Special/Signature Issues » The State of the Plate

Survival of the Greenest

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The food business is about more than sales. Eating is about survival, about taking life to prolong life, at least when you approach it with a reflective self-consciousness.

So when I noticed that my bag of so-called organic frozen peas displayed a "made in China" banner, I thought, what gives? Why the carbon cost of keeping these little green marbles frozen across the high seas from Shanghai? While whole, bulk and raw ingredients are being replaced by packaged and processed foods on store shelves, I have to wonder what streamlining is taking place in the backhouses of the restaurant business and where our collective standards for what constitutes "good food" are headed.

Thankfully, many local venues are offering better options in this regard. Zed Café and Edible Garden serve what's fresh and local and organic whenever possible. There's hope that this will be increasingly often. From my days spent unloading deliveries at dozens of eateries across the country, I can tell you the better places have simple, small orders from butchers, fishmongers, exotic mushroom dealers and family farms. The best places use corporate food service giants only for cheap paper products. And the best places have bread flour and cake flour on hand in large quantities because everything, from dinner rolls to chocolate tortes, is made in-house.

With Virginia's cornucopia of crab and shad and cattle and tomatoes and corn and even sweet peas, it makes sense to frequent establishments that are trying to make the most of the local goods. That's why I'm always on the lookout for fresh-baked bread and grass-fed beef. When I eat out, I want a chef/owner who is scrutinizing everything the purveyors bring in the backdoor and turning those raw goods — that scratch — into truly memorable meals.

In Richmond, the place walking that line and delivering flavors to make all that attention worth the hassle looks like Café Rustica. And though it also looks a bit like LuLu's, and it might fit Comfort and Tarrant's, too, Café Rustica is somehow able to manage all of that and come in at a reasonable price point. Maybe it's the understated décor that plays up the good, simple food. I feel like I'm getting the most I possibly can (in all regards) when I eat there. It's new, but, like LuLu's, only in name. Owner Andy Howell has operated restaurants here for years.

Of course, there's always room for someone to achieve a higher standard. Who knows — if something like Main Street Grill were to come back in a partnership with the 17th Street Farmers' Market, it could dominate downtown nine months of the year. And we'll have to see what Jannequin Bennett gets up to at Ellwood's potential café.

Local food cooked by local talent — that's the long-term dream. S



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