I can still taste a $14 seared foie-gras appetizer I had nearly four years ago. I still remember the aroma of a braised rabbit that set me back $28 and was worth every penny. I don't spend that type of money on food very often, but when I do, I usually get the goods. Few places have the brass to charge such prices and then deliver anything but excellent food. Few places, which means there are some.
The Halfway House prepares you for an excellent meal. Located in an 18th-century tavern on what used to be the stage route between Richmond and Petersburg, it is rickety and romantic. These days, the route is just a stretch of road dominated by a string of '50s-era motels, but when you enter the restaurant, this is quickly forgotten. Fireplaces, candlelight and brick walls set the tone in the cellarlike dining room. The place mats cite a litany of luminaries who have dined in the very same room: Washington, Henry, Jefferson, et al. The staff is sweet and attentive. The menu is brief, and one expects the kitchen to be focusing on a few superb offerings. I sampled one soup, one salad, three appetizers, four entrees and one dessert during two visits. I spent a lot of money and ate nothing that warranted the cost. Add to this the signs of corners being cut, and I left feeling cheated.
During my first visit, the waitress touted the baked artichoke appetizer ($9) as delicious and plentiful. It was plentiful. The artichoke hearts were plump, leathery and covered in a mushy breading. Both the hearts and the horseradish dip were served at approximately room temperature. The crabcake appetizer ($15) comprised four minicakes and some spicy remoulade - all delivered tepid as well. Though they tasted like crab cakes, for $15 I expected some pizzazz, some flair that would have set them apart from every other crab-cake appetizer in town, most of which cost about $7 or $8 less.
Entrees exhibited this same lack of creativity. The house special runs $32 and features a filet mignon coupled with four fried shrimp. The steak had a fatty tail of gristle hanging off it. It was thin and though cooked to the proper temperature, it was served (you guessed it) lukewarm. The shrimp were good. The cocktail sauce, like the mint jelly that was served with the rubbery lamb chops ($33), tasted no better than that which you can buy at a grocery store. This sort of thing annoys me more than the lack of creativity with the food. Lamb chops aren't cheap. Filet mignon is not cheap. I paid prices that suggested only the prime-time, guru-grade cuts were being served. I do not believe that is what I received. I base this on the experience of having eaten many such cuts, and the fact that the relatively plain preparation and presentation did little to hide the shortcomings of the product. This, in addition to the canned-tasting sauces and sides, the sloppy blob of mashed potatoes that the rockfish ($32 for a piece of fish?) was sliding down, and the foil wrapped pats of butter lead me to suspect penny pinching at every turn. I would overlook all of these things, but not at $30-plus per entrée. I believe when you ask for such money, you should go the extra mile with every aspect of a restaurant. Nothing suggested to me that the management at the Halfway House has gone any further than around the block a time or two. S
Randall Stamper worked in restaurants in Boston, New Orleans and Indiana for seven years and filled every job from dishwasher to general manager. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.
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