Fans of two popular restaurants that closed last year should be happy to learn that the best parts of those places have united in a culinary merger and acquisition that, as with any good deal, has resulted in a sum greater than its previous parts.
Indian Fields Tavern, which closed in June after more than two decades as a worth-the-drive destination for Richmond residents and Williamsburg tourists, is being operated as the Charles City Tavern by the former owners of Café Lafayette, which attracted knowledgeable diners to a side street in the near West End from 2003 until a year ago.
After a five-month renovation of the modest, two-story farmhouse that included installing a new kitchen and refurbishing its three 96-seat dining rooms, chef Michael Macknight and his wife, Cate,changed the name and opened in late November.
The Macknights had been looking for a new place since January 2007, after they failed in an attempt to buy their Richmond space for needed expansion. When Indian Fields closed, they found that space.
The Macknights retained many of Indian Fields' dishes, such as the Sally Lunn bread, crab cakes Benedict and chocolate bourbon pecan pie, and brought with them favorites from Café Lafayette, including bacon-wrapped meatloaf, mussels steamed with chardonnay and hooch cake.
Michael Macknight, a classically trained cook who apprenticed in his native California with Wolfgang Puck and locally at La Petite France and The Trellis, has done more than just meld two menus. He's managed to retain the house's Southern charm (in the fall, cotton grows across the road) while adding a French accent.
Sunday brunch has always been a highlight at this location -- the 45-minute trip, especially when the canopy of trees over Route 5 is lush with leaves, is a great mood-setter.
Now, in addition to traditional midday fare, it boasts innovations such as tavern-style "bacon and eggs," made with crisp pork belly instead of bacon, and a pan-roasted bowl of plump oysters, Surry bacon, creamed spinach and a puff pastry.
The pork belly was a big hit with our party of five, but one of the Benedict's poached eggs arrived hard-cooked. Perhaps because we were seated in the second-floor dining room, one of us had to leave the table to track down our server. With that mistake corrected, the crab cakes, combined with Smithfield ham and hollandaise sauce sitting atop toasted Sally Lunn bread, proved to be a winner. Pumpkin French toast with maple-orange syrup and winter fruit also rose above the ordinary.
(Gone, sadly, is Indian Fields' unlimited champagne, a decision that Macknight defends as sparing customers the headaches that accompany cheap bubbly. It also makes the winding drive safer.)
Several of the brunch entrees also are available as dinner entrees, including Eastern Shore crab cakes with a ragout of sweet corn and country ham, meatloaf with crème fraŒche mashed potatoes and Madeira mushroom sauce, and oyster stew.
The dinner menu will change with the seasons, but one recent addition that's likely to become a standard is barbecued beef short ribs smothered with a molasses-mustard sauce atop a bed of grilled polenta.
Macknight plans to take advantage of local products, and there already is plenty of that in evidence, including the Byrd Mill cheddar stone-ground grits that accompany the grilled Gulf shrimp. (They're so difficult to buy retail that I've stocked up by driving to the source, north of Ashland.) Pork dishes are a recurring feature of the menu, from the "bacon" bellies at brunch to dinner portions of grilled pork tenderloin and a three-way, Austrian-style combo of belly, pulled shoulder and tenderloin supported by Riesling-braised cabbage and kartoffen potatoes. Both also come with a warm, spiced bosc pear compote.
Most entrees are in the $20s, although several are available as appetizers also ($10-$12), including Prince Edward Island mussels with chardonnay, 24-hour tomatoes and basil-pesto-butter broth.
All of the desserts are made in-house, including a moist rum pound cake and Café Lafayette's bread pudding.
The arrival of spring means that the building's two screen-enclosed porches also will be available for bug-free dining. Beginning March 26, Charles City Tavern will expand its operation to Tuesday through Sunday.
One thing hasn't changed: The black-and-white stray cat that showed up about 10 years ago, Robert Le Chat, still roams the property and remains the restaurant's unofficial greeter. S
Charles City Tavern
Route 5, 9220 John Tyler Memorial Highway
Lunch: Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Wednesday-Sunday from 5:30 p.m. Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
(Adding Tuesday hours in late March.)