Mountain Misfire 

A CIA-trained chef, a restored 1920s fire station and trout served head-on had one reviewer's hopes up.

Every such adventure of mine is held to the standard of the late, lamented Troutdale Dining Room, which was located in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, in a two-story frame house sheltered by tree-sized rhododendron and nestled next to a babbling brook. Its owners, an expatriate Manhattan couple, served food worthy of their hometown. The specialty, naturally, was trout, literally caught off the back porch, and served head-on with a tiny fork to dig out the sweetest of the meat that comes in a sac just below the eye. Its taste and presentation was only enhanced by the explanation by our server, an earnest young mountain lass, that the dish was "the delicatessen of the house."

The Troutdale Dining Room did not survive because of its remote location, but it set the standard for haute cuisine off the beaten track. So imagine my excitement when I recently came across the Firehouse Café in the pretty little county-seat town of Orange, about 70 miles northwest of Richmond, and learned that trout was served head-on.

The Firehouse's version ($14), pan-fried in a maple, corn-crust, accompanied by Basmati rice and steamed broccoli, didn't match the Troutdale Dining Room, but it was quite good.

But alas, our other entrée, veal scaloppini a la Milanese, was virtually inedible. You can make lemonade out of lemon, but you can't make good veal out of bad, no matter how hard you try to pound it into submission. This veal was so grisly that it almost could not be cut with a knife. And even if you managed to cut it, the taste was so awful that you could not, and did not want to chew it.

Every restaurant has a bad moment now and then, so we would have been willing to forgive this veal, had it not been for a couple of other items that missed the mark.

The acorn-squash soup that began the meal was overwhelmed by lemon, and on an earlier visit for lunch, the tomato soup looked and tasted more like pureed tomatoes than soup.

We had better luck with an attractively presented plate of hummus ($5) surrounded by peppers, two kinds of olives and pita bread, and a cheese plate of cheddar ($6) from the Marshall Dairy in nearby Uniondale, Monterey Jack and semispicy jalapeno Monterey, accompanied by grapes and crackers.

After our experiences with the soup and veal, we stuck with store-bought desserts, a sundae ($6) of two scoops of vanilla ice cream swimming in chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream and toasted walnuts, and chocolate praline crunch cake ($5). The only dessert made in-house, pear tart with frangipane filling, was not available that night.

Despite its inconsistencies, the Firehouse Café has potential. The owner-chef, Jonathan Hayward, has the training and experience to do better: He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and was a sous-chef at the prestigious C&O restaurant in Charlottesville and executive chef at L'Aventura there before moving into the 1920s circa fire station.

But he needs to work on quality control. One way to do that is to keep an eye not only on what comes out of the kitchen but also what comes back. One look at our uneaten veal should have prompted questions and an apology. Instead, he emerged from the kitchen only to chat with diners at a nearby table, who apparently were regulars.

So the search for the next Troutdale Dining Room continues. Suggestions are welcome. S

Firehouse Café, $$

137 W. Main St., Orange

(540) 672-9001


Brunch: Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Lunch: daily except Tuesdays, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: nightly except Tuesdays, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Thursday night: all-you-can-eat seafood buffet


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