Friday, August 08, 2008

The Black Sheep: a Tardy Take

I've been sitting on this entry for too long. When The Black Sheep opened, I didn't want to join in on the fanfare, or as Piet says, the "Lemming Parade." But, sometimes the masses are right. A coworker of mine gave the only negative review that I'd heard, saying that "different isn't always better," after listing a bunch of gripes. But he's since been back twice and now he's swearing by every thing he eats there. So, I sought out to make up my own mind.*

In fact, I went to the Black Sheep four or five times in a pretty short period. My graduate course was giving me fits, so I took Wednesdays off from work and had a couple breakfasts there under the pretense of doing homework. Around that time, I was contemplating writing an entry comparing the outstanding Community Coffee of Black Sheep with the fair trade organic brew from Common Groundz around the corner on Broad. They're both winners, really. Only one place is cozy while the other is cavernous (and the food is worlds apart, of course, since coffee shop fare is just that). Anyhow, that post didn't manifest. Instead, I turned in a 35 page paper and a 13 pager final exam, thanks in part to the time I spent working on my laptop in both locations, drinking coffee. When school is back in session, I'm sure there'll be more of this going on in both spots and I'll have to find more original hideouts.

The breakfast food:

The first time around, I had the huevos rancheros, because I am unable to order anything else if I see this dish on the menu. Put huevos and falafel on one menu and my head will explode. These huevos were kinda prettied up (although, still hearty) compared to the dish you might get at your average Mexican restaurant. Funny, cuz this dish gets messy no matter how pretty it's delivered. Maybe that's just my eating style. Major points for the rich and spicy green mole stripe down the middle. Style took issue with the corn tortillas beneath the pile of beans and eggs. They've since replaced the tortillas with cheese grits (can't wait to try that). Either way, my request would be for those tortillas on the side (steamed and wrapped in foil as you'll get at a Mexican joint) or maybe a couple hunks of their yummy buttered bread. Anything to mop up the inevitable huevo's mess that results.

With the second breakfast I really just wanted sides: buttered toast, "smashed browns," and a couple eggs over easy. These elements weren't on the menu as a standard breakfast plate, but my server said it was no problem. The buttered bread was delicious, thick, toasty and chewy. The taters had similar characteristics (but not chewy). The best part was the savory crust where the grill had seared saltiness into the spud. But the taters were BIG, like halves of yukon golds, cracked at various points around the perimeter from having been literally smashed on the grill. So, the size and thickness meant more unseasoned potato insides and less crunchy exterior. This isn't really a complaint, cuz the quality of the produce really came through (were they yukons, which I never splurge on for my own cooking?). Just a matter of taste. Either way, heads and shoulders above the frozen hash browns you'll find at DeLux even better than the underwhelming brunch side from Booby Flay's Mesa Grill (just wanted to get that link in).

Two lunches:

The real reason I was drawn to Black Sheep was to try one of those big baguette sandwiches. Being a frugal guy, I couldn't resist the temptation of a guaranteed second meal of leftover lunch sammich. I got the Cumberland, which had various pickled veggies and grilled eggplant on it and just for a taste of adventure, I had them add sardines. What came out took me back to my childhood. Growing up, there was always baguette in the kitchen. And when I needed to feed myself (picture a finicky 12 year old), I would cut the biggest piece that I could imagine eating. Slice it down the side and layer slices of processed cheese and ham. The whole thing would go into the microwave or the toaster oven, sometimes in two pieces so it would fit. Then, I would spend an hour so so gnawing and chewing on the monstrosity. Just as in my old memory, the filling kinda played second fiddle to the chewy bread. The veggies were tangy and the fishies added satisfying flavor, but it's a pretty bready affair. I'm not saying that they were stingy with the filling. For the price, it's too be expected. Baguette is just a really substantial bread to use for a sub role. Next time, I'll get the hard boiled egg addition to the filling. If I ate meat, I'd be all about that sweedish meatball sub.

