Dining in Shockoe Bottom can be a bit like a "now-you-see-it-now-you-don't" sidewalk shell game: The regular openings and closings make it difficult to keep up with the choices. Until recently, the list of restaurant casualties included None Such Place. After seven months of darkness, however, word has been spreading slowly that the lights are back on at None Such.
In a lot of ways, though, the new None Such is an old story. The restaurant takes its name from Capt. John Smith's observation in 1609 that the area around Richmond was "so pleasant and delightful" and like no other place in Virginia " for which we called it None-Such." At 1721 E. Franklin St., it is in the oldest building in Shockoe Bottom. And the new None Such also brings back the old chef, Michael Hall, who was the Culinary Institute of America-trained None Such talent from about 1995-1999 before moving on to The Vine, where he was chef/owner, and then to Carnivores. All this oldness, though, blows like a fresh breeze through the beer-stale Bottom.
The None Such dinner menu features Southern stalwarts such as catfish and crab cakes, as well as finer uptown items such as pork tenderloin, beef tenderloin, portabellas and salmon. The prices for these range from $13 to $22 (lunch is about half the price). Despite the inescapable presence of crab cakes around this town, Hall's crab cakes ($22.95) really are exceptional: great big hunks of fresh crab held in suspension by a light sea-scallop mousse. As an appetizer, which we ordered, the price drops to $8.95 for three golf ball-sized cakes, each propped on a lovely but superfluous (and damp) tortilla chip.
Other appetizers include the summer plate of local tomatoes, basil, avocado, red onion, and mozzarella with a balsamic oil froth ($4.95), and the baby lamb chops ($7.95) with Hall's trademark chipotle pepper shotgun sauce. The chops are excellent and ought to be picked up in your fingers and nibbled bare.
Where the crab cakes are all sweetness and light, Hall's seared and grilled entrees enjoy a heavier hand with the seasoning, at times to the distraction of the featured ingredient. It was impossible, for example, to tell what the catfish ($14.95) tasted like fresh? frozen? like chicken? because of the sausage and sweet-potato bread stuffing heaped on top and decorated with heavily basiled crushed tomatoes. So many giant flavors, each wonderful on its own, left me exhausted, and I just couldn't finish the generous portion.
More harmonious was the rich and rare ahi tuna ($15.95): two large pieces of fish seared about 1/8 of an inch deep and contrasted on the plate with watercress and a salty soy-based sesame Thai sauce.
The angel-hair pasta with Prince Edward Island seafood (mussels, bay scallops, shrimp) and a white-wine garlic sauce ($15.95) is a good dish and a good value. Whether or not the seafood actually came from PEI, it was of good quality, fresh and well prepared.
Despite the good-to-very good entrees, some missteps in the kitchen and some quirks in service indicate that None Such hasn't quite hit its old stride yet. For example, the garlic mashed potatoes, which appeared on the side of a number of selections including two of ours came to us over-dry, the innocent victim of good prep work done too early and not properly cared for. And the green beans, which had been fried in olive oil and were good, were served with stems intact. We would have thought this was just rustic chic were it not for the presence of an entire stem shoot nestled in with the beans.
As for service: there was only one waitress for the whole two-floor restaurant, making it unnecessarily difficult to render effective vigilance. To her credit, our waitress was a knowledgeable pro saddled with an entire restaurant, including a dozen prom kings and queens playing adult. But we had been distracted anyway by our delicious dessert: a classic bread pudding French toast baked in vanilla custard ($4.25). enough to send anyone screaming for a Camel.
In the near-desertlike Bottom, the return of None Such Place is a welcome sight, and we'll be back to check it out from time to time. Let's hope that time and attention show it to be more than mere chimera on the horizon.