In a city where pimento cheese graces things as varied as BLTs and poutine, Richmond dining often is unapologetically Southern and experimental. Amid the yearly crop of new restaurants that spring up, several are guaranteed to peddle Southern comfort.
Julep’s New Southern Cuisine has withstood the onslaught of recent competition and remained a perennial favorite since it opened in 2003. The restaurant hit the refresh button last year with a move from Shockoe Bottom to Grace Street, and a few transitions in the kitchen notwithstanding, this classic is still going strong.
The new in Julep’s name doesn’t refer to the kind of inaccessible modern techniques beloved by some of the food-obsessed — there are no foams or other molecular gastronomy on the menu. Executive chef Brandon Bundy, recently promoted from sous chef, is from a Virginia farming family, and the commitment to local produce is evident. Dishes mostly stick to the standard Southern playbook but without a slavish adherence to tradition. Lamb chops are served with couscous and yogurt sauce, while the rémoulade accompanying fried oysters is spiked with ancho chilies.
Southern traditions also are apparent beyond the menu. The crisp white tablecloths and perfect place settings would have made my Virginia-born and -bred grandmother proud. Servers are knowledgeable and attentive — but not overbearing — and as polite and hospitable as a July day is long. Mint juleps arrive in pewter cups over crushed ice, and even newer cocktail inventions carry such evocative names as the Porch Rocker and Belle Pepper. A high ceiling and modern decor keep the space from feeling like it’s stuck in the past — rather, Julep’s feels like it’s honoring the past without being bound by it.
Can Julep’s food match the excellence of its service? Mostly, yes. A recent visit delivers an exquisite appetizer of pan-seared scallops cooked and seasoned to tender perfection. The accompanying sunflower shoots and watermelon radish add visual interest on the plate and a variety of textures without detracting from the star of the show. The local garden beans — pole and shell on my visit — are billed as a salad, served cold with pickled onion and a delightfully acidic green goddess vinaigrette dressing. Despite its simplicity, the fresh-from-the-farm taste of local produce and the piquant vinegar punch made this a surprising standout of the meal.
A banner facing Julep’s back parking lot proudly proclaims, “Voted best shrimp and grits,” so of course we order its signature dish. Perhaps my recent visit to South Carolina, birthplace of this Southern creation, raised unrealistic expectations, but Julep’s version is unimpressive. The spicy shrimp broth lacks depth of flavor and the grits could be more creamy and flavorful. But it’s the only disappointment during several visits, and it’s entirely possible that the Palmetto state recalibrated my taste buds.
The crab cake encapsulates the best of Virginia seafood, and Julep’s fresh ingredients are minimally altered. Served with a fantastic succotash sautéed in bacon fat, it has me reconsidering how to entice kids to eat vegetables. Local Harmony Hill’s free-range chicken is basted in a honey-and-truffle glaze that feels earthy and sweet with each bite, calling to mind a barefoot walk through wildflowers. The rice accompaniment is studded with bacon and shiitake mushrooms, further amplifying the dish’s earthy notes.
Whatever you do, don’t skip dessert or after-dinner drinks, of which plenty are on offer. The flourless chocolate torte, served with chocolate ice cream, is dense and decadent, while the peanut butter pie manages to be airy and yet rich. I recommend finishing your meal with the Carajillo, a cocktail composed of espresso and Licor 43, a sweet Spanish liqueur. Popular in Mexico, it may stretch your notions of the boundaries of Southern cuisine, but banish your prejudice and give it a try.
Julep’s successfully continues a long Virginia tradition of dishes primarily propelled by fresh, seasonal ingredients. The white tablecloths and excellent service, however, are indicative of the price you’re expected to pay for this experience. Dinner for three — with shared appetizers and desserts and one drink apiece, runs us north of $200 after tip. That places it firmly in the special-occasion category for many, and out of reach for others. But for a birthday or anniversary dinner before heading next door to the Dominion Arts Center, you just might have the perfect night out. S
Julep’s New Southern Cuisine
Mondays-Thursdays 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 4:30-10 p.m.
420 E. Grace St.
Editor’s note: Style is re-reviewing restaurants that former food critic Elliott Shaffner reviewed during 2014-2015.