Kendra Feather is as understated a personality in the Richmond culinary scene as you're likely to find. She's attracted less serious attention than she deserves for her forward-thinking vegan and vegetarian menu at the now venerable — 11 years strong and going — Ipanema Cafe.
After patiently waiting for the right opportunity to come along in the form of a triangular storefront at Park and Meadow — a space that recently housed the short-lived Table 9 and was long home to Chiocca's Park Avenue — Feather has transformed her fascination with the history of food and restaurant culture into Garnett‘s, which looks back at how we ate in the '40s and '50s, and how some of us might like to eat again.
Poring over old cookbooks that highlight regional favorites and consulting old family recipes inspired Feather's idea. She's tracking down something called the Missouri club, the specialty at Miller & Rhoads when the store was a destination spot. Look for an expanded menu of sandwiches in early 2010.
My recent visits to Garnett's have taken me back to an elementary culinary question: Is there anything better than a good sandwich? After devouring a German-style ham sandwich, piled high with Black Forest ham, cheddar, apple butter and Dijon mustard, I'm liable to answer a resounding “No!” And this feeling is confirmed by experiencing Garnett's versions of open-faced, cream-sauce-lathered Louisville hot brown, croques madame, monsieur and Garnett, the latter of which features sage mayo and apple slices in addition to the ham and fried egg. Equally noteworthy are French potato salad and black-eyed pea salad side options.
But on a subsequent visit I change my mind. The only thing better is pairing a good sandwich with a great soup. The potato leek and roasted garlic tomato soups are creamy and potent in their declaration of simple flavors.
Most of the breads come from Weiman's Bakery in the Bottom, but the brown bread is made at Ipanema from a recipe so authentic that the restaurant has had to tone down the molasses to successfully meet the standards of a modernized palate. It also makes the bread-and-butter pickles that come with every plate.
The potables hearken back to the Old South as well. A good example is the lemon nana, a thirst-slaking mix of lemon juice, seltzer and mint. Garnett's also serves Counter Culture coffee and Boylan sodas. Interesting local beer is available on tap and a straightforward wine list rounds out the more mature offerings and provides a good foil to the savory cheesecakes, ploughman's platter and smoked salmon plate.
Several old-fashioned cakes and pies rotate on the dessert menu. In lieu of the compulsory red velvet cake, Feather dug deep into her archive of recipes to find hummingbird cake. Similar to carrot cake and also cream-cheese iced, this decadent confection features pineapple, coconut and banana incorporated into a moist consistency somewhere between banana bread and spice cake, rich and indulgent.
Fans of Ipanema will find few nods to veganism at Garnett's: A white bean spread replaces bacon in the WBLT, a spinach salad with grapefruit basil vinaigrette. The most congruent aspect of the ownership comes from Feather's ability to attract and foster front-of- house talent. It's difficult to describe that perfect balance of invisibility and timely appearance that professional servers embody. But if you're looking for a model to emulate, just stop by either establishment. The efficiency of perpetual motion lends an air of grace that comes from never seeming to be hurried.
The original wood cabinets behind the bar reveal a glimpse of how the space may have looked when it was a family-operated confectioner's shop, and the additions to the dAccor are notably timeless: family photographs, collector's plates and simple art.
Drawing from a genuine fascination with the history and the story of a place, a town and the development of Richmond's particular and peculiar cuisine, has led Feather to find what's old and make it new again. That's a trip I'm happy to take along with her at lunch or dinner or midafternoon. An old-school lunch counter that's open nearly all the time is a serious addition to the local scene and I can only imagine how lucky the neighborhood feels having such an affordable and reliable destination within walking distance. S
2001 Park Ave.
Coffee shop: Monday-Sunday 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Luncheonette: Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.