You could be forgiven for overlooking Castanea. A Shockoe Bottom location that’s more of a commuter thoroughfare than a pedestrian oasis, a rather sparsely decorated interior and an obscure name — the genus of chestnut trees — mask what turns out to be a hidden gem.
Chef Philip Denny, an alumnus of many of Richmond’s celebrated restaurants including Six Burner and Aziza’s on Main, is the creative mind behind Castanea. Drawing largely from Mediterranean influences, the menu circles the coast from Spanish-style tapas, to Italian-inflected sandwiches and house-made gelato, east to showcase Greek influence and back around to North Africa as the occasional hint of harissa shows up on the plate.
Denny has said, though, that he isn’t interested in a concept menu, but rather a place where he can flex his creative muscles and cook his favorites, wherever the dishes might originate. So don’t be surprised to find geographical intrusions such as a Maine lobster roll with saffron aioli ($14), or a roast pork sub topped with provolone and broccoli rabe ($9) straight out of Philadelphia’s Italian neighborhoods. The bar features Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines, as well as a beer list with a range of styles and flavors.
If you’ve traveled through the many countries ringing the Mediterranean, you know a few consistent threads tying the region’s food together are an abundance of seafood and a relentless commitment to fresh and seasonal ingredients. Both are evident at Castanea. It’s not a seafood restaurant, but there are plenty of fish and shellfish dishes on the menu, including a tapas plate of skate wing ($9) dusted with a North African spice mix, ras el hanout, redolent with clove and cinnamon. The earthy spices play off of a brown butter sauce to create a deep and subtle complexity that complements the firm yet delicate fish.
Or for lunch, try a clam and pesto pizza ($9), served with clams in the shell perched on top of a whole-wheat crust. It’s made from dough that’s fermented, lending an interesting sour note to the hearty flavor of wheat flour. It’s a different pizza than any other in town, but unfortunately, to some extent the crust overwhelms the toppings’ flavors. Naples or New York-style pizza purists need not bother to try it, though others may appreciate the different flavor.
On the subject of travel, like many tourists in Italy I once spent a week there chasing the best food I could find and afford. From farmers markets to Pope John Paul II’s favorite gelato — coincidentally, candied chestnut — my treks around the city were mainly culinary, and less about history and architecture. The beautiful buildings were a backdrop to whatever food I was sampling.
Which brings me back to Castanea. The gelato that chef Denny is making would be right at home in a family-run shop on a winding cobblestone alley in Rome. If Castanea were only a gelato shop, it would be worth driving from anywhere in the region to visit — and that you can get a great meal there before your gelato is a huge bonus. The pistachio, as classic a flavor as they come, is silky smooth and bursting with a nutty flavor that isn’t overwhelmed by milk or sugar. From classics to more inventive flavors such as Mexican hot chocolate or rosemary and honey, they’re all worth trying. One small caveat — fresher is better so ask the staff what’s new.
Lunch features primarily sandwiches, ranging from olive-oil marinated Spanish tuna ($9) to the cured meat extravaganza on the Italian sub ($12) featuring soppressata, coppa and mortadella topped with three Italian cheeses and the pickled vegetable mix giardiniera. Along with your sandwich, try the panisse fries, crispy-fried sticks of chickpea batter popular in Provence.
Dinner shifts to tapas and a few house-made pastas, while pizza is available all day. Tapas choices are mostly standards like tortilla de patatas ($7), bacon-wrapped dates ($8), or arancini, the classic fried risotto stuffed with mozzarella ($8). While none dazzles me, they are for the most part solid takes on classic dishes.
Pizza, pasta, tapas, sandwiches — these may not be the ingredients for the most exciting destination restaurant. So why bother looking for that parking space in the Bottom? Castanea has a restlessly creative chef continually updating his menu, consistency from the kitchen, friendly staff set on learning your name and the best gelato in Richmond. Finish all of that off with a glass of sherry, and you’ve had a pretty good evening. S
1814 E. Main St.
Tuesdays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.