Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dogwood Grille

DOGWOOD GRILLE Fan restaurants come and go, and Dogwood Grille and Spirits opened in an inauspicious spot on Main Street that had seen its share of restaurants close down. Location, location, location, isn't that what they always say? Well, the Richmond restaurant scene continually confounds that old cliché--from Mama Zu's in Oregon Hill to 1 North Belmont Restaurant (a former 7-Eleven), and now, Dogwood Grille (I have a really hard time not putting a "the" in front of that name but I'm resisting). Richmonders have proven that they know their food and they'll show up when it's good. I had a difficult time getting a reservation and finally took an early 6:30 pm cancellation in order to go on a Saturday night (well, I was calling Saturday morning), but since I get hungry early, this was just fine. The only problem with the early reservation--the problem for my dining companion, that is--was that everyone else eating in the restaurant happened to be in their late fifties and early sixties, and we had a brief flashback to our one and only visit together to the Union Square Cafe. I had eagerly anticipated this particular meal, as well as the play across the square we were to see later, and the neither food nor the acting disappointed. The atmosphere at the restaurant was a little Sunday-brunch-with-grandma, however, and the clientele decidedly elderly. My husband couldn't believe he was spending a Saturday night in New York not in the hippest of trendy bistros but in a restaurant that looked like the kind of place where your family took you to celebrate graduation. As I continued to argue against the importance of decor in favor of the importance of the food (which I must mention again, was fabulous), they wheeled in a guy that had to be in his late eighties and propped him up at the table right next to us. I desperately needed a celebrity (even a B-list celebrity) to come in at that very moment and save me, but alas, my husband won the point and never has let me forget it. Part of the problem with the Dogwood Grille (there, I put a "the" in, I just had to) is its lack of design. It's a long narrow space with dark, wooden booths and exposed brick--a typical Fan restaurant interior. The paintings hung about are of diverse styles (although they have two by Jennifer Holloway, one of my favorite artists) of varying quality and aside from the lovely, repetitive orchids arranged across the front window, the room is completely forgettable. The clientele of the moment, therefore, creates the atmosphere of the moment, instead of the restaurant providing a specific ambiance for the clientele. The room felt stuffy and a little bit creaky when we were arrived because everyone there (besides us) was of a certain (older) age. As the evening wore on and the customers became younger, everything became louder--deafeningly louder--and the mood shifted dramatically. I'm going to talk about the food in just a moment, don't worry, but I'd like to address the issue of restaurant interior design first. I don't like to be intimidated when I eat out and generally, a restaurant that demands high heels for me and a jacket for my husband simply is too much bother. That being said, however, I do like a little theater when I go out. I've aired my decidedly ambivalent feelings about Can Can previously, but as far as my feelings about that bang-up French bistro interior complete down to the last little detail: I LOVE it. I also love Millie's 1920'/30's-flavored funkiness and I love Comfort's faux peeling paint. I love the Tuscan-y feel of Bacchus and I even love the retro space-age cliché that is the Galaxy Diner. I'm bored and annoyed however, when I pay $25 for an entree and the owner hasn't even made an effort, besides white tablecloths, to remind me that I'm in a restaurant and not in my own, dull house (actually, my house is very nice but it's also nice to get out of it once in a while). A restaurant should be a change of pace, not just from your own home, but from all the other restaurants around town as well. And yet, and yet! The food is amazing. I started with the grilled Caesar salad and was immediately impressed. Reminiscent of the deconstruction of dishes going in trendy restaurants elsewhere in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities, a half of romaine heart, lightly charred, shared the plate with half of a tomato draped with white anchovies, both of which were propped up on two large, chewy croutons and drizzled attractively with aioli and a reduced balsamic syrup. I was suspicious of the grilled lettuce and was taken aback by how well the smoky flavor enhanced the entire dish. I rapidly dissembled the pieces, cut up the lettuce, and ate it all with gusto, mopping up every bit of the delicious, garlicky, sweet sauce swirled across the bottom of the plate. My husband's appetizer was less spectacular; "Swimps Gone Wild on Tijuana," a name a little too precious for my taste (as were many of the other items on the menu--lounging tuna, for instance?!), failed to deliver the heat or complexity of its name and instead, remained just a few jumbo shrimp in an ordinary tomatillo sauce with black beans. Our entrees made up for this one misstep. My husband ordered the pan-seared duck breast in a light hoisin barbecue sauce (I'll spare you the cute version of the dish's description) that was succulent, gingery, and sweet. Although I've had good duck in Asian restaurants, this dish was far more flavorful and moist, and again, surprised me with a savory punch. I opted for the crab cake special. Two very large crab cakes arrived, so chock full of large lumps of backfin crabmeat, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how they were holding together; there was no discernible binder. They sat in a tangy pool of dill beurre blanc and were topped with an equally tangy, but entirely different béarnaise tartar sauce redolent of tarragon. Dill and tarragon are flavors I previously would have suspected would compete, but in this dish they are unexpectedly complementary. Although both sauces could have been heavy, overpowering the rich flavor of the crabmeat, they were instead light and airy, and both emphasized the herbs instead of the butter or oil. All in all, what's not to like about nearly a pound of crabmeat in two lovely, complementary sauces, with a couple of little potatoes to absorb what's left on the plate when the crab is gone? We only had room for one dessert (remember, I'm not eating on an expense account here; no food can go to waste!) and a good thing that was too. We ordered the carrot cake ice cream sandwich and received two large triangles instead of the expected one. Two layers of frozen carrot cake enclosed a layer of rich, vanilla ice cream. I suspect the ice cream, although delicious, was not made on the premises but the lush carrot cake overrode any finicky considerations in that respect. My only wish would have been to allow the carrot cake to thaw a little so that its characteristic mélange of spices would have been more prominent. My husband felt that each sandwich should have been made to order with fresh cake and ice cream but I disagreed. I don't really see how that would be economically or practically feasible and besides, I don't think what would be essentially carrot cake à la mode is nearly as interesting as Chef David Shannon's take on the familiar ice cream sandwich. The dollop of mascarpone on the side of the plate was a perfect accompaniment and cleverly echoed the traditional cream cheese icing. Dogwood Grille and Spirits takes its food seriously, despite the cutesy prose of its menu, and the owners need to take the ambiance of their restaurant seriously as well. Such creativity in the kitchen demands a similar spirit in the dining room. The service is impeccable—warm and attentive—and it seems a shame that such wonderful elements are shrouded in visual mediocrity and overwhelmed by the din generated by the other diners. I’ll return for the food, of course, although perhaps not as quickly as I would if the atmosphere were more inviting. , , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you spend most of a review critisizing the decor?? The food is what counts!

August 13, 2005 9:57 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

But I do think the atmosphere matters--all of the elements of a restaurant work together to create the experience of dining.

August 13, 2005 2:44 PM  

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