Wednesday, September 24, 2008

We Don't Belong at Verbena

For our second wedding anniversary, Karen and I went to Verbena. It was a real treat to get out and leave Jasper in the capable hands of... well, I was ready to hand the little guy over to one of the drunks at the corner store at this point. But, my coworker, Lauren of Feasting on Richmond, graciously stepped up. And, even as Jasper began one of his epic teething meltdowns, we walked out the door and hoofed it down Robinson to the Fan's dining district, trying to quiet the echoing screeches in our brains.

Jasper says, "I have a way with nonverbal communication."

The experience at Verbena that night is deserving of one of my best writing efforts. However, I'm back in school again, so I have to ration my rhetoric. Sorry if this comes across like Cliff's notes. Despite the disclaimer, what follows is an incredible rebound that builds in one direction and then teeters back the other way, resulting in an unexpected landslide (or maybe we were just drunk). Here are the highlights, as best I can recall:

  • We walked in and the hostess tried to seat us right where we stood, virtually in the foyer. Um, no. We would like a booth, anything but this spot where people stand idly over top of us.
  • Then we were lead into the tiny dining room and stuck into a little two-top (because there were two of us, of course) right between two other tables. Seriously cramped.
  • All around us sat over-dressed old money, just short of top hats and ball gowns. We felt totally out of place, dressed only slightly better than we would have for a walk to Carytown. Maybe this is why they didn't want us in the restaurant proper.
  • The place was packed and everyone was talking. Karen and I couldn't hear each other. And when the waiter came, he was so tall, that we had to shout and kinda get up out of our chairs to get our voices to his ears up by the ceiling.
  • We looked over the menu and felt competely underwhelmed. The choices were fairly few and so predictable and pretentious. Each item revolved around some culinary buzz word that is supposed to justify the inflated price tag. We asked each other "what do you think?" both unwilling to utter negativity on our honeymoon outing, even though we felt the same way. It was a simmering stalemate. So we gritted our teeth and barely spoke.
  • My drink came out (a rusty nail, as usual) and there was some mistake. I was served a martini glass full of cloudy copper colored liquid. When I questioned the server, he said it was drambouie and dewars (and yup, it tasted about right). I shrugged if off and Karen and I shook our heads at the ridiculousness of turning a normal drink all fru-fru. I wondered how much extra they charged for straining out the ice and the prissy glass.
  • When the server came back to take our order, I threw off my cheapskate mantle (ignoring the $17 cous cous) and suggested we go all out and order one of everything. Karen talked me out of it and we wound up with a soup, a salad, rainbow trout, a cheese plate, and the crab cakes which was the most expensive item on the menu. I wasn't excited about any of it, but at least we were doing our part to make the best of it.
  • Twenty minutes went by before the $12 cheese plate came out, pissing us both off.
  • By this time, I felt like Jasper getting worked up into a screaming fit that I wouldn't come back from for hours. I imagined taking a flame thrower to this restaurant. "I've got to destroy the restaurant in order to save it." Okay, meanwhile, outside my brain... back to civil and celebratory conversation.
  • The pieces of cheese looked like miniature scale representations of the product we'd be expected to pay for, like the plate they were served on was being featured over the cheese. At first, our server couldn't name the cheeses until he went back and got his cheat sheet.
  • Slowly, we nibbled gingerly. Making polite comments. We compared some of them to cheeses we'd had before. We zero'd in on our favorites, trying to make them last. Next thing you know, we're raving about the whole lot, each declaring cheeses that were possibly all time favorites (I liked the blue. and Karen the camembert)
  • Karen's cured salmon salad was awesome. We had gravlax at our wedding and this stuff took us back. I had the butternut squash soup. It looked just like Jasper's special diaper surprise, but neither of us mentioned it. The flavor was great.
  • I ordered another rusty nail and it came out on the rocks this time, kinda small, but tasting right on the money.
  • More time elapsed. Turns out this was a pattern and they were deliberately "pacing" the meal into a two hour ordeal experience that goes along with the whole pretentious price package deal.
  • My $32 crab cakes came out (as did Karen's trout) and both of us couldn't believe our eyes. These things were huge, like almost 2" think, browned on top/bottom and pale and creamy looking along the sides. There was a beurre blanc sauce (butter, fer the rest of yall). The crab and butter combo, together with a creme fraiche topping was amazinginly rich and tasty. We passed this back and forth and could barely finish one of the two crab cakes. Maybe the best we ever had? Except that they were literally too good to eat, seeming to fit the theme of this place.
  • Karen liked her rainbow trout. It came with coconut rice, which I thought was clumpy and broken. There were other accoutrements, but I don't recall what. I finished the fish even after calling it quits on the crab, so it musta been good (or I'm a cross between Homer Simpson and a garbage disposal).
  • Heading upstairs to the little boys room, I realized that there's a casual area and bar where you can get the same grub without the pomp. They've even got a big TV on the wall, for those who prefer the sportsbar vibe.
  • The desserts sounded great and we found ourselves very excited about alcohol Verbena all of a sudden. But we decided to have dessert at home. The walk back would have been really uncomfortable if we tried to eat anything else.
  • The bill came and I was suprised to see that the drinks were $7 a pop. Not nearly as bad as I thought. At just over 2 hrs, it was definitely time to go home.

