The English-basement space is made cozy by intimate wooden booths, friendly wait staff and innocuous jazz. The low ceiling and ceramic tile set the space apart from many of its Fan competitors, as do its tchotchkes featuring the owners' beloved pet Max. If diners are curious about the cost of a lapel pin or pint glass, the price list appears over the bar, in the bathrooms, on the Web site and on the menu.
Aside from this unique catalog, The White Dog's menu resembles those of many of the other corner-of-Main eateries, with an emphasis on regional American cuisine with international accents. Entrï¨«Aces ($14-$26) range from "Max's Carnivore Special" to a couple of vegetarian choices.
The roasted half-duckling with maple bourbon glaze was a standout. The sweetness of the glaze matched the tender and juicy breast of duck, and even the leg remained moist. I was also happy when our server delivered my generously cut New York strip, which was prepared to a perfect medium-rare and topped with plentiful melted Gorgonzola. Unfortunately, about halfway through the meal, my palate started to feel overloaded by the commingling of the roasted garlic glaze and the Italian blue cheese; I could barely taste the steak under that excess of dressing.
This tendency toward "going big" seems to be a weakness of the kitchen. The "pan seared scallops with bacon, artichoke hearts, red onion, tomatoes, leeks, spinach and garlic in a light creme sauce served over herbed orzo" was as much a disaster as the length of the name suggests. A mentor once told me that when naming an entrï¨«Ace, choose the three dominant flavors and leave it at that. This gives diners a clear sense of what they're in for and keeps chefs from reinventing the wheel.
But these scallops suffered as much from preparation as from design. Such a complex dish demands that a chef nail each step: Preheat the sautï¨«Ac pan to a screaming temperature to properly sear the scallops. Make sure the ingredients hit the pan at the right time, in the proper order, for the ideal textures and flavors to emerge. Cut the flame back and add a dollop of butter to "mount the sauce." That didn't happen here; the dish was a combination of limp bacon, rubbery scallops and a watery sauce that tasted faintly of spinach and cream.
The appetizers were similarly hit-or-miss. The hits included: the chili-lime marinated shrimp with avocado relish and cilantro sour cream, the mixed green salad with an excellent basil-shallot vinaigrette and the White Dog's fresh baked bread - good starts to any meal.
The miss: crispy fried spring rolls with a sweet and spicy apricot chutney. The chutney turned out to be an overpowering apricot puree, and the filling was so scant I had trouble identifying the ingredients.
Dessert might be the best reason to drop into the The White Dog. Regulars swear by the bread pudding, but my favorite was the homemade butter-pecan ice cream. Equally rich was the Grand Marnier bittersweet-chocolate mousse. So dense I had to cut it with the edge of my spoon, the depth of flavors paired perfectly with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the smoke emanating from the bar made me eager to leave the enclosed space.
On our last visit my wife and I spotted the owner smoking a cigarette and reading the paper outside the front door. As I reached for the handle he chided, "We're closed!" The power was out. He proceeded to lament, "We live under the worst public utility in the world. We may as well be in Baghdad!" As a former restaurant owner, I know that the fates often conspire to make life difficult: Plumbing problems. Paint that won't dry. Dishwashers that break. Bad luck and bad timing. But hey, that's the life and you never show your bad side to the public. Never. If your block blacks out right before dinner rush, you just hang a sign and apologize for the inconvenience. You don't vent in front of the very people whose patronage pays your bills, especially at the great crossroads of Richmond culinary life.
The only trouble my wife and I had was deciding which better restaurant to walk to: Helen's, Rowland, Six Burner, Bacchus or Dogwood Grille. S
The White Dog Restaurant and Pub ($$$)
2329 W. Main St.
Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m.
Closed for vacation June 25-July 5.