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The food at Swift Creek Mill is almost as interesting as the building's long history.

A Historic Meal


In this country, we get few opportunities to dine inside structures as old as the Swift Creek Mill, and in my view, that fact alone would justify the 20-minute drive from downtown Richmond to this historic dinner theater. Happily, however, one needn't rely solely on the Mill's historical interest, for most of its fare merits the drive as well.

The man who erected the mill, Henry Randolph I, had a distinguished English pedigree. The first of a long line of influential Randolphs, Henry arrived in America in 1642 and traveled past the more densely settled coast and up the James River to what is now Colonial Heights. Here, in addition to building the Mill, he held positions as clerk of Henrico County and of the House of Burgesses.

During the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler would skirmish with Bushrod Johnson's division at Swift Creek. After the war, the Mill would house a whiskey distillery, and again function as a grist mill before becoming a playhouse in 1965. Parts of the structure date to the mid-1600s but most of this historical landmark, thought to be the oldest grist mill in this country, dates to the 19th century.

The Mill offers an a la carte menu, and I suggest you schedule your reservations so that you will avoid dining with the pre-theater crowd. Chef Andy Howell, formerly of Petersburg's Portabella, presents a seasonal menu featuring items cooked in a wood-burning oven. Thankfully, this menu pays tribute to early American history only in graphical appearance and not in culinary style. On our holiday-week visit, a server was friendly, attentive and patient with our countless inquiries — I should add, however, that the restaurant was virtually empty.

[image-1]Photo by Hilary BenasAn Eastern Shore Oyster Stew ($7.50) included whole oysters and derived its appealing flavor from smoked bacon and scallions but suffered slightly from an overly rich cream base which seemed more saucelike than souplike. I'd split this with a friend — preferably a cardiologist. "Potage of the Moment" ($2.50 per cup, $3.95 per bowl) was a pleasant puree of potato with just a hint of fennel sausage that imparted a lingering smoky essence. I had anticipated pieces of sausage, but my disappointment waned as I appreciated the soup's subtleties. Swift Creek's house salads and bread suggest the kitchen cares about the basics. The salad's mixed greens were fresh, well-dressed, and complemented with ripe tomato slices. A bread basket included homey oversized rolls and delightful foccacia squares with olives, sun-dried tomatoes and a sprinkling of coarse salt.

From the wood-burning oven came six "flatbreads" ($7.50-$9.95) with toppings such as smoked salmon, onion and goat cheese; fresh tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella; and the one we tried, mozzarella, pecorino, Gorgonzola and Parmesan. This individual-sized pizza, called the "Fromagio," had a thick, irregular and puffy crust topped with a garlicky mix of cheeses whose individual flavors harmonized well. I liked it, but if you're a strict thin crispy-crust fan, you might not.

Unfortunately, I can offer little praise for the mixed grill entrée ($21.95), except perhaps for its sheer quantity of meat. Marinated sirloin was on the tough side and its marinade only mediocre. Pork and beef fennel sausage was a tad dry, and mashed potatoes were gummy — either overworked or (heaven forbid) reheated. Only the Dijon coated chicken leg impressed us, and $21.95 is too much to pay for a chicken leg, even in a 17th-century mill. "Duck Two Ways," ($18.95) on the other hand, was a genuine pleasure. The kitchen cooked (apparently braised) the duck leg to utter perfection — it was as tender, juicy and flavorful as I've ever encountered. The smoked breast was also good, but less so than the leg. Wilted kale provided a solid accompaniment for this dish which was appropriately served on a bed of white beans.

Desert selections were numerous. We sampled a fine mocha-chip cheesecake, an artfully presented and quite debauched chocolate pté, and a slightly disappointing crŠme br–lée — the subtitles of which were lost to an overwhelming nutmeg flavor.

Swift Creek Mill combines good fare with an ambience of rustic whitewashed stone walls and weathered wooden beams to arrive at a remarkably enjoyable dining experience. If Richmond's restaurants are numbingly familiar to you but you don't have time to really get away, this place is just the

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