Richmond has no shortage of brunch options. At the extremes are Millie's, with its eclectic mix of fusion entrées and morning-after revelers, and The Jefferson's famous champagne brunch buffet, replete with design-your-own omelet and prime-rib carving stations. In between are the low-key offerings of a dozen or so corner-of-the-Fan joints hoping to serve more alcohol than food.
Two things set the Dining Room at The Berkeley Hotel apart from its Sunday competition: the intense focus on food and the intensely formal etiquette. The latter extends beyond the normal white linen and valet parking, and draws a clear standard for its clientele. If you're coming straight from church, drop the kids off with a sitter; the arrival of one baby ruffled a few gray feathers. And if you're not coming straight from church, dress as if you were. Casual diners risk drawing the surprisingly overt disapproval of the server.
But if what you're looking for a place to impress your holiday guests, you've found it. For $32.95 with champagne (or $27.95 without), diners at The Berkeley are treated to a three-course menu of traditional French country and American regional fare (read: Southern) that, at its best, borders on the sublime and, at its worst, is unimaginative but still good. Remember, this is Richmond's only AAA Four Diamond restaurant, and it has received the honor each year since Culinary Institute of America-trained Chef Michael Hall took the helm.
This prix-fixe menu offers diners a limited choice of appetizer, entrée and dessert. Hall's appetizers serve their traditional function: an introduction to rich flavors that whet the palate without appeasing the appetite. The trouble with the appetizers is what to choose. Consider: Chicken ramaki a roasted drumette wrapped in bacon and served with a rosemary-honey mustard sauce and frisee. Or she-crab bisque with Celtic sea-salt crostini deep, rich flavor with a hint of sherry and plenty of sweet lump crab meat. Or maybe fried oyster bruschetta plump oysters with a crisp breading placed atop grilled sourdough slices and bathed in a rich sherry cream sauce.
The queen of brunch entrées, eggs Benedict, depends on the mixture of hollandaise with warm egg yolk, the latter essentially doubling the richness of the sauce. Add tender Smithfield ham and a flaky croissant, and the effect is transcendent. Sadly, this city is peppered with menus that promise this treat and kitchens that can't deliver; it is disconcertingly difficult to find properly poached eggs during Sunday brunch. But The Berkeley delivers on its promise with a straightforward, classic version, proving the restaurant rule that the key to success lies in execution, not elaboration.
The bistro steak and eggs also hit the high mark with an excellent cut of marinated flank grilled to perfection and served au jus with eggs and a beautiful rendition of home fries. At The Berkeley this means thinly sliced fingerling potatoes and a nice fine chop, or brunoise, of red pepper and onion for a flavorful kick. Hall knows how to treat a potato with respect. Both his pommes frites (aka french fries) and his ranch-style made-to-order potato chips may be made from the same tuber as their fast-food counterparts, but the similarity ends there.
The only food-related qualms I had were the inclusion of a chicken BLT and a crab-cake sandwich on the menu. Both were nicely prepared but left me asking, so what? There are plenty of places in town to get a good sandwich places you can go in jeans with the kids and feel at home.
You don't go to The Berkeley to feel at home. Au contraire. You go for a dining experience you can't get at home, an experience that may peak during the last course. Brunch desserts are rarely much of an attraction, but as the end of this tour de force, they are spectacular. Think dark chocolate truffles, raspberry coulis, crème anglaise and Amaretto in combinations so rich and luxurious it may feel odd to emerge from the hotel and find that it's still midday.
So forget all the awful urban legends about brunch as an inventory-cleansing tool. In The Dining Room at The Berkeley and, more important, in Hall's kitchen Sunday is as big an event as Friday night. S
The Dining Room at The Berkeley Hotel ($$$)
1200 E. Cary St.
Weekend brunch: Saturday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (champagne brunch offered on Sunday only)
Breakfast: Monday-Friday: 7-10:30 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday: 7:30-10:30 a.m.
Lunch: Monday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday: 5:30-10 p.m.; Sunday 5:30-9 p.m.