Recently reopened by the folks who brought you Europa and The Hard Shell, The Hill is a graceful blend of panache, prurience and maybe a dash of pridefulness. So be it. It works. It's a good place for those who don't want to go where everybody knows your name unless you live in Church Hill that is. But don't mistake shyness for snobbery. It's a very comfortable spot.
There are two little tests I like to run from time to time: the Rusty Nail Equation and the Calamari Proof. Sometimes I run them individually, sometimes in conjunction when the opportunity arises. For me, they are a good way to assess where a restaurant's staff falls along the continuum from "paying for rent and drugs" to "taking pride in what I do." I ran both when my sweetie and I revisited The Hill last week.
Not a lot of bartenders know what a Rusty Nail is. Fewer still have tried one and considered the proper balance that must be struck for this aperitif to work. When it does, it's heavenly. When it doesn't, it's cough syrup. The gentleman behind the bar at The Hill (sorry, I couldn't get your name) must be a rusty nailer too. So well done, I ordered a second.
Then there's calamari. It shows up on a lot of menus. And a lot of it is absolute trash. Too tough, too breaded, too fried, too chilled, too bland, too sometimes I wonder if it's really squid that I am being served. Without a lab you can't be sure because the line between appetizer and retread is so slight. The heaping plate I waded through at The Hill ($5.95) was a scholarly squid dissertation. Lightly breaded and flash-fried so the crust flaked off a bit when I dragged it through the marinara. Oh goodness. It's 10 p.m. right now, but I'd still eat an aquarium full.
In addition to passing these two tests with flying colors, The Hill Cafe served me a juicy little filet in a mushroom bordelaise for $19.95. It came with white cheddar mashed potatoes. They nearly stole the show. We also tried the special that evening: a grilled salmon filet stuffed with Gorgonzola and pine nuts served over red pepper orzo with asparagus ($18.95). A good piece of fish but it's hard to be subtle with Gorgonzola. We both really liked the seared rare tuna appetizer ($7.95). Crusted in sesame seeds, served with wasabi, seared around the edges, and cool and rare in the center. It's a little carnival of taste, texture and temperature.
The Hill Cafe does a good job of serving "comfort foods in a cozy setting" as they aspire to do. I'm glad that it was my first experience with Richmond's restaurants. Nestled up there on Church Hill, candles flickering and conversations purring, it's a reminder that good things happen when the right people get together, do what they do and do it well. S
The Hill Café ($$)
2800 East Broad Street
Hours: Monday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
(kitchen closes at midnight)