You know how at parties, everyone seems to end up in the kitchen? Restaurants picked up on this too. Back in 1989, chef Charlie Trotter wedged a guest table into his Chicago restaurant kitchen, launching the idea. The trend took hold, and remains at many high-end restaurants today, including Virginia's Inn at Little Washington.
Now, Richmond-area diners can enjoy an intimate kitchen dining experience closer to home. The Boathouse at City Point just opened a six-seat chef's table in the restaurant's roomy kitchen, where diners experience a four-, five-, or six-course personalized meal with optional paired wines. If you're that person who always gravitates toward the kitchen, a chef's table is great fun.
Like most pro kitchens, this one is busy and noisy with cook chatter, some pot banging and a commercial fan sucking the heat and smoke out of the room. Quiet conversation could be a challenge, but if you have a festive group as we did, the buzz adds to the excitement.
The rustic table is surrounded by plush blue velvet chairs and highlighted with clever whisk lighting fixtures. One side of the table has a view of the line, where nine staffers work on the restaurant's surf-and-turf dishes. The other side faces — and is viewed by — the dining room. Diners gazed at us with curiosity and perhaps a little envy. We were happy to be part of their evening's entertainment.
It's a shame that the line at the Boathouse is a traditional American setup, with tall shelving between the cooks and the server side of the kitchen. The shelving somewhat blocks the view from the chef's table, so we could only see bits and pieces of food preparation. At the French-style kitchen of Minibar in Washington, for example, there are no shelves. The chef's table is bar height, so diners have an unobstructed stadium-seating view of the work surfaces below.
We were immersed in the kitchen's energy, including a rush between 7:30 and 8 p.m., with tickets piling up and servers moving quickly to fill and carefully balance trays. The kitchen grew more crowded and up-tempo, but we were never bumped. Kudos to a tight team for getting the work done without once making us feel like we were in the way.
Our five-course meal was served by Cory Sheldon, executive chef for the entire Boathouse restaurant group, and City Point chef de cuisine Teddy Sehenuk. Sheldon introduced the line cooks with the same kind of flair a lead singer uses to introduce the band: "And, at the grill station, we have..." These backroom kitchen laborers work long hours, usually with little to no recognition, and we applauded them.
Sheldon presented each course, adding depth and color that only a dish's creator knows. He offered halibut cheeks wrapped with thin slices of guanciale (cured pig jowl) by explaining that a chef will normally cook and eat the cheek to test the quality of the fish. The "cheek in a cheek" was an insider treat that the chef shared with us because we were, at least for the evening, kitchen insiders.
After we oohed and aahed over the house-pickled peaches in the salad, Sheldon sent us home with a small container of the pickling juice. The hangar steak with polenta and dried morel mushrooms was juicy and tender. We asked for details, and Sheldon shared his step-by-step technique for using the sous vide, or water bath, to achieve a perfect temperature steak.
Boathouse sommelier Mike Avery selected wines for the meal, including a Boathouse viognier, custom blended by Williamsburg Winery's Matthew Meyer. Viogniers are usually a bit sweet for me, but this one was more fruit-forward. It paired well with Boathouse oysters on the half shell with an icy tomato granita and a cucumber and micro basil garnish.
Likewise, I would never have chosen the Luccio Moscato d'Asti with our pineapple and coconut creme brulee, but the sugar of the moscato disappeared into the sweetness of the dessert, leaving a little floral and light citrus flavor on the tongue.
For Sheldon, planning the chef's table fare is an opportunity to be creative with off-menu dishes. Normally a chef sits in the kitchen and phones in food orders each week, but since Sheldon was preparing in such small volume for our menu, he enjoyed a rare visit to nearby farmers markets to choose fresh ingredients.
Our server, Jeremy, was assigned only to our table, and the private service was exceptional. Jeremy appeared at exactly the right moment to remove empty plates, he invisibly replaced silverware and glasses, and he kept our waters topped off — all without interrupting our chatter or calling undue attention to himself.
Our group included a former chef, a former server and a serious home cook. Some of us enjoyed being back in a professional kitchen, others were excited to be there for the first time, and we all appreciated the personal attention and customized menu. The chef's table can accommodate as many as six people, and is available Mondays through Thursdays. The price before tax, gratuity and service charge ranges from $60 to $100 per person, depending on the number of courses, and wine pairing adds an extra $35 to $45 per course. Beer, cocktails and other beverages are available separately.
Among foodies, the Boathouse is known more for spectacular waterside views than the reliable, somewhat traditional menu. Sheldon stayed in surf-and-turf territory, but with ingredients, flavors and techniques that elevated this chef's table menu to surpass the sweeping view of the Appomattox and James rivers. When I return, I'll be asking for the view inside the kitchen instead of over the water. S