Casual Chic

In Richmond, two chic Fan restaurants, plus an enduring lunch spot. 

Photography by Tyler Darden

Two cozy new eateries, and one enduring star of the lunch scene, show good taste in central Richmond.

Helen’s, Edo’s Squid, Avalon, Kuba Kuba: Lucky residents of central Richmond certainly don’t go begging for great food. That’s especially true in the Fan district. A genuine urban oasis, this 85-block enclave of tree-lined streets and renovated Victorian, Queen Anne and Italianate homes complete with porch rockers, flower gardens and the convenience of neighborhood shops (new and vintage clothing, books, wine) is usually my first stop in the downtown area. On a few trips over a lazy Virginia summer, I sampled the fare at a trio of new (or new to me!) eateries. From contemporary fine dining to a hidden lunchtime hot spot, they’ve all moved to the top of my Richmond A-list.

Aromatherapy: Verbena

     I discovered Verbena, which opened this past spring, after browsing through my favorite vintage boutique, conveniently located right around the corner. On a sunny summer evening, the restaurant’s Floyd Avenue façade winked at me with its cottage-like herb and flower garden and enormous windows promising an equally bright interior. At 5:15, I was surprised to find many occupied tables in the airy main dining room. I slid into a black booth, unfolded a crisp white napkin and surveyed the scene. The formal elegance of Verbena is softened by touches like original blonde wood floors, single flowers in glass vases and a high, pressed-tin ceiling painted new-penny copper. A central staircase leads up to the more casual V Lounge, with its exposed brick, black and copper bar and handful of tables for two.

     I was eager to taste the cuisine served up by chef Todd Richardson and sous chef Noah Sandoval. Both are well known in the surprisingly small and supportive (so they tell me) restaurant community of Richmond. The pair collaborated in the kitchens of Fan favorites Helen’s and the Dogwood Grille. Richardson also cooked alongside Manny Mendez at his popular Fan diner Kuba Kuba.

     I ordered a glass of boldly aromatic Gewürztraminer from Alsace (“The Furst”) from Verbena’s carefully crafted wine list. It paired perfectly with my first appetizer: 3 ounces of pan-seared foie gras, slices of charred red onion, a few leaves of arugula in a white balsamic dressing and a spoonful of peach ice on top. I’m not usually a foie gras person, but the contrast of fatty and fresh, charred and fruity in this dish could make anyone a convert. A beautifully executed kabob of grilled shrimp came next. Sliced tomato rinds tossed in horseradish dressing gave this simple dish an elegant zing.

     I was tempted by just about every entrée on the menu, particularly the seared duck breast with warm sweet potato salad, duck leg dumplings and grilled baby bok choy. But I was in a seafood mood, and curious to see how Richardson would combine salmon, goat cheese and phyllo dough in a single dish. It was an almost decadent pleasure to cut through layers of crisp, flaky phyllo into a soft pink fillet of salmon coated in melted goat cheese. Buttery and pungent, crisp and creamy—the flavors and textures blended happily in my mouth. An underlying layer of just-wilted spinach added color and leafy contrast to the richness of this innovative dish.

     After tasting a trio of Richardson’s desserts—cayenne and cinnamon chocolate pâté with strawberry ginger sauce, lime cheesecake with a star anise crust, strawberry and balsamic shortcake with a sprig of mint—I concluded that dinner at Verbena, like the name itself promises, is like aromatherapy for the palate. It’s also one neighborhood eatery that will likely become a dining destination for out-of-towners, as it already has for me.

Secret Spanish : Sì tapas

     I must have driven past my next Fan dining find four or five times during my meanderings without even realizing it was a restaurant. When I eventually spotted a group of young women ducking into the doorway of a white stucco façade on Lombardy Street, just blocks from Kuba Kuba, I did an immediate double-take. I drove around the block again and slowed down enough to read the two favorite words of any Spanish-food-loving optimist: “sì tapas.” I settled on a tight two-hour spot on the street and thanked heavens for tapas—varied, intriguing, great with a glass of wine, and quick.

     I’ve enjoyed tapas everywhere from the Boqueria market in Barcelona to the Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville, tapas capital of Spain. My favorite neighborhood hangout in Charlottesville also happens to be a tapas bar, so I can see why Fan residents are already flocking to Sì. I love the simplicity of this style of food—quickly grilled gambas a la plancha (shrimp with garlic) or calamares, pulpitos a la gallega (sautéed baby octopus with garlic and paprika), comforting potato croquetas, savory-sweet bacon-wrapped dates, thick slices of jamón Serrano and Manchego cheese, bowls of glistening green olives and salted Marcona almonds. I also love how the small plates punctuate an evening, extending the experience of food and friendship long into the night.

