Behind the Music 

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Comrades! It's time for the workers of Richmond to rise up and unite against the evil hegemony of privatized downtown parking. Together we can take back the right to park without the shackles of cripplingly expensive vehicular land/use rent. It's time to take back our city!

Otherwise, we'll all just be circling endlessly around the couple of blocks near the restaurant where our reservation is tick-tick-ticking away. That's until we give up and reluctantly, agonizingly, fork over the five bucks to keep our car from getting towed while we eat. And don't you feel like you've already paid for those parking spots anyway? After all, the city's been busy giving every Tom, Dick and Jim's Parking permission to tear down historic buildings since Elisabeth Scott Bocock stopped chaining herself to wrought-iron railings. Surely that's payment enough.

I have to wonder sometimes if the restaurants downtown are worth their $5 surcharge. Sure, I like a change every now and then from the Fan, and I've been known to cross the river to eat from time to time. There's a lot going on downtown, too, from the 17th Street Farmers' Market to the underutilized Canal Walk. Best (or at least most ambitious) at the moment is the live music venue Toad's Place.

Unfortunately, you can't just hire a band and flog some drinks in Richmond to make a little money; you must serve food as well. This kind of bar food is usually forgettable; at worst, it's execrable. Nonetheless, it's the law in this town, and therefore, Highwater Restaurant finds its home off the beaten Shockoe path, under the Downtown Expressway and overlooking the canal.

It's a lovely space, all coppery concrete with different levels and casement windows. Pretty, modernist chairs surround handmade concrete-and-glass tables, and in the back, there's a big window looking into the main lobby of the club. You can watch the bands on a video monitor over the bar, although, because the volume of the restaurant's independent sound system is left on high, it's a little difficult to field the two competing sources of music at once. There's a lot of open ductwork, which isn't bad, and an enormous A/C unit hanging from the ceiling, which is. Especially when it hangs directly over your table, as it did mine. We must all pray the engineers knew what they were doing when it was installed.

It's "gulf-inspired, low-country cuisine," but because there are a lot of dishes like jambalaya, gumbo and blackened redfish on the menu, that seems to be another way of saying Cajun. The jambalaya is a brothy brown concoction of rice, chicken, sausage and crawfish tails that my husband loved -- it's similar to other jambalayas I've had, but not quite there. The gumbo, too, is gumbo-ish, with tomato-drenched shredded chicken, while the muffuletta has so many of the same ingredients as a real New Orleans muffuletta sandwich, it's tantalizing. Still, it can't quite pass muster as the real thing with its thin coating of a green olive tapenade. Everything seems like a paler, duller facsimile of itself, and all the food needs more spice: more thyme, more garlic and at least a little cayenne.

The oyster po' boy is a welcome exception, with an abundance of tender, crispy fried oysters on good bread smeared with horseradish mayo. The meatloaf isn't bad either, although it too could use a little flash of spice. The burgers are fine, as are the chicken fingers, and having a child's menu is always appreciated.

Worst — and I honestly can't believe I'm writing this — are the desserts. I don't know how they do it, but the beignets are literally inedible. Mine were so tough I couldn't crack them either with my fork or my teeth. The same goes for the bread pudding. Dry as packing peanuts and drenched in Jack Daniels, this particular dessert should come with an entire bottle of whiskey to wash it down.

But it is bar food, after all, and it's dificult to expect much from that. Tack on the lack of parking, however, and it's difficult to justify a trip to Highwater unless a really great band is playing, too. And after all, that might be enough. S

Highwater Restaurant at Toad's Place
140 Virginia St.
Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Saturday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m.
Handicapped accessible.

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