Sunday, October 29, 2006

Redemption at Restaurant Week, pt. 1

Tonight is the last night of Restaurant Week and we are totally over going out to dinner for the next few days. The annual benefit surely brought in loads of new business for the participating restaurants. And Karen and I probably put on a few pounds trying get in on the deal. This weekend, we enjoyed two more spots a great deal, Rowland and Millie's, and fully intend on going back to both.

One thing you should know about us, is that the two of us can hardly stand to pass up a sale, and three courses for twenty bucks - is almost a sure thing. Well coordinated waves of flavors and textures carry you through an hour or two of night-life. It's the perfect arrangement for dinner. Last year, we used the event as an excuse to check out Julep's (almost good), La Grotta (quaint, but overrated), and Zeus Gallery (past it's prime), because we probably never would have taken the risk on an expensive evening at either of the three otherwise. In those cases, we paid for… a full stomach, learning experiences, and the chance to critique some food (and support local businesses and the Food Bank, duh). After our experience at TJ's, it seemed like it might be more of the same this year. But, not so fast. Richmond's restaurants pulled off a come from behind victory in the best two out of three competition for the affections of this RVA Foodie.

Friday night, we selected Rowland Fine Dining, because it's within walking distance of our house, and we were anxious to see what sort of food would be offered in the place of the legendary Stella's. Figuring that this would be a popular evening, we walked through Rowland's door shortly after 6pm and strutted down through the dining room to one of the two vacant tables in the rear. Immediately, the room felt like a cozy place to be, with mood lighting and warmly painted walls. Add to this a little saucer of roasted garlic olive oil to go with a basket of steaming yeasty bread and we about filled up on comfort flavors before we'd even ordered.

Speaking of ordering, let's get that outta the way. It started with Karen's pan seared sweet scallop on corn pudding and leek butter. This actually turned out to be the highlight of the meal, but only by a nose. Garnished with little fried leek threads, the single scallop was tender and dripping with savory sauce. And the corn pudding was sweet and divine - just the sort of southern chic touch that I'd heard we should expect at Rowland.

Meanwhile, I had a butterbean cake with cucumber avocado salsa and cilantro oil. Now, I love cilantro, so I was basically ordering for the accouterment, that and the fact that it seemed to be vegetarian, if not vegan. Ironically, the cake was basically an oversized southern fried falafel ball, with whole butterbeans suspended in its batter. As a falafel fan, this was a real treat, but it was slightly dry in the middle and there wasn't quite enough salsa to moisten or spicy it up. A creative starter nonetheless.

When our entrée's arrived, I was immediately bowled over to see my blackened mahi mahi, adorned with a single bright red steamed craw-daddy sitting in a jack-knife position on top of the fish filet - a first for me since deciding to resume eating crustaceans a couple years ago. After the first bite of cajun spiced fish, I quickly ordered another beer to cool my mouth and seriously wolfed down the whole thing, while setting aside a few bites for Karen. There was a bed of crawfish ettoufee involved as well, and it's corn base provided a sweet backdrop for the fiery fish. The poor little ornamental crawdaddy got disassembled as I'd seen people do on my one trip to New Orleans for Mardi-Gras. Shoot, I even sucked the juice outta the thing's head, just to be thorough and authentic.

Karen ordered a pork dish that was seared with cinnamon and served over ricotta raviolis and granny smith apple cider sauce. As she tells me, the pork was some of the most flavorful and most tender that she'd ever had. We both liked the ravioli a great deal because the cheese filling tasted so fresh. If they made these little pasta dumplings in the back, I wouldn't be surprised. By the time Karen was through, I was feeling pretty lively and had already intruded on a neighboring table to enlighten them about Restaurant Week. Since, there was extra pork, I was tempted to offer it to the people next to us (seriously, what would the Food Bank do?). But, we opted for a doggie bag instead.

Now, my favorite aspect of the price fix menu is that you're guaranteed dessert, even if you wouldn't usually splurge on it. And the portions of the previous two courses are usually appropriately sized so that you're still hungry for something sweet. There were only two choices: pear cranberry cobbler, and Virginia's dessert of the day. At first, I wondered what this meant. I mean, what sort of desserts are native to our state? Then I noticed "Virginia's home made dressings" that accompany the salad. This is how I learned that the co-owner is Virginia Rowland, pastry chef and wife to the head chef, Bruce. Her dessert of the night was pina-colada cheesecake. Our server crinkled her nose as she said it and so did I. So I called her on it. You just made a face. Is it not good? "Oh, I don't know. I haven't tried it yet." So, we signed up to find out, even though we had recently had two not so great examples of cheesecake - one of our least favorite sweets.

The goodies came out and they were tiny. At first, we were surprised by their size, but since we were both so full and satisfied by several great flavor combinations, not to mention a couple of beers, we didn't feel put out. The cheesecake was a risk that we weren't looking forward to anyhow. But this cheesecake actually didn't taste like any either of us had every had before. It was both light and rich, with ribbons of pineapple throughout, a heavy praline-esque top-layer and a hint of salt that kept both of us digging at it until it had disappeared. Wow. Just thinking about it, I want to eat a whole pie by myself. Karen's cobbler paled in comparison, but the pears were supple and sweet and again, we weren't let down. This meal was amazing. After surveying the regular menu's entrees ranging from $18-25 (veggie linguine to lobster pot pie) and forgetting about the more expensive plates of cute animals like lamb. Considering that the standout items, the scallop appetizer and the blackened fish are regulars on the Rowland menu, I think we'll be heading over the footbridge to this Main Street eatery again.

Stay tuned for Saturday dinner at Millie's care of my mother. She was celebrating renting out her house in the Museum district and we got to be there to take part in the extravagance.

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