In the vernacular of Richmond dining there are three landmark types of restaurant: urban chic, Fan joint, and West End. They are defined as much by geography as by the chromosomal pairings of clientele, menu and the cars parked outside. These are not hard-and-fast rules -- you can have a Fan joint located in the West End, an urban-attitude restaurant in the Fan, or a West End establishment in the other two.
A fourth type of restaurant is on the rise, however: the country bistro. The country bistro is a Fan joint-West End hybrid grafted onto the rootstock of another type of Southern gastronomy known as home cooking. It crosses lines. Paradoxically, the country bistro may be a more authentic expression of Richmond cuisine than anything else around. In general the food is full flavored, simply prepared and served in humble abundance in a casual, mildly eclectic, unfailingly cheerful atmosphere.
This is the kind of restaurant you find behind the large bay windows of Hermitage Grill on Hermitage Road in Henrico County's Lakeside district. Colorful local art decorates the walls of the tin-ceilinged space that once served the area as a country pharmacy. (A large neon Rx sign hangs over the bar.) Tables are covered in white linen topped by thick glass, and the waitress is the girl next door. In fact, more often than not the customers are the people next door. It's a neighborhood kind of place.
The menu at Hermitage Grill is broader than you'd expect, from everyday to gourmet. "We're a destination location so we have to reach out to everybody," says Cordon Bleu-trained executive chef Waller McCracken. McCracken is assisted by sous chefs Matt Morand and Steve Dickinson. Veteran Richmond diners might remember Morand and McCracken from their years in the kitchen of the West End's du Jour.
Together, the trio creates regular and specials menus that appeal to a wide range of appetites without being repetitive or oversimplified and which offer slight variations that make the mundane new again.
Fried calamari, for example, is everywhere, and so it is no surprise to find it at Hermitage Grill ($6.95), albeit in a much larger ring gauge than we're used to and served with an inventive and delicious curry-tartar sauce as well as the usual marinara.
A more unusual starter is the tasso ham -- a sort of jerked-tasting item -- with crayfish served over puff pastry in a cream sauce ($6.95). The dish works as well with shrimp, which was substituted on a recent visit when they ran out of crayfish.
The salads and soups are very fresh, especially the mesclun-and-spinach salad ($3.95) and the crab-and-red-pepper soup ($3.25) -- richly creamed with a decorative spicy red-pepper swirl that sharpens the flavors when mixed with the whole bowl.
The blackened catfish with cranberry-walnut compound butter ($14.95) was perfectly done and not over-spiced (which happens too often in the world of blacken and broil). The well-cut veal scaloppine ($16.95) gets a lively kick from a soy-portobello sauce instead of the more predictable, Marsala-shallot or white wine and lemon.
Other entrees include pesto-encrusted salmon filet ($17.95), chicken quesadilla ($8.95), prime rib ($12.95), linguine Alfredo with portobello and basil ($9.95) and tempura shrimp with crushed red pepper and honey glaze ($12.95). There also are sandwiches and a selection of foccacia: the Greek (tomato, black olives, feta, anchovy, roasted red pepper; the traditional (tomato sauce, onion, bell pepper, mozzarella); and the West End (smoked salmon, garlic, capers, and Parmesan).
Also on our table was a generously cut filet mignon (perfectly medium) with Gorgonzola and roasted shallot red wine glaze ($16.95) and sautéed shrimp and alligator-pork sausage on spicy cheese grits ($13.95). I couldn't discern the alligator, but this big, overtly spicy dish managed to be full-flavored without being exhausting.
The homemade lattice-crust peach pie was country fresh, too (though the crust could have been a little thinner) served with a mint sprig and fresh cream.
Despite some early growing pains amplified by the small space -- exuberant night crowd and poor ventilation (which has been vastly improved) -- Hermitage Grill has crossed its own line and become something of a homesteader on the rural dining frontier of North Side Richmond. And a popular spot, too. A steady current of diners flowed in and out all night, and tables were still full when we left at 10.
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