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Food Review: Laura Lee’s Is a Formidable Challenger on the Richmond Dining Scene 

click to enlarge Chef Scott Lewis ribbons the warm asparagus salad with bacon, tops it with a fried egg and scatters the final dish with ramps, olive oil croutons and a drizzle of lemon dressing.

Scott Elmquist

Chef Scott Lewis ribbons the warm asparagus salad with bacon, tops it with a fried egg and scatters the final dish with ramps, olive oil croutons and a drizzle of lemon dressing.

If you’re of a certain age, when you hear the name Dream Team, you think of those gods of the NBA who were sent to the 1992 Olympics to make the rest of the world feel bad about their basketball skills. If you aren’t of a certain age, then Google it and get off my lawn.

At Laura Lee’s, the dream team is restaurateur Kendra Feather, chef Scott Lewis, general manager Michael Smith and bar manager Kacie Shortridge. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who’s Michael Jordan and who’s Charles Barkley in this analogy, but suffice it to say, these people know what they’re doing.

I start with the pork belly ($8), and it’s divine. Pickled vegetables, cilantro, basil and peanuts are piled high on top of the succulent meat. Kimchi mayo, hot sauce and garlic round out the dish, balancing crispy, salty and spicy. Watch out for the slivers of jalapeño — though they add a nice bite, the peppers can catch you by surprise if you’re not expecting them. The steak tartare with green tomato relish, egg yolk and toast is rich and creamy ($9), and the relish and Dijon mustard add a nice bit of acidity for balance.

We try the crispy chicken wings ($9) drizzled with an unexpectedly bitter chili sauce. They’re double-fried — which leaves them extra crunchy on the outside while still moist inside. I like the sauce’s nice, lingering burn, but it makes my companion breathe through his mouth to tamp down the heat. He then downs his drink, a Tortured Orchard ($9), a refreshing mix of apple brandy, lemon, sherry and bitters.

The pressed pork shoulder ($20) comes on a bed of buttery grits. The pork is crisp and tender, although I’m left longing for more spice and less sweet in the spicy barbecue sauce, and the greens fall completely flat. Fortunately, the mild and citrusy broccolini ($5) is a better stand-in.

I eat one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time. The double cheeseburger with kimchi mayo ($12) is made with top-notch meat, and it’s seasoned in a way that brings out its beefiness. I don’t taste much of the mayonnaise, but frankly, with meat that good, I don’t even miss it.

I try the scallop special with lemon butter sauce and puréed cauliflower that’s accompanied by pea, corn and bacon succotash ($24). My dish suffers from uneven seasoning — most of the scallops are over-salted, and the lemon butter sauce ends up on only half of them. Despite those stumbles, the succotash is excellent, and the scallops are seared precisely.

On Sunday, Laura Lee’s brunch is bustling, and our server recommends what’s considered its signature dish — fried oatmeal with bacon and maple syrup ($10). It sounds intriguing and it eats like a dream. A slice of crisped savory oatmeal sits in a pool of sweet syrup topped with a soft egg and bacon. It’s perfect for sharing.

There’s nothing that sausage gravy can’t make better and here, the super thick sausage gravy ($10) that arrives with cheddar biscuits and eggs is swimming in it, along with large chunks of sausage. The pork shoulder with sunchoke and sausage hash topped with tomato hollandaise ($13) is solid. Nonetheless, the preceding dishes prove hard acts to follow.

I find the front of house impeccable. On my final visit, we arrive at the worst possible time — it’s packed and tables of diners aren’t leaving as expected. It’s exactly the sort of perfect storm that sends even the most Zen of hosts to the kitchen walk-in to scream. And we don’t have a reservation. But the staff is gracious and brings us drinks while we wait for the bar to clear. Someone even stops to chat despite the unrelenting dinner rush.

Laura Lee’s team has crafted a lovely atmosphere with outstanding food and drink, plus excellent service. This spot is competing for restaurant dominance, and with a few tweaks it just might win. S

Laura Lee’s
Mondays-Thursdays 4-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 4-11 p.m.;
Sundays 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m.
3410 Semmes Ave.
233-9672
lauraleesrva.com

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