The New Standard 

After just a few months, 1 North Belmont is arguably the best restaurant in town.

Belmont, which is named for its street address, is the creation of chef-proprietor Frits Huntjens, who originally came to Richmond as general manager of the newly opened Marriott Hotel.

Although he is best known here as a hotelier, Huntjens grew up in Holland, where his father owned a French restaurant. He graduated from the Dutch national culinary school and worked in French restaurants in Belgium and Holland before joining Marriott in London.

Now with the aid of another prominent chef, Mark W. Herndon (formerly the executive chef at Virginia's executive mansion), Huntjens has managed within a few months to create arguably the best restaurant in the Richmond area.

Its prices — appetizers are $9 to $14; entrees $26 to $38 — are no more expensive than a dozen competitors whose food isn't nearly as good.

Start with the lobster salad, served in an oversized martini glass, and you'll know you are in for an exceptional evening. A large chunk of lobster claw is jammed into the glass on a bed of seaweed and topped with a saffron-vodka crŠme.

Other appetizers are also first-rate — escargots baked in a puff pastry with garlic butter; a napoleon of cold smoked salmon topped with caviar; pan-seared foie gras on grilled brioche with a cherry-port sauce — but the lobster was such a boffo start to a grand meal that I'd save the others for a return visit. And you will want to return, assuming you can afford the tab, which can run to $70 a person, plus drinks.

Although you'll probably be greeted by Huntjens before the night is over, if you want to be assured of meeting the chef, order the sole, which he personally filets at the table. The knowledgeable maitre d', Scott Worsham, promised that the sauce alone was reason enough to order the dish.

A whole Dover sole is lightly dusted with flour and sautéed in a caper-lemon brown butter sauce and then expertly separated from its bony spine. But in one of the few glitches during two recent dinners, Huntjens inexplicably returned to the kitchen with much of the sauce still on the serving plate.

The filet de porc a la Normande (pork tenderloin), prepared medium rare, was so tender it could have been — were you so gauche — cut with a spoon. It was cooked with a whole caramelized apple and topped with a sauce of dry apple brandy from Calvados in northern France. It was a fine accompaniment, but not up to the caliber of the meat.

Braised veal cheeks come in a deep bowl, looking like an elegant pot-au-feu. The resemblance to that simple dish ends there, however. The moist, tender hunks of meat hint of nuts, thanks to a ragout of chanterelle mushrooms.

Home-grown meat came in the form of rack of lamb from Summerfield Farm, near Culpeper, which was crusted with pistachios, covered with a merlot demi-glace and accompanied by potato croquettes.

Shaved truffles and Madeira sauce gave a deep, rich cover to the medallions of filet mignon, which were paired with a foie gras pté.

The coquilles St. Jacques were perfectly sautéed sea scallops placed on a bed of saffron risotto with a ginger beurre blanc.

Each of these dishes was accompanied by vegetables selected to enhance their respective flavors, a welcome change from places that accompany all entrees with the sameness of a veggie of the day.

Dessert presents a wonderfully perplexing choice: cheese or sweets.

Belmont offers more exquisite varieties of cheese than most supermarkets. Maitre d' Worsham, who worked at New York's premiere cheese emporium, Artisanal, offers up a dozen rotating choices, such as Pierre Robert, a heavenly triple cream from France; a cheddar from Scotland's Isle of Mull; an Italian Gorgonzola that combines cow's, sheep's and goat's milk; and a Gouda from Hentjens' homeland.

Among the sweets is a Grand Marnier soufflé, which is best ordered at the start of the meal, because it takes 30 minutes to prepare. In a minor snafu, ours were delivered while we were still savoring our entrees. At our request, they were taken away and, to the kitchen's credit, made anew, which caused an awkward wait.

An ambitious wine list, ranging from $30 to $165, is dominated by French, with a sprinkling of Italian, American and German.

1 North Belmont is a cozy, smoke-free place; it seats just 28, at widely spaced tables, plus another eight at the bar, so reservations are recommended, even on the quietest nights. There is a small parking lot, to boot. S

1 North Belmont ($$$$)
Belmont and Ellwood
Dinner only, 5:30-10 p.m., closed Sundays.


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