Adoring Adarra

Attentive service and a Basque-inspired menu make it a standout.

Step into Adarra in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood and you’ll feel a wave of tranquility. The lights are low, the music ambient, and everyone on the 11-person staff is working to ensure that your experience will be smooth and unencumbered.

“You are in an extension of our home at Adarra,” says co-owner and dining room maestro, Lyne Doetzer. “We wanted a place where the diner would walk in and sigh, sit down, relax, and enjoy themselves.” The Doetzers see their role as employees who just happen to own the place, and you’ll find them there—Randy commanding the kitchen and Lyne pouring glasses of natural wine—reliably, on every visit.

Straddling Spain and France

Named one of Esquire magazine’s best new restaurants in 2020, Adarra features a Basque-influenced menu, blending Spanish and French techniques and ingredients—such as Piment d’Espelette a paprika-esque spice. The menu offers a mix of tapas-style small plates and larger dishes with brothy beans, slow-cooked lamb, and vibrantly seasoned seafood.

Inspired by visits to the Basque region, an area that straddles Spain and France, the Doetzers named their restaurant in honor of the mountain in the Spanish city of San Sebastián. “Basque cooking is so good because they are so insistent on food that is fresh and prepared in an uncomplicated fashion,” Randy Doetzer explains. “We follow their ethic, the cultural demand for better, higher quality things.”

In the menu’s “Cured & Pickled” section, there are no wrong choices, but the Chorizo Ibérico Picante has a particular way of readying your palate for the journey ahead. A tapas stalwart, the Pinxtos Gildas are skewers of pickled peppers, oil-soaked anchovies, and olives, served with an ounce of Amontillado Sherry, another smart dish from which to launch into a night of bold flavors. 

Deep, Lovingly Rendered Flavors

While skate wing and stuffed squid were offered in Adarra’s early days, the kitchen added tinned fish to the menu, embracing the European obsession with high-end, artisanal conservas, often recognizable by their captivating label designs. 

This centuries-old Spanish craft of preserving seafood at peak freshness is as far from the canned foods of our childhoods as Wagyu beef is from Vienna sausages. And Adarra’s six chefs, packed like sardines themselves in a tiny kitchen, have a way of coaxing every salty, savory morsel of flavor from those tins.

Take, for example, the sardines swimming in escabeche, a tangy sauce made crimson with Spanish paprika. They’re served with toast, which works beautifully as both a vehicle for the little fishes and a sponge for the sauce. Presented simply, the beauty of the dish is in the restraint—the decision of what not to include is just as important as what appears on the plate. High-quality fish, bread, sauce. Done.

Sauces at Adarra fall into the “drinkable” category, but none more so than the smoked butter that accompanies Navajas al Natural, a razor clam special. Whenever it’s offered, it swiftly sells out.

Beyond conservas, there’s another world to explore. In the homey bowl of smoked mussels, plump shellfish mingle with serrano ham and the smooth jazz of alliums—melted leeks. The Shrimp al Ajillo is worth every messy second of dispatching the head and wresting the meat from a butter-lacquered shell. Plan to dine with a friend who won’t mind if you lick the garlic (ajillo) and parsley from your fingertips, because that’s exactly what you’ll want to do. 

Guiso is like a code word for deep, lovingly rendered flavors, and the Guiso de Cordero, a sultry stew of merguez—a kind of lamb sausage—white beans, and potatoes delivers on that promise.

Intuitive Wine Pairings

On my most recent visit, Lyne whispered to me of Sardinian wines I must try, and, after polishing off a glass of bright and crisp Oriol Rossell Brut Nature Cava, I let her know I was ready. But was I? The wine, a Deminera from Sa Defenza, hit me with a pop of salt and kept me in its tannic, grippy grasp until I had drained the glass. 

Lyne described the next selection, a Tresbingias, as the sister wine to the previous glass, but the two couldn’t have been more different, and the second glass conjured more of the guiso vibes, with a lingering smoky finish that haunts me still.

The wine program at Adarra is a true labor of love, born equally from the Doetzers, both sommeliers, and deftly managed by Lyne and her front-of-house team. “What we’ve done is very personal,” Lyne says of her nearly 300-bottle selection. The menu features around four wines by the glass, and the rest—natural wines from every corner of the world—live in the Rolodex of Doetzer’s mind.

“Wine is like perfume,” says Lyne. “It’s subjective. We ask, ‘What are you in the mood to drink tonight?’” Based on that information, she divines three bottles to choose from. “And we get somebody into a wine they might not have known they wanted. It goes back to reading our guests. It’s not my job to knock you over with information. I’m your guide. It’s about building levels of trust.”

Beguiling Savory Notes

The cocktails, an efficient collection of five drinks, mirror the philosophy of the food and wine menus—from the bright and herbaceous Sleepless Nights, with Aquavit and bergamot liqueur, to the sturdy and bracing Long Way Home, with mezcal and mole bitters. 

Similarly, the dessert menu provides just the right conclusion. A quivering Basque cheesecake, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with sea salt—more cheese course than dessert—invites the guest to keep turning those beguiling savory notes over in their minds.

Adarra has cultivated a reputation for serving the unexpected—from orange wine to tinned squid—while constantly considering the needs of each guest. You may notice, during your meal, the chefs peering intently from the kitchen toward the dining room, when they aren’t laser-focused on composing plates. “We look at body language. We look at what comes back on plates. We try to gauge situations,” Chef Doetzer notes. “Everyone who comes in here needs something different from us, and we need to give that to them.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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