The incomparable Julia Child wrote, "No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing." Book learning may give a budding chef basic knowledge, but it's hands-on practice that translates to true talent in the kitchen. Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Richmond, puts this theory into practice with Kitchen on Cary, a new restaurant based on the school's successful Kitchen on George in Mobile, Ala.
As it is in that location, this venture is a teaching restaurant designed to offer students an opportunity to gain real-world kitchen experience under the tutelage of a veteran chef and professional staff. Our server says that almost all of the culinary students will work in the restaurant at some point during their studies. The clean-lined dining room has Richmond's requisite booths plus tables on one side and a handsome bar on the other. Large-format black and white photographs of Richmond hang on the walls and are worth a trip around the room to inspect up-close because, Lee statue aside, they aren't the same, tired images we've seen a hundred times before. The one of the Marshall Street market alone is worth a look.
Dinner at the bar is elevated by a knowledgeable server who's observant enough to offer excellent service without rushing us or being overly friendly. At a booth another night, our server stops by the table what seems like every five minutes to check on us, a far too frequent interruption for this diner. Perhaps it's boredom because the room isn't especially busy.
Should you arrive thirsty and look to leave a small carbon footprint, all six beers on draft ($6.50) are from Virginia, along with a selection of bottled beers ($3.75-$5). The wine list ($7-$11 glass, $27-$120 bottle) is three-quarters West Coast with only three Virginia offerings, all from Barboursville. Not to sound like a broken record, but why do restaurants touting an emphasis on local sourcing and regional flavors extend it to the beer mug but not the wine glass? Especially in a hotel-dense visitor magnet such as Shockoe Slip, it's a missed opportunity when Virginia wines aren't better represented.
The well-priced menu skews contemporary American with Asian accents such as pot stickers ($7) gussied up with duck confit in a bath of spicy Thai chili broth and wok broccoli ($5), a surefire enticement to eat your vegetables because of the piquant ginger, garlic and hoisin dipping sauce. Crispy tempura vegetables ($6) would benefit from a lighter batter, but flatiron-blackened ahi tuna ($11) is exquisitely rare, and the accompanying ginger butter gives an over-the-top richness to the dish. Batter issues return with fried oysters ($7), but the plate mate, wasabi daikon radish slaw, delivers appealing heat and texture.
Where the kitchen shines is with Chesapeake cioppino ($18), a seafood lover's nirvana with particularly plump and flavorful shrimp plus clams, mussels and rockfish. The kicker is the garlic-laden tomato broth, a sopper's delight using the accompanying garlic crostini. Grilled flank steak ($19) takes a Southwestern turn with a peppery marinade and roasted-corn tomato relish but stays safe with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes underneath. The night I have fish tacos ($9), they're made with tuna but unexpectedly arrive breaded and fried atop grilled tortillas. Looking like fish nuggets and being far too heavy to allow the pico de gallo and lime-chipotle sour cream to compete, I feel like I've lost another round to the fryer.
Endings have been strong, with an artisanal cheese plate ($10) that featured a blue, brie and, appropriately, Virginia-made McClure, an appealing mild Swiss, accompanied by lavender and truffle-infused honey that surely must be nectar of the gods, and a red-pepper relish so good the students should bottle and sell it. Pastry chef students make all the desserts and a chocolate pot de crème ($5) is a classic preparation, tasting of little more than heavy cream and dark chocolate and so richly dense that it's easily sharable.
If you read restaurant reviews with an eye to the bottom line, you've probably noticed that menu prices, with the exception of the $28 sea bass, won't induce sticker shock, especially for a cloth napkin establishment. I'd back off fried offerings until the kitchen has mastered battering and frying 101. But overall, teacher and students show promise this semester. As with any academic endeavor, there's always room for improvement, but with doing and learning, each report card is bound to improve. S
Kitchen on Cary
1331 E. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.