Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Restaurant Week's Jeffersonian Kick-off

Restaurant week began Monday night, and Karen and I were ready to experience some new eateries and venture into some that don't usually offer the affordable price fix menu featured in this Richmond fund-raiser for the Central VA Food Bank. For those who don't know, the idea is that you pay $22.06 for soup or salad, an entree, and desert. And $2.06 from your meal goes to the charity.

One restaurant on the list that we were both excited to try was TJs in the Jefferson Hotel. Neither of us had been there before, although Karen has experienced the enormous brunch spread that the hotel offers. Everyone that I spoke to mentioned that TJs is just as good as the Jefferson's more upscale Lemaire, only cheaper and less stuffy. Those two qualities sounded good, so we made reservations and found ourselves walking through the Franklin Street doors as the sun was setting.

Inside the Jefferson (and I will only spend a minute on this) an enormous palace of historic luxury unfolds in front of you as your eyes are immediately drawn up along the marble pillars to the stained glass dome and various colorful adornments. One of the greeters was proud to regale us with stories of the constant vigilance that is required in the ambitious upkeep and preservation of the hotel's interior. As we politely listened, we were lead beneath the dome, down the stairs and through the rotunda
where we found the bar and dining area of TJ's. Let me just say, that if you never eat at or stay at the Jefferson, try to find some excuse to waltz through the main hall between Franklin and Main streets. It's an experienced that I somehow managed to delay for the past 9 years. The outside just doesn't quite convey that such a spectacular sight lies just inside the doors.

Once we were in our seats, we took in the cozy upper class layout of TJ's dining room. Our armchairs made us feel like we should be smoking cigars or otherwise looking elite. There were others in the room who seemed to be self-consciously scanning the room, just as I was. So, I didn't take offense at the long stares that seemed to come from the other tables. Instead, we each ordered a high ball and tried to relax. However, it didn't help that my rusty nail, was rather small, by the way, and weak because the much of the ice had melted by the time my server brought it around.

Famished, we tore through our bread and "everything bagel" seasoned crackers, agreeing that the butter was very tasty. Stop the presses, tasty butter! The menu featured two soups and two salads, several entrees and two desserts. Our charming server noted that the silk chocolate cake was not available, leaving us to choose between two varieties of cheesecake. Neither of us really like cheese cake, because no matter how good it is, one or two bites is usually plenty. Luckily, the entrees were exciting, so we did not despair.

Another fact of the menu that made me glad to be eating at the Jefferson is their featured vegan chef, Jannequin Bennett, who has been heading up the kitchen at TJ's since 1998 and acclaimed for her "Very Vegetarian" cookbook co-authored with track star Carl Lewis. As a recovering vegan myself (still veggie except for seafood), I was comforted by the "V" found next to several of the items on the menu. Considering my culinary affinity for ethical health food, I was happy to be supporting Ms. Bennett's cuisine. And of course, I had to order the only vegan entrée to demonstrate my solidarity. More on that later.

Karen chose the Caesar salad, while I chose the Jefferson Peanut Soup. Having often enjoyed a fabulous peanut chili that my mother found in the Vegetarian Times magazine a few years back, I brushed off the server's description of "liquid peanut butter."

When Karen was presented with her salad, we were both taken aback. It was practically a meal unto itself. Often, a price fix menu offers smaller portions, because three portions are guaranteed and because the restaurant wants to maximize profits. Not in this case. So, Karen went to work and immediately noted the large shavings of parmesan and flavorful creamy Caesar dressing. But after a few bites, she complained that her teeth hurt from the accumulated effect of what we both agreed was the coldest lettuce either of us had ever put in our mouths. I wonderd if the dish hadn't been made ahead and put on ice. And as I tried to help Karen finish the salad, I wonderd if I would wind up with a brain freeze like one gets from drinking a 7-11 slurpee too quickly. After a bit, we pushed the frozen romaine aside.

Meanwhile, I stared down into my large flat white bowl featuring a half-inch layer of thick tan liquid coating the bottom. This did not look promising and so I agreed to a few cranks of cracked pepper from the server. Each bite that I took confirmed just what the soup's appearance conveyed: bland sludge, only a few degrees removed from peanut butter. Seriously, I felt like I wanted some milk to uncoat my mouth. Maybe this was what Jefferson ate when sailing routes were beseiged with pirates and no spices could be obtained for cooking. My imagination didn't help. We traded plates and tried to get the most of this course, but neither of us were pleased. If you understand the tradition of peanut soup, please enlighten me with a comment.

For Karen's entrée, it was a grilled veggie lasagna with "housemade pasta", fresh mozerella and roasted red pepper marinara sauce. Since it was pretty cold out, we both agreed that it was lasagna weather and this dish really seemed like it would play to our vegan chef's strengths. It was even offered without cheese, so I jokingly suggested to the server that we wanted extra cheese so as to make no mistake that we weren't "one of those." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The plate was pretty as it was presented to Karen, an intense splash of red tomatoes and peppers with a stark-white bulls-eye of melted moz in the middle, all encompassed by the same sort of big white bowl we had both eaten our soup and salad out of. We both enjoyed the roasted red-pepper marinara and the grilled vegetables weren't bad either. The problem was the pasta. The sheets of handmade noodles were thick and doughy. Not the supple delicate texture of homemade dough, but congeled flour and water that seemed angry to ever have been created but content to entrench itself in this dish and persist as long as it might. Throughout the meal, the dough was steadily swelling as it soaked up the sauce and lasagna juices - becoming dumpling-like. As we ate, we could feel the stuff expanding in our stomachs. No, this pasta was a problem. And I'm not ashamed to say that I wound up reluctantly finishing this dish the next morning before leaving the house for work. By that point the flour had become like a culinary version of concrete. I'll do anything to avoid making breakfast, including unenthusiastically eating leftovers if Karen doesn't want to take them to work. But this time, it was a pretty sad affair. Oh, and the cheese. It felt kinda stiff from the moment it was brougt out. Again, my impression was that this dish might have been reheated rather than assembled for our order.

