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State of the Plate 2006

What to eat where, and why. Plus, Richmond's Restaurant of the Year.

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It also presents a challenge for Richmond-area restaurants: delivering innovative dishes while honoring their diners' appreciation for classic tastes and local flavors. Beyond that, standout restaurants offer a high-quality experience with a unique point of view; attentive and consistent service; and prices commensurate with the cuisine.

In measuring those attributes, Style Weekly's food critics, Don Baker, Joseph W. Cates and B.P. Fox, present their State of the Plate 2006.

It's not always easy for critics to agree, but ours managed to reach consensus on their list of Richmond's 50 best restaurants. They also agonized over the task of picking their 16 favorite dishes in town.

Then we threw them a question that invariably gets posed to the opinionated: What's the ideal dining experience in Richmond right now?

Could anyone agree? At first, no. But after much debate, the critics found a place where their philosophies intersected, a high-end Fan District bistro that is very Richmond in tone and restraint, yet manages to take chances and has built a strong following.

For reaching that balance, for delivering professional, warm service, for offering a generally delectable fare and for representing the city's dining scene with characteristic charm, Dogwood Grille & Spirits is Style's 2006 Restaurant of the Year.

Richmond always loves a pedigree — and in this case, it is with chef David Shannon. He worked for eight years at the hallowed Inn at Little Washington and later at Helen's. Shannon opened the Grille with Roger Lord in 2003 at 1731 W. Main St.

As host, Lord's lively and knowing touch with wines has built a following of regulars — those who can feel comfortable eating high-end food while wearing jeans. As Baker describes, the atmosphere is "in limbo between retro and refined."

The restaurant's decor is understated and not ideal — plain but for the Jennifer Holloway paintings. So for now, it seems that much of the restaurant's feel comes from its diners. "The clientele of the moment creates the atmosphere of the moment," Fox says, "instead of the restaurant providing a specific ambience for the clientele."

Dogwood's crowd gets younger and the din gets thicker as the night wears on, and all three critics admire the quality and creativity of the food if not the noise level in the brick-walled space.

"The chef takes successful and exciting culinary chances, and comes up with lip-smackingly delicious foie gras, and perfectly charred rare steak stacked with large lumps of crabmeat in a slightly sweet, savory peppercorn demi-glace," Fox says. It is clear Dogwood takes its food seriously, she says, "despite the cutesy prose of its menu."

Baker points to the menu's special (foie gras, pan-seared duck breast, surf-and-turf) and inventive (charred lettuce, béarnaise tartar sauce) dishes.

No restaurant is perfect, and in Dogwood's case, there are opportunities for improvement. Baker, for example, notes that selections are occasionally pretentious (New Zealand deer) and pricey ($32 for crab cakes).

The critics agree there's still room for the bistro to grow. But it is a restaurant that, flaws and all, bespeaks Richmond now, and as it can be. S

The Critics

Don Baker, who has worked as a carhop, waiter, bartender and maitre d', first wrote about restaurants for Style in the late 1980s. Then after a three decades as a political reporter for The Washington Post, he retired in 1999 and resumed reviewing restaurants, first with the now-defunct 64 magazine, and since 2002 for Style.

Joseph W. Cates has held nearly every restaurant position, from dishwasher to bartender, server, manager and owner. During apprenticeships with top chefs, he studied sauces, Italian cuisine and Asian fusion. He's served as head chef for Lotus Cardroom & Cafe in Portland, Ore.; Lino's of Rockford, Ill.; and Davis & Main in Richmond. These days, Cates is cultivating his passion for teaching and writing, and enjoying his time on the other side of the table.

B.P. Fox worked her way through college and graduate school in and around the restaurants of Richmond. After earning her master's degree in English from the University of Virginia, she worked in the film business before deciding to pursue a writing career. Her popular food blog, "Brandon Eats" at www.brandoneats.com, combines her interest in cooking and eating with what's happening in the Richmond culinary scene.



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