The location of The Farmhouse at Manakin Road, in the picturesque countryside of Goochland County about 10 minutes from Short Pump, makes this dressy restaurant a perfect destination for a Sunday dinner. And the structure, a two-story white frame house with columned portico and large yard, is inviting enough to grace a holiday greeting card.
Unfortunately, the new owners of what previously was the storied Fox Head Inn have chosen to close Sundays (and Mondays). On the positive side, they've retained the charm and grace of the inn while relaxing the atmosphere and lowering the prices. The converted house features three small dining rooms, which seat 50, and a cozy bar. When spring arrives, an equal number can eat on a patio.
The previous owners closed the restaurant last summer. After some refurbishing, including a new kitchen, the Farmhouse opened in mid-September. Now it's a family affair, owned and operated by sisters Veronica "Ronnie" Lower and Susan Sause, and their 20-something daughters, Jesika Tuthill and Tara Winnett, all of whom moved here from New Jersey. Chef Thomas Hussey is Lower's fiancé and his assistant is Tuthill's husband, Lucas. Hussey previously cooked at a steak house in Red Bank, N.J., where Lower was bar manager. The clan was lured to Virginia by Jesika and Lucas, who discovered the area's charms while they were students at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The biggest change between old and new is the menu.
Under Chef Robert Ramsey, the Fox Head gambled that it could attract high-end diners with a prix fixe menu ($58 to $68) that offered a single entrée, a sort of chef's whim-of-the-day. The new menu boasts two dozen entrées, ranging from a $16 pasta dish to chateaubriand for two at $62. Most entrees are in the $20s, with starters from $6 to $13.
Hussey's experience is reflected by five steaks, three versions of veal and two styles of lamb. Added to that are a variety of pork, chicken, seafood and pasta dishes and nightly specials. There also are three $8 meals for children.
Our waitress assured us that everything was wonderful, fresh and delicious. While suggestions are welcome, most diners don't like being told in advance how good things are. That greeting and being seated at an undersized two-top flat up against a closet door got things off to a poor start. She also didn't announce the price of the specials -- another pet peeve.
However, she recovered quickly, allowing us to move to a larger table in the middle of the room and presenting a pod of roasted garlic and warm bread. She also pointed out that the chef makes all of the dressings and sauces, which turned out to be a mixed blessing.
Appetizers, in addition to typical starter fare fried calamari, mussels marinara, fried mozzarella, crab cakes included filet medallions and sausage-stuffed mushrooms. The latter featured a creamy pecorino Romano sauce and julienned sweet-potato fries.
Our server rightly suggested that the salads were big enough to share. Ours was delicious and bolstered the chef's reputation with dressings: Sherry vinaigrette topped a bed of field greens dressed with sweet poached pears, spiced pecans and Gorgonzola.
But the entrées proved to be too much of a good thing.
While the meat and fish were expertly cooked, the chef's vaunted sauces sunk what they were meant to elevate. Tilapia encrusted with pistachios was hidden beneath a covering of black olives and roasted red peppers and drenched in a sweet sambuca cream sauce.
Similarly, the saltimbocca veal medallions, layered with fresh spinach and melted prosciutto and mozzarella, were barely visible beneath a mushroom Madeira demi-glace.
Fortunately, that problem is easy enough to fix: Lay off the sauce, chef. And here's another suggestion: Serve Sunday-afternoon dinner and close Mondays and Tuesdays. That way the staff will get two-and-one-half days off, and Hussey's skill at the range will make The Farmhouse a popular destination. S
The Farmhouse at Manakin Road ($$$ NS)
1840 Manakin Road, Manakin-Sabot
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.