From the outside, McCormack's Whisky Grill & Smokehouse looks innocuous. It's a world apart from some of its more rambunctious neighbors on the popular Robinson Street pub crawl. Closer in feel to the Commercial Taphouse than to Buddy's, Metro Grill or Star-Lite, it's as serious about its whiskey as the Taphouse is about its beer.
Inside, you step into a calm experience, a perfect way to end a hectic weekend on a recent Sunday night. The lights are low, the wood paneling and slate wall accents are soothing, and if a drink is what you need to relax, you've come to the right place. The dAccor says men, with pictures of Elvis and posters from John Wayne films, but interestingly the other patrons are women. The server is friendly and talks about the high points of the 180-plus whiskey selection. If that's not your thing, there is a full bar, but no beer on tap.
We start our meal with an Evan Williams single barrel on the rocks and a Rebel Yell with ginger, sampling a few starters from the small menu. An artichoke dip ($10.95) is dressed up a bit with smoky bacon, and green-bean fries ($6.95) are tasty in the thick batter but definitely not health food, served with a bold garlic aioli.
Entrees include sandwiches, burgers and steaks. The duck breast ($16.95), a nightly special, is tender, moist and adequately gamey. Its cherry demiglace reduction lacks subtlety but the sweetness of the sauce complements the duck's flavor. Mac and cheese is creamy with white and yellow cheddar, blue cheese and parmesan, but what makes it stand out is a nutmeg-laced bAcchamel. Collard greens are overly sweet and vinegary and their consistency makes me wonder if they come straight out of a can. The meatloaf ($13.95) is a flavorful combination of beef, turkey and andouille sausage, juiced up with a rich brown gravy. Our children enjoy a cheeseburger ($8.50) that's cooked to perfection, and while they like the steak-cut fries, I'm disappointed in their lack of crunch.
Desserts are fresh: A layered key lime pie brings a sweet pucker and is accompanied by a berry sorbet. Mexican chocolate cake is dense, not quite moist, accented with cinnamon and served with vanilla bean ice cream.
My second visit starts strangely at 5:30 on a Monday night. The bartender never shows up but my experience is better for the substitute: Mac McCormack, the owner. You won't find a nicer guy in a Richmond bar. He spins yarns of his restaurant experience and his philosophy for the bar. It doesn't have a phone. He wants it to be a neighborhood place you need to patronize. It doesn't take credit cards — a stand against the man and a hopeful buffer against some of the more typical Robinson Street bargoers. McCormack earnestly wants a more sophisticated atmosphere for clients to revel in peace, drinking some of the best whiskey selections the city has to offer, and eating substantial food from his Buckhead's-pedigreed chef.
Mac recommends a moderately priced, small-batch Sam Houston whiskey. Its rich and tangy flavors acquire spice from aging in heavily charred casks. My friend Peter drinks an Ardbeg scotch, redolent with smoke and peat.
The dinner special is exceptional. Squash and spinach enchiladas ($12.95) are studded with corn and topped with a complex and spicy tequila sauce. Sauteed snap peas and asparagus taste like spring. We also sample the house-smoked barbecue ($9.95) that's cooked until tender and more savory than sweet. A side of baked beans is elevated to a higher plane with smoky bacon and a touch of brown sugar.
With more than 10 years logged at his Shockoe Bottom pub, Mac McCormack is a veteran of the local bar scene. His experience shows in his handcrafted new Fan venture, where in addition to whiskey, he pours a bit of his heart and soul.
McCormack's Whisky Grill & Smokehouse
204 Robinson St.
Daily 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.
Lunch hours coming soon
No phone or Web site