Great food is that which resonates in the nature of its ingredients, a few flavors in tight harmony. Several Richmond chefs we spoke to concurred that the most important aspect of creating a terrific meal is to use the finest ingredients available. It seems simple, but many restaurateurs balk at the costs involved.
Ed Vasaio, chef/owner of Mamma 'Zu, explains that he gets products from suppliers all over Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Most of his recipes draw on a few ingredients and offer simple, intense flavors.
Ted Doll, owner of Zeus Gallery, describes his approach as "bringing the right ingredients to the right people" which means a lot of organic produce and constant market monitoring. The focus is on freshness.
Limani offers the most extensive menu of fish in the city and lets it speak for itself. The fillets are cut to order, seasoned with just a little salt, pepper and oregano, and grilled over a wood fire. This allows each fish's unique texture and flavor to blossom. Chef Matthew Tlusty is a fish fanatic and his understanding of it and respect for its subtleties are obvious.
At Croaker's Spot you experience "the soul of seafood in the soul of the city." The food is not fancy or expensive. It's just good. Owner Kevin Anderson said they simply "make sure there's love in each plate that goes out." You can taste it in their soulful seafood cooking.
Lemaire has been offering exquisite cuisine for more than a century. Chef Walter Bundy exercises plenty of creativity, but doesn't lose sight of the integrity of the fish, fowl, beef, etc. that is at the center of each dish.
These five restaurants offer excellent ingredients expertly prepared. But that is just the first step.
This is where many restaurants fail. Finding and retaining effective and dependable wait staff is terribly difficult. It's hard to quantify what makes good service because it means something different to each diner. For our purposes, staff needed to be accessible, know their menu, get the orders right and be pleasant and helpful when asked questions. A good waitron gauges each table, each set of guests, and plays them the way they want to be played.
The staff at Croaker's Spot really shines. Owner Anderson describes them as a crew of old friends and family members who grew up together. They work together well, clowning when it's slow and knuckling down when they get hit. Their camaraderie bleeds over into the room. Best of all, they smile.
At Limani, "We banked everything on service," Chef Tlusty asserts. His staff spent hours tasting and talking about fish as well as studying hundreds of pages of text the chef provided them. There are 48 points that must be covered with every table in Limani, Tlusty explains, ranging from the simple greeting to the explanation of how water temperatures and diet affect the taste of customer's selections. The staff's smooth and engaging manners mask this process.
The crew at Mamma 'Zu has a reputation for being exasperating. On our visits, they convey the spirit of the restaurant, laid-back and loose, but they have never left us hanging. They know their menu, work well together and take care of business.
At Zeus, owner Doll understands how important "the art of hiring" is. He allows his staff to do a lot of the interviewing so that personalities will gel and he provides them with benefits. This is nearly unheard of in a small, independent restaurant. But it pays off. His staff is crisp, pleasant and they stick around: One waitress has been there for seven years.
The staff at Lemaire handles the "tag team" waiting better than any other staff in Richmond. The servers don't fall over themselves or their guests, but they stay on top of things. Their service is professional but not stuffy. That's a hard line to walk.
Intention and Expectation
Every restaurant is trying to do something. If you're going to have a good time, you've got to realize what it is and how you fit in as a diner. The restaurant must focus on the diner and the diner must trust the restaurant. A great restaurant shouldn't be a spectacle or an exhibition of anything other than you enjoying your dinner.
The two obvious winners in this category are Limani and Lemaire. There is little confusion about exactly what they are doing. Dinner at Limani is an education in the subtleties of fish if you open yourself up to it. There's a reason you don't see salmon and tuna on the menu. It's because you've had it. Chef Tlusty is pushing himself and his diners toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of fish by offering exotics like Escolar and St. Pierre, complementary wines and a well-trained staff.
Lemaire is the benchmark of fine dining in Richmond and doesn't fall into the trap of self-absorption or gaudiness as others in this field do. It is an elegant restaurant without pretense.
Zeus Gallery offers the superior "eclectic bistro" experience: a small room with a smattering of sophistication, a solid wine list, good food and knowledgeable and attentive staff.
Mamma 'Zu operates in the tradition of an osteria, a family-owned and -operated Italian inn, Vasaio explains, where the dining room is basically an extension of the home kitchen. It's a loose place. It's not about recipes. It's about cooking something up.
Croaker's Spot takes this type of approach too, though a bit more polished. It's a little bit of mom's kitchen, a little Harlem Renaissance, and a load of good cheer. More than any of the other restaurants here, it conveys a sense of community and welcoming attitude.
This is the most ethereal facet of a restaurant. Call it what you will: a groove, a vibe, a rhythm. The Glow is the synchronization of all of the elements: the staff, the customers, the room, the aroma, the music. It can't be taught or bought. Some places click, some don't.
Lemaire certainly has an elegant atmosphere, but it is difficult for a real connection to develop between the customer and staff. Such a "special event" restaurant rarely develops the regular clientele and camaraderie necessary for a glow to develop.
Limani is a bit too chic to settle into. We kept worrying about breaking something. We love the food and the education it provides, but we don't sense a glow yet.
Zeus Gallery is comfortable and romantic. The chalk menus encourage interaction between the staff and customers. But there's something missing.
Croaker's Spot has a burgeoning glow. The look is great, the staff is sweet, and time seems to trickle by. Given time, this place's glow will grow. Keep an eye on Croaker's Spot.
And the Winner Is
And then there is one.
Mamma 'Zu moves with a strange, frenetic grace. It reminds one of those elaborate contraptions where the marble falls in the cup, which slides down a rod pulling a string that trips a lever which releases a spring that pushes another marble down a chute
hundreds of little actions making one thing work.
Mamma 'Zu makes you want to be a regular. It makes you want to go back over and over and eat and laugh and watch it work. In our book, that's as good as it gets.