Richmond is like the underachieving and overlooked middle child of the Eastern Seaboard — we love getting attention from anyone, especially our better-known siblings New York or Washington. Most every click-bait list mentioning the city is shared in both traditional and social media, and some are even featured on the city’s webpage.
Just as our fragile collective ego is fed by the positive national spotlight, restaurant scenesters are downright giddy when celebrity chefs choose Richmond for their newest ventures. The latest collective excitement is fueled by Bryan Voltaggio’s Family Meal, which has taken up residence in the newly renovated Willow Lawn.
Voltaggio has an impressive list of accolades: Culinary Institute of America graduate, “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters” runner-up, James Beard-award semifinalist and owner of a growing restaurant empire. His restaurant family, co-owned with business partner Hilda Staples, is composed of five different brands, mostly in Maryland and Washington. The pair’s Richmond restaurant is the fourth Family Meal location and the farthest from their hometown of Frederick, Maryland.
It promises favorites reminiscent of your family table, and its interior design reinforces this theme of updated classics. The modern concrete and steel is tempered by rustic wood — lots of wood — raw, finished, light, dark, inside and outside. The menu is a similar combination of modern and classic, with fried chicken, meatloaf and blueberry cobbler sitting comfortably next to burrata and bahn mi. Breakfast is served all day, and a kids’ menu should make all members of the family feel welcome.
Unfortunately, the phrase “family meal” evokes a different sort of response for some of us — instead of fond memories of culinary classics, we’re reminded of dishes prepared by a distant relative who fancies herself a great cook, although the whole family is afraid to tell that her food isn’t worth the hype. While this restaurant’s menu promises intriguing updates of classic comfort food, too often the flavors on the plate fail to impress.
Salmon ($22.99), ordered medium rare, comes well done on a bed of a chunky puttanesca that lacks the pungency of the typically briny sauce. Similarly, the accompaniment to the scallops ($24.99), roasted sunchokes, are undercooked and a distraction from the otherwise decent dish and its slightly tart apple and celeriac slaw.
Even heartier dishes fail to impress. A side of white pimento macaroni and cheese ($4.99) underwhelms with a gummy texture and too mild a flavor. I imagine chicken potpie fritters ($5.99) as a gourmet rebuke to mediocre state fair food. Instead, the deep-fried spheres of filling come off as mildly seasoned novelties that have soaked up a little too much grease.
Clearly there’s a bright culinary mind behind this menu. The Style Weekly sponsored RVA Burger Week special, the Korean cowboy burger ($5), improbably combines pork belly, cheddar and an onion ring with kimchi and Korean barbecue sauce. The mixture works, somehow, with a rich umami symphony of flavors and textures. I hope it makes its way onto the regular menu.
The roasted cauliflower appetizer ($4.99), arriving on a bed of crisped greens with sweet raisins and crunchy turmeric-toasted peanuts, shows the kitchen’s potential to pull off a multifaceted dish with subtle, complementary flavors. House-made sodas ($2.99), including pomegranate and pineapple, help round out this chef-driven menu by offering interesting nonalcoholic drinks, though they also make excellent mixers for the bar’s original cocktails.
Just because you’re a fantastic chef who can run a kitchen, or even several, doesn’t mean you can scale your business to places you can’t check regularly. Geographic expansion seems the most likely culprit for mediocre food from a chef with as many accolades as Voltaggio. Hopefully he’ll work out the kinks soon, and Richmond can be proud of the kind of attention that we’re starting to receive from our more celebrated northern neighbors. S
1601 Willow Lawn Drive
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays 9 a.m.-10 p.m.