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REVIEW: Alewife

This piscine cuisine goes swimmingly in Richmond’s dining scene.

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Chef Lee Gregory, of Southbound and formerly the Roosevelt, opened his first solo restaurant this fall. His vision? Seafood, and lots of it. And with this project, he's carved out a previously underexplored piece of the dining scene in Richmond while continuing the city's growth as a place to explore good food and its history. He's also held a few pop-ups while scaling up to the full operation.

The interior at Alewife is warm and welcoming, with great service and a vibe that gives the space a remarkable blend of versatility — good for taking visiting parents out to eat, grabbing a post-work drink at the bar or gathering a large group of friends. That flexibility is refreshing at a time when overly designed interiors can sometimes minimize a space's potential or purpose. The short and creatively arranged menu also manages to draw inspiration from many different cuisines without feeling confused.

For starters, our table loved the thick olive oil pancake, which on that particular day was served with smoked trout ($10). It's a shareable delight — aromatic, flavorful and aesthetically bold. The fiery reddish-orange flying fish roe, tobiko, added flare to a crumb texture that was light, pleasant and surprising. Alewife's orecchiette with North Carolina crab, broccoli and crab dust ($13) was a creamy and pleasant pasta dish. The crab felt a little overpowered in this ensemble, and the crab dust offered little backup flavor. The fried crab claws ($12) are where Alewife shines, celebrating seafood in playful and flavorful ways. The claws are prepared Calabash style, crispy and served with kimchi mayo. For the uninitiated, as I was, Calabash style gets its name from a small fishing village in southern North Carolina named after a gourd. The town perfected, if not invented, the delicate art of lightly breading with cornmeal and flour before frying. It's a fun and shareable indulgence. Depending on how much you crave spice, you may wish the kimchi mayo delivered more of the tang and funk associated with the fermented cabbage that's a staple of Korean cuisine, but the subtlety allows you to appreciate how gently kissed the claws are with the breading so as not to smother the crab itself. The claws are also tasty enough to go without a dip.

The larger dishes are listed neatly as "on the bone" or "off the bone," making it easy to choose your adventure. From the bone list, the skate chop ($20) with black-eyed peas and braised greens was a hit around our table. The skate was savory and succulent and argued well the case for keeping fish on the bone. It's worth the fuss. The greens also simmered lovingly in one of the most flavorful, succulent broths I've tasted in recent memory. The combination works exceedingly well. If fish on the bone is intimidating, the soy-glazed pork ribs ($18) offer a generous portion and balance the sweetness of the glaze with a pickle salad. The fried oyster po'boy ($15) was exciting to see on the menu, but the main ingredient and the seasoning was unfortunately swallowed up by the breading and the promise of the description.

Alewife's forte is underwater critters, and I don't believe the vision was to offer a vaunted dessert service. Keep that in mind and you won't be underwhelmed by the comfort sweets befitting the type of small-town fish fry some people, this writer included, attended growing up. If you're not enticed by the soft-serve ice cream options from your youth — scoops or sundaes with funfetti cake — then the brownie with bourbon, caramel sauce and spiced pecans ($6) will not disappoint. It's decadent and blends the slightly bitter chocolate notes with sweet caramel and crunchy pecans. I won't debate the pronunciation of pecans, but I will argue the short list of sweets works with Alewife's concept of a humble fish joint. 

My hope is that Gregory will continue to be bold. Richmonders who already know and love his work will trust his instincts, and I imagine that will mean regular sightings of stranger things. Gregory has shared his desire to incorporate more so-called trash fish on his menu. These are fish often snubbed by professional anglers, but inventive chefs are eying them as dinner fodder as species with household names like salmon continue to get overfished. These humble swimmers are a new, adventurous frontier, and I'd love to see what Gregory will do with them. Two friends also told me they want to see him bring the same sort of fire and flavor to the house menu that they experienced in the pop-ups he held before opening.

Don't hold back on us now. You'd be surprised what Richmond is ready for when we're not idling in youthful stupor in Scott's Addition. S

Alewife
3120 E. Marshall St.
325-3426
Tuesdays – Thursdays, 5 -11 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. - midnight; kitchen closes at 10 p.m.
alewiferva.com

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