted pine nuts and fresh tarragon. The Zuppa Cuban sandwich is far from traditional, with pulled pork barbecue added to the mix of tasso ham, Swiss pickles and sweet mustard. It may actually be my new favorite lunch.
They also offer a small number of appetizers, including a flavorful and filling focaccia pizza, a caprese salad, and the impressive shrimp basil fondue, which shows some of the flair you'd expect from classically trained chefs.
Any of the appetizers or sandwiches can be paired with a cup of soup for $7, which tops out the price range.
If you don't see your favorite soup or sandwich on the menu, don't worry. "We change our soups and sandwiches pretty often," Schumm says. "So when you come back in, you don't always get the same thing."
One angle the duo hasn't taken full advantage of is the vegan/vegetarian repertoire, which is surprising given Schumm's tenure at Shangri-la Health Spa in Naples, Fla. If you are strict about your diet, you'd better ask. On our first visit the only vegan option was the black bean soup, which since has been replaced by spicy green pea soup. But with summer on the march and the Farmers' Market around the corner, that will surely change.
"We've gone down and gotten a couple of things from the Farmers' Market," Schumm says. "We'd like to do that more."
Things they'd like to do less? Answer the phone and ring up sales. "We actually waited tables too for the first two months," Schumm says.
Unfortunately, this can lead to a bit of confusion. On one busy evening my friends and I waited for half an hour for a to-go order while the entire dining room was taken over by a single party of 12. But such rough spots are to be expected in a new place and are easily forgiven when the product is already so good.
After all the Bottom's been through lately, it's nice to see young businesses taking root and thriving. "Everyone's been really supportive," Purser says. "We've been welcomed into the community." And why wouldn't they be? Zuppa is one of the best bets for an inexpensive, satisfying and delicious meal you will find in the Bottom — or anywhere in Richmond, for that matter. S
104 N. 18th St.
Tuesday - Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday - Saturday: 11 a.m. to midnight.
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