The sun is setting behind the pine trees on the opposite shore when the bartender hands me a tall beer in a plastic cup. "I love my office," she says, making a sweeping motion over the placid scene. A party boat moves across the water, cutting a silent wake that electrifies the mirror-smooth surface like a single crease across the back of a freshly starched shirt. It is a cool, early autumn evening. Were it not for the temperature, I might easily imagine myself dockside in Key West.
But I am 1,100 miles north, sitting on the deck of The Boathouse at Swift Creek Reservoir in Brandermill. You can sit here, too, until Oct. 31, when the deck closes for the season. After that, you'll have to satisfy yourself with the nautical-themed interior until the patio reopens in the spring.
If you haven't heard of The Boathouse, it's the place that until six months ago was called Sundays (at Sunday Park), which used to be called something French, which used to be called Brandy's, after being called Windward Watch. Nautical has come full circle here, but considering my two visits and a total of five meals here, it seems less like The Boathouse made an intentional change in course and more like it's stuck in irons.
The menu is a confluence of ideas that never quite work themselves out into a trim concept. Offerings veer confusedly from American raw-bar items to heavily sauced Mediterranean dishes to very good basic pub food to steak and pizza. Along the way, there are some nice highs and surprising lows, but lots of dishes that are just in between.
The calamari, which is quite good, carries a delicate batter that resonates for a moment and vanishes without a trace. The roasted whole fish (striped bass on my night) is done but comes off limp and uninspired. Other dishes seem short of remarkable. The chicken Milanese looked delicious, but its gently fried flavor remains aloof from its saucy bed of lemon and capers over linguine.
The minestrone maybe the best item on the menu gets a boost from tortellini and sweet Italian sausage. It's hindered only by the decision to use ordinary mushrooms instead of porcini or crimini, which would have added depth to its flavor.
The PEI mussels served with a spicy red sauce enhanced by roasted whole garlic are very good. They are simmered in a cataplan, which is the Portuguese name of both the entrée and the hinged copper pan in which it is cooked. The sauce is described as bold, but it's more like bossy.
The bistecca alla pizzaiola, a specialty, has a similar problem. Grilled steak, topped with red sauce, onions and peppers and a thick layer of mozzarella, is cooked perfectly to order but ends up a confusion.
With the installation of a new gas-fired pizza oven, however, The Boathouse joins the ranks of the top pizza destinations in the metro area. There are 19 versions to choose from, all made Neapolitan style, but the toppings hardly matter. As with all pizza, it is the dough that counts. And the best around Azzurro, Mamma 'Zu and, forgive me, California Pizza Kitchen now have a new colleague. I highly recommend the pear and Gorgonzola. Homemade dough also turns up as hand-knotted rolls and as the seasoned flatbread served with the minestrone.
Crème brûlée, the only dessert made completely on location, we are told, is a surprising low point. Granular and without the hallmark hard topping, it seems to be the victim of an early prep time and a long wait in the walk-in. Much better is the charming pizookie, a giant chocolate-chip cookie heated in a deep dish and served with vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate and whipped cream. It will make you grin from ear to ear. Order coffee, and you get a full-size French press, one for each person.
The Boathouse recently earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, and rightly so, for its wine list of more than 100 selections with helpful pairing notes and moderate prices. On Wednesday nights select bottles are half price.
While the renovations are fine and the name makes sense for the location, the menu sets The Boathouse adrift except as a great neighborhood pub. There is no shame in that. It's what keeps us all going, gives us a sense of local identity and is increasingly rare in the anonymity of our suburbs. S
The Boathouse ($$)
4602 Millridge Parkway, Midlothian
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.