Southern Sophisticate 

How the fare and design at Hanover Tavern improve on tradition.

To staff Michelle's, Williams promoted Jeff Ferris from general manager of Europa to partner and installed another Europa alum, Robert White, as chef.

The setting is the most sophisticated of Williams' establishments. The smoke-free Michelle's sprawls over two floors of the meticulously restored historic Hanover Tavern, 15 miles north of Richmond.

The well-appointed main dining room, called the Veranda, is a long, narrow glass-enclosed second-floor porch that overlooks the woods. Opposite the windows is a washed-green clapboard wall decorated with straw hats. The tables are covered with white linen cloths and bouquets of fresh flowers, and ladder-back chairs are upholstered in gold and green. A large decorative mirror at one end makes the room appear more spacious than it is.

Meals also are served in a partially underground dining room, handsome with a beamed ceiling, dark wood floor and fireplace; snacks are served in the adjoining bar.

Brunch, served Saturday and Sunday, offers a great introduction to the charms of Michelle's. Settle in with a mimosa or champagne while examining an array of omelets and other egg dishes, and an assortment of sandwiches, salads and appetizers. Most items are $5 to $10.

An appetizer of warm Brie with toasted pecans, raspberry maple syrup and a crusty baguette was outstanding. Less so was a crab-cake sandwich that had a slight fishy taste but was rescued by a tarragon remoulade and a couple of end-of-the-season Hanover tomatoes.

An otherwise bland chicken salad, served on a bed of mixed greens, took on considerable flavor when mixed with a zesty raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

Dinner entrees range from $12 for meatloaf to $24 for a rack of lamb. While the fish on the printed menu — trout, salmon, tuna, shrimp and crab cakes — range from $14 to $22, a special of red snapper in an Asian sauce turned out to cost $24. Lesson: If the waiter doesn't tell you the cost, ask.

A rack of molasses-glazed Smithfield Lean Generation ribs, atop a large slice of jalape¤o-flavored corn bread, was topped by what seemed to be a bushel of vinegary collard greens. The meat was good enough, but the thick, syrupy sauce tasted like, well, molasses.

A well-prepared, lightly seared salmon was accompanied by fried okra, roasted tomatoes and Parmesan cream. The grilled meat loaf came with white-cheddar roasted potatoes and green beans, but again the sauce was disappointing. In the future I'm sticking to truck stops and barbecue joints for comfort food.

An outstanding appetizer ($4 to $9) was a flaky pastry stuffed with wild mushrooms and smoked Gouda, and inventively served with pesto and Vidalia onion marmalade.

Desserts are made on the premises. A warm apple-peach cobbler with a ginger-snap dough, served in a deep dish with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, was just right for sharing.

As for the service, our waitress at brunch failed to provide plates for shared appetizers, resulting in food spilled on the sparking tablecloth, and the main dishes arrived while we were still enjoying the appetizers. Even then, we had not gotten our drinks or water.

At dinner, after an interminable wait, our waiter uttered a classic line: "Are you ready to order, or do you need a little more time?" He then proceeded to deliver the wrong salad. When we finally flagged him down, he wondered whether we just might want to keep it. Answer: No.

The solution to those problems is training or termination.

After that happens, Michelle's is poised to become the crown jewel in Williams' mini-empire. S

Michelle's ($$)
13181 Hanover Courthouse Road
(Route 301)
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. -3 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. -4 p.m.


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