The high point of the meal was my vegan entrée of Feijoada, Brazil's national dish, with tempeh substituted for pork. My big white plate (is this food blog going to be all about "big white plates" from here on out? Maybe I should just abbreviate BWP for the ubiquitous bourgeois serving vessel) featured a pile of menacing looking blackness. I could make out squashes, black beans, tempeh triangles, and onions, but it was all coated with a thick black glaze. I imagined Nigel from Spinal Tap pronouncing that this food could be "none more black" like the Smell the Glove cover art.

The intense color was actually outdone by its strong flavor - both aromatic and bitter, like a bbq sauce without the sweet. It tasted Cajun, African, and slightly Indian all at the same time. Traditionally, the dish features as many as eight types of pork and beef, and this is where the strong and pungent flavor would usually come from. The only other ingredients being garlic, onions, hot sauce and oranges. Vegetables are usually offered as a garnish to stretch the sought after meat melange to serve as many people as possible.

In the case of this vegan version (I can hear Brazilians laughing at the idea right now), the tempeh and vegetables appeared to all have been stewed long enough to absorb the spicy gravy because the flavor carried throughout each bite. Neither of us could identify anything but cumin and citrus, but we knew there was clearly a lot going on in that sauce. The dish was not refined, high-brow, or delicate in any way. Instead, it seemed out of place, on the menu and at our table. But it was an achievement, because it was tasty, kinda scary looking, incorporated a decidedly hippy meat substitute, and made us both believe that we were enjoying an authentic vegetarian replica of a South American staple. So, thumbs up on this new cultural experience, despite the fact that we were sorta hoping for something a little, well… fancier. No disrespect intended to the centuries of Brazilian culinary ingenuity that brought us Feijoada.

Pretty early on, we both gave up eating our own and each other's dishes, and threw in the towel having eaten only half of the food. Neither of us could imagine having dessert for at least an hour. Maybe it was all those cheese chunks in the Caesar, or the spongy pasta. When the server came, we asked for doggie bags for the remainder of our food, including our respective servings of turtle and classic cheesecakes.

The experience was decidedly a bust. And when that happens, paying the tab is never a highlight. On this occasion it was Karen who generously offered to pay and I could see the disappointment on her face, when our twenty dollars each estimate ballooned to $70 after two overpriced drinks, tax and tip were included. Whine, whine, whine. Jason's a cheapskate even when he isn't paying. Well, if that's how you feel, get used to that impression, because you're going to get lots of frugal curmudgeon comments outta me in this space. I would argue that it isn't the unappreciative penny-pinchers who are problem, rather it is those who consistently grin and bear eating experiences that we know are simply not worth the money. So, in the hopes of sharing my good, bad and mixed experiences, I will continue to offer my impressions here.

Dessert! We did attempt to eat our cheesecakes. About an hour after leaving the Jefferson, we found ourselves back home on the couch watching Walk the Line, that Johnny Cash movie. A little ways in, we felt peckish and I grabbed the two slices of fluffy sweet fat from the fridge. One was white with a stingy drizzle of berry coulis and the other was brown with a thin layer of caramel goo on top. We liked each bite that had a bit of drizzle or goo because it added something to the pasty cheese pie slices, but the short of it is that me and Karen don't like cheesecake and tongiht was no different. These may have been more conventional, but I'd just assume have one of those ridiculous candied franken-slices they serve up at the Cheesecake Factory.

This was our first night out for restaurant week. We hope to venture out again this week, but it might not be until Saturday. Still trying to choose between Rowland and Millies. Any suggestions?

For those of you are confused about who ordered what, and why we're both eating and offering opinions about each dish, well… that's just our style. Karen and I want to try as many dishes as possible when we go out, without breaking the bank or being wasteful. Maybe this is more my thing, as I tend to thrown mini-tantrums when two people in the same group order the same item, or when someone I'm with doesn't offer others the chance to try their food. I guess, I just prefer family style eating, rather than the American tradition of entrées for one only. Anyhow, I hope that clears things up, and thanks Karen for being a good sport.

1 comment:

  1. TJ's peanut soup is indeed overrated. My mom makes the best Indonesian peanut (pinda) sauce (because she IS Indonesian). Her sauces are laced with fresh ginger, hot fresh pepper, caramalized onion, some sprinkles of lemon, and a hint of coconut milk.

    TJ's peanut soup would not pass muster in my household.

    Having said that, TJ's parmesan encrusted oysters can be delicious IF the oysters are fried in one piece. The last time I ordered this delectable dish, the oysters had been chopped up, ruining a splendid dish.


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