Anyone who's worked in a restaurant can tell you that the last hour of service can be excruciating, especially when it's slow. On the floor you want to pull all the candles and salt shakers, roll the silver, close out your charges, figure your tips and head home. In the back you're ready to pull the plug on the steam table, wrap the walk-in, kill the grill and mop the floors. But you can't. To do so would violate unofficial Restaurant Rule No. 7: Never close early.
If the sign out front says the place is open until 10 p.m., that's a promise. The one time someone swings by at 9:55 and finds the front door locked will be the last time they swing by. Unless, of course, they happen to be a restaurant critic and they're required to come back. A breach of this promise is especially unforgivable in a place that stays open only till 6 (make that 5:45). So consider this a disclaimer: I was disappointed with the Yahley Mill Grill before I ever stepped inside.
But this place isn't about being inside, where there are no tables just a counter and some stools. The real dining area is canopy-covered and features picnic tables overlooking the gravel parking lot, all thrust up against Route 5. You could say Varina's Yahley Mill Grill former home of the much-missed Chillin' and Grillin' Shack centers on takeout.
While the teenage employees filled and stacked the Styrofoam tower that was my order, I perused the narrow foyer's assembly of witch-themed knickknacks (the grill's owner also runs KitchenWitch Catering) and impressive collection of rare specialty hot sauces not that you'll need any of them to perk up your meal. If ever a restaurant could be summed up as a single spice, it's Yahley Mill. The signature flavor: black pepper.
The daily specials seemed to sidestep this flavor treatment, to great success. I was pleased with one order of ribs (Yahley's killer homemade sauce recipe is generously shared on its Web site) and enjoyed a very decent étouffée.
Where the food falls short is the regular menu ($3.95-$9.95). The jambalaya might be fine on the day it's made, but both times I tried it, the stew was suffering from burst rice (clear evidence of excessive rehydration over a period of days) and the monochromatic flavor of black pepper.
Peppers are divided by color into the following sensations: red = fire, white = heat, black = burn. Too much burn leaves no room for anything else, much less the elusive and pleasing flavor of ground, dried sassafras root commonly known as gumbo filé which is the flavor I'm seeking in gumbo, and to a lesser extent in jambalaya. What I experienced instead was a black-pepper-and-rice mush.
The River Witch seafood basket is likewise lacking. In this case, however, the dominance of pepper and seasoned salt may have been intended to hide the lackluster shrimp, fish and oysters that were tiny, greasy and less-than-fresh, respectively.
But every plate did offer some redemption. The hush puppies are excellent, and the Cajun mayo is a nice complement full of flavor and spice. Also, the wraps are surprisingly good. I especially enjoyed the blackened chicken, ham, cheddar and apple wrap. I might go back for that one sometime. And I'll definitely be picking up another order of the grill's Cajun garlic wings, a perfect balance of flavor and heat that shows what the kitchen is capable of. Another surprise hit was the authentic crawfish pie.
Still, there's something about this roadside grill in this struggling-to-stay-rural corner of greater Richmond that gives off an air of biding its time. According to the friendly high-school student who took my order scribbled with pen in a charming and all-too-rare-these-days shorthand that the cook will actually see the plan is this: First, a bathroom. Next, a beer license. And before you know it, there'll be live bands on the weekends. "Hopefully," she said, "by June." One can only assume she means the end of June. And one can only hope she's right. Because a little live music and a cheerful crowd might be enough to make it worth going out of your way to the Yahley Mill Grill.
Just be sure to call ahead. S
Yahley Mill Grill ($)
2097 New Market Road
Tuesday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Wednesday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday: noon-4 p.m.