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The trip out is a bit long, but Coach House shows real promise.

The Outer Limits

Coach House Tavern at Berkeley Plantation is far afield from Richmond, and fairly well off the beaten path, too. There are no signs for the restaurant along winding Rt. 5, only signs to the plantation, and even they aren't lighted at night. You just have to know where you're going.

Once you're off the road and beyond the gate, pavement gives way to soft gravel. As you motor along toward the manor house you can't help but feel that your noisy modern conveyance offends the Old-World silence of this dark and thickly wooded landscape.

You reach to turn down the radio. Still no lights. Still no signs. Yet it is this complete lack of announcement that marks the romantic charm of this dinnertime travel. It is as if you and your dinner guests are the only people who know to come here.

Though not the original coach house — that was destroyed during the Civil War — the out-building was reconstructed in the late 19th century and in its lifetime has served a variety of supporting roles as a garage and a tool shed, a playhouse and a sandwich shop. Now it's a restaurant.

The current Coach House Tavern started 14 years ago with a focus on the kinds of food the original settlers would have eaten. Get there soon and you're in for a period treat: shad roe. In season roughly from January through June while shad run from deep Atlantic water upstream to spawn, shad roe is something of a delicacy and something of a rarity on Richmond menus.

[image-1](Stacy Warner /, of course, is the fish and roe are its prized eggs. Only don't expect caviar. You'll have to be something of a gastronomic daredevil to order it. I had never tasted it before, and so felt obliged to get it wondering the whole time what makes me do stuff like that. When it arrived, the concern intensified because when you get shad roe you don't just get the eggs, you get the whole egg sack — two of them — each about the size of a calf's liver.

The Coach House shad roe tastes a lot better than it looks. Broiled in butter and served with caramelized onions and smoked bacon over toast rounds, the shad roe is a rich, nutty, smoky tasting meal not for light-side diners.

More mainstream items on the Coach House menu include crab cakes generously sized and seasoned; pan-seared pork loin and wild boar sausage in a sweet potato bourbon sauce; and breast of duck in molasses and pecan sauce.

Chef Jimmy Stump also gives original treatment to standard items, like the Caesar salad, which here is served as a sautée, mellowing what is normally a piquant ameuse guele. Or the pan-seared Atlantic salmon, which receives an unusual and slightly biting green apple pepper relish.

The requisite mushroom appetizer goes uptown as "portabello Oscar," a grilled cap topped with a good-sized crab cake and praised with a corn relish. We also sampled the creamy oyster stew, which gets an added layer of flavor from smoked bacon.

The desserts were a bit disappointing. Only one, we were told, was made on the premises, a fact made all the more disappointing when I found out that the Coach House makes a host of desserts for a Virginia product line which it sells outside the restaurant.

[image-2](Stacy Warner /, Coach House Tavern hasn't lost some of the tired clichés of historic Virginia, in spite of its separation from the tourist business of Berkeley Plantation. The billowy period costumes on the waitstaff, for example, are an unnecessary artifice and make it difficult to take the enterprise seriously. The wine list also could use some work. But, at least, there are no wandering minstrels.

Unfortunately, we also experienced significant glitches in service. Our food, each course from buns to dessert, arrived late and warm at best. Empty appetizer and intermezzo plates lingered too long, and when one of our party questioned the accuracy of his order, he was greeted with confused indifference. A more congenial response would have been an assurance that the matter would be brought swiftly to the attention of the chef. Service slips can be understandable if the waitstaff is in the weeds, but by 9:30 we were the only party in the restaurant, and there had never been more than six tables seated during the previous two hours with two waitresses between them.

Spotty service notwithstanding, when the Coach House decides to polish itself up, I hope one thing they won't do is put up any signs. I don't want to have to fight for a

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