Sentimental Slice 

Ettamae's Café claims its place in downtown Richmond.

click to enlarge Chocolate chess pie at Ettamae's Café has a graham cracker crust and a flavor that makes time stand still. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Chocolate chess pie at Ettamae's Café has a graham cracker crust and a flavor that makes time stand still.

Occasionally, a smell, a moment or a tune on the radio elicits a memory from some deep place in my brain. A whiff of the disaster that is Drakkar Noir brings back a high-school dance (Chris, thanks for that); a small child asking for ice cream reminds me of working with my sisters in my mother's restaurant; and oddly, that "To the Left" Beyoncé song immediately makes me think of two of my best friends.

At Ettamae's Café, in the rejuvenated Jackson Ward, this happens to me, and nostalgia hits like a speeding transfer truck. It's the balcony. The experience of sitting above the city on the tiny, whimsically painted balcony is almost other-continental. I'm reminded of my travels through Europe while enjoying the fresh air and the smell of baked goods. Don't get me wrong — the food is laudable, though decidedly not European.

The cafe started as a lunch destination and does a solid midday meal. Sandwiches and gyros are served three ways: Lonely (just the sandwich), Two Street (sandwich and side) or Three Sweet (sandwich, side and dessert and frankly the way to go). Diners should partake of the gorgeous house-made corned beef or the tangy pulled pork sandwich. Ask for the homemade white bread, though. It stands up better to both meats without getting soggy.

Dinner service has just started and will hit its stride after a few tweaks. A little cleanup on the inside of the restaurant would go a long way — orange electrical cords and sundry items stored visibly on the stairwell don't transfer to the experience I hope for when partaking of a $24 entree. More appetizer offerings for the alfresco diners would help make sipping basil-infused champagne cocktails ($5) a social thing.

I try scallops on one visit and am pleasantly overloaded with a ridiculously rich citrus-butter sauce and four large caramelized scallops ($24). Thank goodness for my simple sides of deep red beets and local asparagus. Another time I sample the night's only appetizer — crab cakes ($9). While there's plenty of filler, the chopped onion and unbelievable dill-infused, pickle-tartar sauce make me a happy diner. Ribs on another evening ($18) are nice and smoky and the accompanying sides are ubiquitous but appropriately comforting — mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Portobella and chèvre-stuffed chicken breast ($17) is pretty but light on the mushroom; the ratatouille on the side would be better hotter.

On each visit, I tell myself I won't order a slice of chocolate chess pie but my taste buds don't seem to care and I hedonistically mow through a slice of the graham-cracker-crusted sin. Another night I spend a few pleasurable moments pondering how the gargantuan piece of banana cake is so moist.

A genius Canadian tea biscuit ($1.50), sweet, crumbly and salty, and some locally roasted coffee, can be a faux-European respite on a busy morning. But grab it soon. Once the Hippodrome adjacent to Ettamae's becomes a reality, it may be tough to grab a spot. S

Ettamae's Café
522 N. Second St.
888-8058
Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Brunch Saturday
ettamaescafe.com

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