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The North Pole serves up straightforward food in Richmond's culinary version of Santaland.

Arctic Eats

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What better time of year to venture to the North Pole than the weeks preceding the big day? Just a few miles up the road, the Pole is convenient enough to pop in and check on Santa, plus make sure that the service is up to snuff. On a chilly November night we did just that and found that, yes, Santa is in residence, albeit a stuffed version, and service is good, though not provided by elves.

Convenient, you say? Of course. No need to book Air Arctic to trek to this North Pole. It's located in quaint downtown Crozier in Goochland County, about 12 miles west of Gaskins Road on Rte. 6 (aka Patterson Avenue). There, in a small building that's endured several additions over the years, is the closest thing we've got to Santaland. There are trains circling on a track overhead, faux polar bears of all sizes and a Santa or two. Oh, and there's plenty of food prepared by owner/chef Dick Rossi and his elves.

Seated on the uppermost level of the restaurant in a booth big enough to fit six, the two of us were greeted right away by a personable waitress who was honest enough to inform us that it was her first night working at the North Pole. She had a lovely lilting Irish accent and could not have been more accommodating. We chose a bottle of Arctic Red wine (reasonable at $15.95), a specially bottled variety that sports a nicely done North Pole label rendering of a polar bear.

There is nothing tricky about The North Pole's menu. It's plain old straightforward food — steaks, seafood and a dose of Italian. No coulis, no foie gras, no froufrou. The only nod to sophistication is the suggestion of wine accompaniments in parentheses next to each entrée. We'd eaten dinner there before and had a couple of red-blooded American steaks — they offer a New York strip, ribeye, beef tenderloin tips ($17.95-$20.95) and a 9 oz. filet mignon at market price, which was $25 on this particular night. I love a good steak, and I might have ordered the filet if it had been a smaller cut and more reasonably priced. Instead, we decided to try something different.

Bottomless Pitt ordered barbecued baby back ribs ($15.95), an entire rack charcoal-broiled and smothered in homemade sauce. His dinner came with a small house salad comprising leafy lettuce, carrots and red onion, served with his choice of creamy Parmesan dressing. The ribs, 13 in all, he declared to be "mighty tasty." The tomato-based sauce was sweet, and the meat was tender, fairly falling off each individual rib. A baked potato came with the ribs.

I decided to try the stuffed shrimp ($18.95), a trio of jumbo shrimp stuffed with backfin crabmeat, GruyÅ re and cream cheese, all sautéed in white wine. The shrimp were huge — a good three inches long — and the stuffing was a nicely balanced mixture that boasted a variety of delicate flavors. I also received a house salad plus a stuffed baked potato, a mega-spud jam-packed with cheese and bacon (a jumbo version of this — and mine appeared to be jumbo — is offered a la carte for $10). The potato was good, but I question the need to put two stuffed items together on the same plate, as they were both very filling.

For dessert, we shared an order of tiramisu ($3.95), and it was delightful — all that one could hope for in terms of spongy cake and coffee flavoring. We reflected on what we might have ordered — appetizers of shrimp cocktail, nachos, stuffed mushrooms or calamari ($7.95-$8.95); Italian dishes of spaghetti, manicotti or stuffed shells ($11.95 and under); fruits de mer including snow crab legs, grilled fish, oriental butterfly shrimp, spiced shrimp or surf and turf (all $15.95 to market price).

The North Pole provides a nice exodus for those willing to drive a bit, but don't expect any mom-and-pop country prices. While we enjoyed our meals and the service was superb, when we're spending close to $20 per entrée, we kind of expect cloth napkins and butter in a dish rather than in plastic tubs — there are certain perks frequent diners come to associate with a certain level of pricing. But, hey, maybe this is downscale gourmet at its best, and we should just enjoy the trip to Santa's hometown as more than just a plate of food, but a total holiday

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