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Houndstooth Café translates the concept of bistro.

Virginia Vernacular

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At its best, the country café is to American dining what the bistro is to the French — warm, inviting, serving hearty (not necessarily heart-healthy) food that is uncomplicated and prepared with familiar ingredients — a place where you get a sense of bounty, of generosity. The concept also involves an atmosphere of boisterous kinship with your fellow diners, local people going about local lives, where you're likely to find yourself chatting across tables with perfect strangers while you wait for your food to come hot from the kitchen. As one cookbook writer has said, in bistros people don't whisper, they shout. In a bistro, life is rich and full. on the northwest corner of the intersection of Routes 54 and 301 in Hanover County accurately translates the bistro concept into the Virginia vernacular.

Houndstooth sticks to big-flavor Southern basics with a lineup of barbecue, pork, beef or chicken plates with two veggies and rolls, or deliciously dark and rustic hush puppies. They've also assembled combo platters including rib racks for the deeply hungry. Most entrees are $9-$20.

Fresh seafood is referenced on the menu, but for this you have to turn your attention to a white board on the wall for the list, and this was probably the most surprising part of our visit. In all, there were 21 different seafood specials to choose from, more than any other restaurant I've been to in Richmond. And they weren't just your ordinary baked, broiled or fried plattertudes.

[image-1](Andrew Harris / richmond.com) I ordered the Seafood Flounder, an admiral's-size fillet rolled up, stuffed with copious amounts of crab, shrimp and scallops, then broiled. On the side: boiled potatoes and green beans cooked with smoked bacon. My wife chose the Chilean Sea Bass, one of her favorites for grilling. The generously cut 1 *-inch-thick fillet was lightly breaded yet was a little dry and short on flavor from too long under the broiler.

But it was our opening gambit — an unusual sausage, apple and onion soup — that sparked conversation with the folks at the next table. Equally as intrigued as I by this low-country soup du jour, they waited until I had taken my first spoonful then leaned over and asked, "How is it?" "You have to like sausage, apples and onions, I said, but it works." The smoke from the sausage infuses the onion broth and is counterpoised by the earthy sweetness of the apple.

Trying to get as far around the menu as possible, we also ordered the mini crab cakes — three silver-dollar-sized tidbits — and a gratin dish of crab-stuffed mushroom caps. Aside from the Hollandaiselike sauce applied to all the seafood items, each maintained a unique identity, and the crab cakes tie for the best I've had anywhere.

If you make it to the desserts, which are all homemade, we can personally vouch for the warm Derby Pie (pecans, chocolate chips and bourbon), and the warm brownie topped with ice cream and fudge. Makes my cavities ache just thinking about it.

The horn-of-plenty menu is balanced by occasional reminders that you're not in a fine-dining establishment: plastic water cups, country window treatments, and too much lighting. They also fill your wine glass to the top instead of insisting that you admire the acre of white space between the meniscus and the rim. Yet rare is the occasion around Richmond to feel like you're on your own front porch sipping ice tea or a beer with your neighbors while you wait for an open table. Unless, of course, you're at home, which is what Houndstooth feels like. Bon

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