"I knew you'd come back. Nope. Not worried at all."

Somewhere around the end there, we started thinking about our child again. Karen says she was thinking about him the whole time, but not me. The price tag on that meal surpassed our one dinner at 1 North Belmont. No way was I going to spend our one night out doing anything but enjoying it (and it took every effort I could muster to set aside my instincts). Next time, we'll just head upstairs for bevs and dessert.

As it turned out, Jasper spent a good deal of the time torturing Lauren for some arbitrary reason, like his teething, or her inability to read 5 month old baby minds, and not lactating, etc. But, once his people returned, he perked back up.

(disjointed ending courtesy of Cliff's notes style hastiness)


  1. Jasper wasn't that bad at all and was a perfect angel whilst sleeping=)

  2. $32 for one entree? Geeze, that's usually the whole bill for my wife & me.

  3. Haven't eaten dinner there but have had apps upstairs at the bar. What I had was good but did see one of the same things you did - an under-trained staff. One of the two bartenders upstairs knew what he was doing, the other not so much. That shows in your drink service, one rusty nail done right, the other not so much. The waiter should have known what cheeses were on the plate just like he should be able to answer most any question about the food. It's ok to stump a waiter on a real obscure question but not on the basics.

    It's a real shame when a restaurant puts so much effort into the training and education of their kitchen staff but then doesn't put the same effort into the front of house staff. The disconnect can leave you feeling like your eating haute cuisine at Applebee's.

  4. Karen has this ability to inspire me to overspend on special occasions, when she probably would have been happy with a $32 total bill.

    Lauren, glad you didn't mind Jasper too much. He's just a good ol' boy, never meanin' no harm (name that tune).

    Piet, as you know, service isn't really my focus, but the little things do add up. If they had been more polished, I think I would have possibly liked Verbena EVEN LESS. My issue was the utter lack of imagination. They seem to be working with quality product, so make it unique and not just elite. Then, I wouldn't be ashamed to drop so much dinero.

  5. So what your saying is if they had got your drink right and had known the cheeses being served you would have liked it less? for what? doing their job properly?

    You can't complain about service and then say it's not a factor or something that doesn't matter. I've had superior meals that were ruined by bad service and mediocre ones that were saved by great service.

    If service didn't matter we would simply go out to eat in automats.

  6. I'm not sure if you're hating on the place or if you love it, cause I'm sort of drunk. But I will say: Verbena rocks.

    Although, admittedly, I've only had (many) drinks at the upstairs bar and never actually partaken in the dining experience.

  7. Don't worry, dear readers. There's plenty of contradiction to go 'round.

  8. Dukes of Hazzard, whaaa-aat?
    Did Waylon write that specifically for the movie because I know I could sing that song before I ever saw the move.

  9. Random tangent unrelated to this post but I just saw you in Richmond Mag. Congrats! I too have a special love for Virginia Rowland. She is brilliant and I'm glad to see other people think so.

  10. IWICC: I'm outta town and haven't even seen a copy of Dine. No idea what it says or which picture they went with. I'm still wild about Rowland's potato latkes for brunch. They rival anything at Millie's, if you ask me.

    Back to Jack's question... I'm not sure why people want unqualified praise or unadulterated trash talk. Why not both? If you're feeling my diss points in the blog entry, don't go there. If you're in hot pursuit of a fantastic selection of cheese and an inflated sense of importance, then Verbena is for you (at least the downstairs experience).

  11. suzie7:42 PM

    i love the cheese plate, but i always feel like the food is over salted, and over seasoned


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