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Killer Instincts

A little cafe where hunger gets a beat down.

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Black sheep rarely hang with the herd; they stand apart. The same rings true for one of Richmond's more interesting new culinary destinations. The Black Sheep offers a unique menu, eclectic atmosphere and friendly service -- three meals a day, six days a week. Located in Richmond's Carver neighborhood, it's pure serendipity that this area was once known as Sheep Hill. But that's the only unplanned detail.

The dA©cor is funky with slightly muted avocado-green and orange walls (think '70s appliances) juxtaposed with brick and rough-hewn paneling, local art and kitschy reproductions. My favorite decorative element, however, lies outside. The industrial neighborhood provides interesting sight lines out the two windows framing the front door. The renovated Biggs Furniture Factory across the street, now apartments, signals a neighborhood in transition.

Co-owners Kevin Roberts and Amy Hess bring a diverse resume of restaurant experience to their first-time solo flight. In addition to working with some of Richmond's finest at The Frog and the Redneck, Amici, Acacia, Mamma 'Zu and Kuba Kuba, Roberts' experience with the classically trained French/Cajun master Frank Brigtsen during a three-year sojourn in New Orleans serves the menu well. Hess worked front-of-house for the renowned Brennan restaurant clan in New Orleans.

Breakfast starts with New Orleans' Community Coffee, strong and dark. Sausage gravy is delightfully creamy yet avoids the pastiness of many inferior competitors. Chunks of spicy sausage swim over fresh biscuits, light and flaky. A dish called grillades and grits pairs thin pork cutlets with brown gravy, served with cheesy grits and a side of Texas toast, which is almost worth the trip alone. French toast is decadent, oozing with Nutella and topped with warm citrus syrup. The extra dollar for a scoop of vanilla ice cream is well worth it. (My 2 1/2- and 4-year-old boys concur.) Huevos rancheros are spicy with black beans, queso blanco, green mole and jalapeno sour cream. My only thought would be to trade out the corn tortillas for some Texas toast or cornbread. The tortillas were dry and didn't add much to the dish.

At the center of the lunch experience swims a fleet of battleships, foot-long sandwiches that Roberts brings from his experience in the Big Easy. The CSS Virginia is one of the best (and biggest) sandwiches I've ever had. A variation of the requisite oyster poor boy, chicken livers are dredged in flour and cornmeal, coated in an egg bath and crumbed before being fried to a delicate finish. This foot-long "land oyster" sandwich is topped with shredded cabbage, crisp apple slices and a piquant remoulade. Combining green onions, parsley and whole lemon, it does somersaults in your mouth. Three other sandwiches do battle with Swedish meatballs; grilled eggplant and peppers; and pineapple and mahi-mahi. There's also a homey and yummy pimento cheese club and a spicy variation on a BLT.

Soups include a South Indian tomato served with raita, a seasonal asparagus and cheddar, and gumbo. Salads continue the Subcontinental theme with a frisA©e dressed with a refreshing garam masala yogurt, Asian pears and avocado. New Orleans is well-represented through the beer list, as are local brews along with a modest and well-priced wine list.
 
And for the final act, dinner options include heartwarming chicken with dill-infused dumplings and crisp-juicy breaded pork cutlets over egg noodles with peas and carrots. There's also a clever vegetarian "where's the beef?" stroganoff. Sides are refreshing complements, including deviled eggs (a 2008 trend?), dirty rice and a citrus-infused orzo salad.
 
The desserts are all over the place: a white Russian brownie, peanut butter pie, banana pudding tiramisu and my personal favorite -- a campy rendition of crA©me brulA©e -- the La Brea Tarpit, a concoction with animal crackers stuck in the crispy crust.

It's comfort food with flair, all reasonably priced. Roberts and Hess made a conscious decision to price their meals moderately to attract the wide range of clientele that the Carver neighborhood draws. So far it's working for the diverse distribution of neighborhood, student and foodie guests.

The Black Sheep ($)
901 W. Marshall St.
648-1300
Tuesday-Thursday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
www.theblacksheeprva.com

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