This memorable experience is why I asked my wife to take me to The Black Sheep for my birthday lunch so I could order their most expensive sub, featuring grilled Mahi Mahi. To my surprise, the Mahi had been relocated to a dinnertime fish taco platter. Instead, there was a shrimp sub with artichoke hearts and green olive tapenade. The combination sounded weird, but tasted good. I'd probably get it again. However, the sub was actually the low point of our celebratory meal. Why? Because everything else was freakin' amazing. Karen ordered the Spice Trade salad and totally fell in love with the creamy curry yogurt dressing and occasional sweet bites of pear. A really unique dish. It paired perfectly with the tomato and curried lentil soup, which was spicy and hearty. We've been pining for both of these since that day.

Notice what's missing from this story so far? Baby Jasper was a darling during the meal. At one point, Karen did some precautionary public nursing in our sorta secluded booth and he went right to sleep. Servers passed the test by not staring for too long (Jasper is allowed to stare, as you can see). For dessert, it was a no brainer. I had previously jumped at the white russian brownie and was unimpressed. Maybe it's just not good breakfast food. But, my server brought a sliver of peanut butter pie as a consolation. I almost politely declined, cuz I don't generally like cake or pie as a rule (weird, I know). This thing blew me away. The fluffy pie filling was supernaturally spiked with the essence of peanut butter. Since Karen is a big peanut butter fan, I knew that seeing her dive into this dish would be a great birthday present. And it came true. I've never seen her happier than when she's got a superlative worthy dessert in front of her: the perfect high point finish to a fantastic birthday meal. The only thing I would change is this blog entry. I asked Karen to write up her kudos as a guest blogger birthday present to me... still waiting. Maybe she'll comment here instead.

Obviously, we need to go back for dinner. Those fish tacos will be on the table, for sure. And there's a veggie stroganoff that has me curious to see how it stacks up to my version. So, I guess I'm a lemming. But it's pretty out of character for me. Stay tuned and I promise I'll write something really harsh about a Richmond restaurant world demi-god sometime soon. It's been a long time since I've played that role.

ps: I did order deviled eggs. Going into the experience, I had convinced myself that there is no such thing as a good or bad deviled egg. Mayo and mustard makes it adequate and I'd never had any additions that elevated it much (although pickles can ruin them, come to think of it). Anyhow, the Black Sheep version is pretty darn good. Not sure why. Maybe salt. You tell me.

*For some fascinating background on the restaurant and it's chef/owner, check out the The Black Sheep's website. I'm really inpressed with the list of kitchen's he's cooked in, especially since it includes the Governor's mansion under Warner and Kaine. Oh, and the place is closed on Mondays and a bunch of the teen-dates in August (can someone clarify those dates in the comments?)


  1. Told you so :-) Glad you are enjoyng Black Sheep as much as we are. Bob had the meatball sub and enjoyed it but could not get over the size of it. I can't wait to try the fish tacos and I want an entire peanut butter pie for my birthday in September.

  2. The night we went - they were sold out of peanut butter pie :(

  3. Janet: The coworker tends to be a cantankerous diner, so I'm not surprised that his bad experience was an anomaly. And once the buzz got going, everyone should have adjusted their expectation. There's no way a restaurant can predict that kind of tidal wave of popularity. They were probably figuring it'd be chill until the college crowd showed up.

    BPB: You'll just have to go back. I've nearly popped in for PBP togo (but once it was a Monday).

  4. We are definitely going back - the night we went was a bust for me. We got there and had to wait 20 minutes for a table - which is usually not a problem - except the 40 pound little one was asleep when we got there and after holding him for 10 minutes - I felt like I was in a sweat box. I wanted to try the chicken and dumplings - but being as hot as I was - I opted for a salad. On a different note - since they were out of PBP - I got the pineapple upside down cake - very delicious! The little one had haystacks - also delicious :)

  5. Jason, thanks for the great review. As part of the Black Sheep staff, I've seen the restaurant go from not having many patrons to having too many. We're definitely dealing with it the best way we can and hope people will continue to support us through this great and crazy time.

    Also, The Black Sheep will be closed August 15th, 16th, 17th, 29th, 30th, & 31st (as well as the normal Monday closings).

  6. I'm always grateful to see a restaurant staffperson responding to these online discussions. It's nice to know that we're heard when we're complimenting and when we're questioning. Blogs provide a great opportunity to share a personal perspective on the meals that we have out on the town. I think The Black Sheep received so much online attention because the food really evokes the warm feelings and memories that go with home cooked goodness. Keep it up.


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