Friday, January 12, 2007

Heirloom Tomatoes and True Crabcakes in Richmond, VA

Hotel Berkeley boasts on its web site that its dining room is Richmond, Virginia's only AAA four-star rated restaurant. The suggestion is that it's Richmond's best restaurant. I don't get to Richmond very often, and am not qualified to comment. However, my opinion about the meal I enjoyed there on a recent Saturday night is that it was the best meal I've ever had in Richmond and that the Berkeley Dining Room is first class in every respect.

The "dinner-bell" is actually a butter dish. It quietly bespeaks the aristocratic ambiance of the space. Even better perhaps would have been a butter dish mimicking the kind of dinner bell with a long handle that you pick up and twitch to ring. The word "twitch" was inspired because on my last visit, Mrs. Yi and I were "turned away by a twit," as she recalls. It was on Valentines Day several years ago, and we had walked in at 7:30 without a reservation. A hostess informed us she could get us a table, but shortly thereafter, a Maitre'D showed us the door with no apologies. It was kind of like when in Richmond, you're "with it" or you're not. Anyone unaware of the need to make reservations far in advance for Valentine's dinner here would clearly fall into the latter category.

Surely, to the extent that Richmond can boast a quintessential romantic dining scene for its older crowd, this it. That courtship was on the minds of those parties at the three occupied tables near me was obvious. In fact, at one nearby table were indications that a gentleman might have been proposing to his lady. As for me, I was traveling solo, enroute on a hasty round-trip to Florida. Such circumstance made the heralded warm, serene, and tasteful atmosphere of the Berkeley Dining room all the more pleasing. Still, the main reason I was there was for the food, and I couldn't have been more pleased.

What won me over the most was the extent to which an excellent waiter was able to answer all my sticky questions relating to the menu . The first related to the Heirloom Tomato Soup with Gruyere Cheese. Where do you get your heirlooms this time of year, I asked? A local hothouse grows them for us, he replied. What arrived was a bowl with the melted cheese on the bottom, on top of which the pink-red-orange heirloom tomato soup blend was poured. As a self-described heirloom tomato connoisseur, no further questions remained for me as to the authenticity of a bowl of soup that would have proven sublime even if the month were August.

My second question was about the appetizer listed as Signature Crab Cake with Country Ham and Blue Crab Beurre Blanc. Was it made with the unpasteurized genre of Atlantic Blue Crab to which we Marylanders are partial? Or was it pasteurized crab meat, which would denote that the crab meat originated in Southeast Asian Pacific waters? Within less than a minute, my waiter returned to inform that these crab cakes were made with the latter, and that the sizeable lumps were held together with a scallop mousse. His answer sounded good even to this jaded Marylander. The truth is that unpasteurized Atlantic blue crab rarely tastes as good in winter as it does during peak season in late summer and fall. In January, the pasteurized genre is far more dependable. Secondly, the idea of bonding the lumps with a scallop mousse struck me to be creatively outside the box as a technique for assembling a crab cake featuring pasteurized Pacific crabmeat. Suffice to say I considered it to be a truly great crab cake, one of very, very few I've ever consumed outside of Maryland.

This dinner at the Berkeley Dining Room was easily the culinary highlight of my recent two thousand mile motor trip. I'm recalling it a few days after the experience, just before embarking from a motel room in Florence, South Carolina, upon the final leg back to Baltimore. The good clothes that I didn't have time to change out of before leaving home are all wrinkled, and in seven hours, I'm due back in town. Otherwise, I'd be stopping off to enjoy another meal.