     In contrast to the open, airy feel of Verbena, Sì murmurs cozy chic. The design team of owner Mo Roman transformed a former Italian restaurant into an alluring, honeycomb-like space that evokes the colors and exoticism of Andalusia. At night, the gold walls in the tiny first-floor dining area glow, tea lights flicker on wooden cubes built into the stucco walls, and blue and white fabrics partially conceal intimate dining alcoves while a high, oval bar in the center of the room gives diners a perfect perch. I took a seat at one of the long maple benches to one side of the room and ordered a glass of Tempranillo, which came in a flat-bottomed glass, just like it might in Spain.

     I felt at a distinct disadvantage at Sì. Not only was I not a local, but I was also dining alone at a social institution: the tapas bar. No matter: one by one, the plates appeared before me. I couldn’t stop myself from polishing off a salad of roasted beets and fluffy micro greens dressed in a bright orange vinaigrette (“Valencia mojo”) and topped with two disks of chèvre tinged with cayenne and paprika. Next came two dark and mysterious dishes: a texture-rich blend of sautéed exotic mushrooms, French lentils and almonds and a casuela (typical Spanish red clay dish) of fragrant, inky-black rice, chunks of squid stuffed with ground shrimp and chorizo and a dollop or two of aioli (garlic-infused mayonnaise). Resigning myself to the doggy bag at this point, I still managed to enjoy a few bites of my final plate: perfectly tender lamb chops with a crisp, peppery basil crust, and a delicate but rich olivada (olive sauce).

     Though classically Spanish for the most part, Sì’s chefs obviously have fun with ingredients found more easily in Virginia than in Valencia. Along with marinated anchovies and calamari, there’s salmon and rockfish. And gazpacho with sherry vinegar doesn’t seem to mind sharing menu space with roasted asparagus and Belgian endive. It all made me wonder about Mo Roman, a versatile restaurateur who’s not Spanish, nor has he ever even set foot on the Iberian peninsula. How did he create a tapas bar that’s both convincingly Spanish and comfortingly local?

     The answer is that Roman, who’s been in the restaurant business for 17 years, has a passion for finding a space—be it an old bank (Bank) or carriage house (Sì)—and coming up with a concept and cuisine that will transform that space in the most exciting way. He actually embraces the crapshoot, the risk, of restaurateurship. As he told me in his office, “It’s all a gamble. What works here and now might not work next year and somewhere else.”

     Before leaving Sì, I followed the jazz music up the green stucco staircase to the second-story lounge, where a mellow late-night scene was quietly brewing—a cluster of friends in curvy leather armchairs shared a bottle of wine and a few desserts. If I hadn’t been alone and 70 miles from home, you can bet I’d have ordered a glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry along with a dessert of caramelized bread pudding and roasted banana ice cream. But I’m comforted by the fact that Mo Roman is planning to open a second Sì Tapas in my own home town before this year is out. I’ll be the first at the door—and possibly one of the last to leave.

Lunch with the Locals: Chez Foushee

     My final Richmond nod is not new in the least—in fact, it’s been in operation on a quiet corner of Foushee and Grace streets for nearly 19 years. But this very special place, open only for weekday lunches and dinner on “first Fridays,” is one local secret that I had to share. Distracted by all of the new eateries on East Broad Street, I somehow missed it on my last dining tour of the Monroe Ward neighborhood.

     When I specifically sought it out on this trip, I realized why it had escaped my radar. Located just a few blocks from the five-star Jefferson Hotel and a few doors from a trophy shop on a deserted block of Foushee Street, Chez Foushee is in an inconspicuous place. It has the look of an old Hollywood celebrity, hiding from her fans. The exquisitely out-of-place 1920s Spanish revival-style building has a three-arched entryway flanked by sculpted columns, elaborate wrought ironwork and a terra-cotta tile roof.

     Once inside, it’s a completely different picture: bright white walls and painted columns, high ceilings whirring with vintage fans, soft jazz music. Waiters glide from table to table pouring iced tea and serving lunch to a full cast of characters: doctors in scrubs, ladies in dresses and heels, and more than a few men in ties and—something I never see in Charlottesville—seersucker suits. “The interior has a sort of formal look, but people always find it comfortable here,” says co-owner Andrew Hardie, who was born in Trinidad and went to a hotel management school in Scotland before leaping into the restaurant business.

     My lunch, ordered from the daily specials, was served lightning-fast, but it had the look and taste of slow, careful preparation. A cup of roasted, perfectly spiced red pepper soup came topped with the prize of a golden-fried mini crab cake. Chez Foushee’s tomato tarragon quiche—wearing a crown of grilled shrimp, a chignon of sautéed zucchini slivers and a brandied-grapefruit sauce—puts the lie to the notion that quiche for lunch is passé. Add a cup of strong coffee, a seasonal dessert of moist lemon-blueberry cake doused with lemoncello cream and the option of takeout, and you, too, will see why Chez Foushee is the enduring star of Richmond’s local lunch scene.

WHERE TO GO

Verbena

2526 Floyd Ave.

(804) 359-3122

Sì Tapas

214 N. Lombardy St.

(804) 257-7940

Chez Foushee

203 N. Foushee St.

(804) 648-3225

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