Hard to Beat 

The Hard Shell is one of the most popular restaurants in town for a reason.

I point this out as a contrast to the levels of quality and expertise I have seen in evidence at two of the three restaurants owned and operated by partners Jared Golden, Michelle Williams and Ted Wallof. A few months ago I featured The Hill Café. A couple of weeks ago I spent some time at The Hard Shell. I have not yet had the pleasure of dining at Europa, the third of the partners' establishments, but if the first two are indicative, I am sure that it will also be a delight to visit.

First thing's first though: Let's talk shellfish. Mollusks and crustaceans are The Hard Shell's raison d'etre, and they are prepared and presented wonderfully. The raw-bar menu includes shrimp, lobster, Dungeness and snow crab, mussels and oysters. The littleneck clams ($4.95 for a half-dozen/$9.90 per dozen) were lightly steamed until they just popped open. The meat was sweet and slightly musky.

I was skeptical of the steamed crawfish ($9 per pound) because unless they are immersed in water they are hard to spice, and there is no reward in sucking the head. They were huge, beautiful specimens, though, and the tail meat was thick and tender. The heads were bone dry. Pity. Six sauces are available for dipping. I believe the cocktail had a healthy bit of Worcestershire in it and a dab worked well with the mud bugs. Drawn butter is simply the finest accompaniment known for shellfish, though the pungency of the horseradish aioli was a nice occasional foil to the richness of the butter.

The rest of the menu is fishy, of course. The grilled shrimp and sea scallops ($17.95) come highly recommended and live up to the praise. They are accented with ginger and soy butter and served on a bed of wok-seared vegetables with sticky rice and seaweed salad. The flavors, textures and colors play off of one another beautifully. It is a superb bit of cookery. I could go on for a while about the butter-poached lobster tail with dried prosciutto, cauliflower puree and truffle oil ($19.95), but I am bound by space limitations. Wow. 'Nuf said.

The menu offers a bit of beef, pork and fowl for those who wish to take advantage of one of them. Desserts are all made in-house and were tempting, but like Chef Bourdain's former boss, I am growing too big for my britches, literally. Maybe next time.

The staff is efficient, pleasant and they cover their stations well. However, I watched several occurrences of them simply not yielding to customers on the floor. They need to slow down a step or two and act as if they've been in the weeds before. Given the quality of the restaurant, they will continue to be neck-deep in them for some time to come.

The Hard Shell is at the top of its game. It is one of the most popular restaurants in Richmond for good reason. The food is great. The room is classy and comfortable. Though the staff can be a little harrying, they are cheerful and crisp. The restaurant is one of three gems in the ownership team's crown. I have now enjoyed two and eagerly await my visit to the third. S


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