The Boulevard north of Broad is clearly in transition. The street has been repaved and beautified, the deluxe Movieland complex is set to open early next year and Scott's Addition has new condos and a bit of retail. Across the street from Buz & Ned's is the neighborhood's newest act, Stronghill Dining Company.
At 6-foot-6, owner and former Richmond police officer Rob Weaver is difficult to miss walking the floor of his new venture. Rob and his wife, Jessika, bought the corner building across from their other enterprise, River City Tattoo, a few years ago with no concrete plans. Some of their most loyal clientele at the shop were also some of the city's most skilled restaurateurs, and so Stronghill was born. With a nod to Richmond's history, Stronghill is from the 11th-century French Norman translation of Riche-Monte. And just like that, Richmond has its eighth hill.
Under the watchful eye of general manager Cole Bucholtz and guided by the palate of executive chef Owen Lane (the Track, Helen's and Bacchus), Stronghill Dining Company has the ingredients for success. It inhabits a cavernous space, eclectically decorated with art nouveau-inspired wooden booths and trim by Martin-Star. Lanterns, driftwood and glass balls hanging from the ceiling — high ceilings that make for an echo chamber, but mitigated some by the booth design. For a more intimate experience, head for the leather sofas in the backroom lounge.
That's where my wife and I shared a few hours of kid-free peace on our first visit. I had a glass of wine from a reasonably priced and diverse list, and she opted for a cupcake martini. Complete with sprinkles on top, it was dessert in a fancy glass.
We ate mostly from the starter menu — a retro wedge salad with iceberg lettuce, bacon and a unique smoked-onion ranch dressing. The Stronghill sampler was hit-and-miss. Frog legs were tender yet bland. Barbecued shrimp on skewers were spicy in their blackened crispiness; jicama slaw tamed the heat. Hush puppies were a disappointing replacement for tempura green tomatoes and rather pedestrian, a filler at best.
But 2008's most popular dish must be deviled eggs. I have sampled them at several new Richmond spots such as Verbena and the Black Sheep. Stronghill's version finishes with the mellowed bite of roasted jalapeno and ranks among the better ones. The highlight was an entrAce — sweet potato gnocchi, tender pillows of tuber heaven — served in a ragout of roasted tomatoes, zucchini and arugula in a garlicky ginger-soy sauce.
Visit two, in which local restaurant illuminati Johnny and Katrina Giavos were having dinner at the bar, started with a basket of hard rolls and banana bread, a nice detail we missed on our first visit. The tasso ham, oyster, mushroom and parmesan tart in flaky pastry was a perfect seasonal starter. Butternut squash soup combined curry and nutmeg into its creamy fold, another fall treat.
The entrAce menu is heavy on earthy flavors, including venison, wild boar, quail and game hen, as well as steaks and fish. I had quail stuffed with lobster and shiitake mushrooms, starkly and artfully presented with just a drizzle of color. Crab cakes were served on a bed of quail hash, an interesting take on the land-and-sea combination.
While many restaurants shine more brightly on their appetizer menu, I found the opposite to be true here. Lane's entrAces are where his artistry speaks loudest. Perhaps it's because dinner plates allow for more combinations of texture and flavor. In any case, the entrAces will keep me returning.
Desserts are creative offerings such as fig-and-cherry bread pudding, coffee vodka-infused chocolate mousse, and an otherworldly banana-bread ice cream that gives new meaning to indulgent pleasure.
Service was understated yet exceptional — I love a staff that anticipates without hovering. It's evident that there's a level of experience here not found in many local restaurants. The combination of novelty, eclectic charm, a uniquely creative menu and great service makes Stronghill Dining Company one of my top new faces this year. S
Stronghill Dining Company ($$)
1200 N. Boulevard
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Bar until 2 a.m.
Smoking at bar after dinner service only