Towering majestically over the city of Richmond, Virginia, the Jefferson Hotel is a landmark that’s impossible to miss. On my recent trip to the River City I caught glimpses of it out of taxicab windows and while rafting through mighty Class IV rapids along the post-rainstorm James. As the city moves to adopt contemporary trends including craft breweries and “farm-to-table" eateries, the Jefferson looms over it all, a historic relic that preserves the past against the erosion of time.
As I walked through the Franklin entrance of the luxurious hotel, I indeed felt transported back to another age. Past the Grand Staircase, said to have inspired the staircase featured in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and the marble pool that was once home to a live alligator, is the emblematic Lemaire restaurant, first opened in 1986. The restaurant is named after Etienne Lemaire, who served as maître d’ to Thomas Jefferson and was credited with first teaching American chefs the proper use of wine as a cooking ingredient. Upon entering the elegant Ginter Room, named after the hotel’s founder, my eyes were drawn to vintage furniture, gracefully curved decanters and a table draped in white linen. I expected the cuisine to reflect the pomp of the venue. I anticipated intimidating entrees, heavy sauces and soaring prices. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to pick up a very approachable menu.
While the Richmond natives at the table raved about a magical Lemaire on Christmas Eve, it’s actually the everyday accessibility that makes the restaurant truly unique. Lemaire once served primarily as a place to celebrate special occasions. It represented a once-in-a-while splurge for locals and a dining destination for tourists. Although the restaurant was successful, its celebrity did not reflect the wishes of Chef Walter Bundy and his team: to make Lemaire a local hangout with repeated business, a neighborhood favorite. This all changed when the restaurant was closed in January of 2009 for a 6-month renovation.
The outcome of the project was a modern Lemaire that reopened in July, a more casual venue that allows guests to enjoy a fine dining experience in a less formal setting. Bundy also succeeded in making the menu itself more approachable by lowering prices and adding a bar section with appetizer sized snacks starting at $5. Although the wine list remains quite broad and includes some expensive collectibles, a carefully curated “Discoveries” section allows guests to try something new for $30 or less.
The cuisine at the new Lemaire is heavily influenced by Southern tradition, but the concept is positively contemporary. Dishes show modern twists on lasting classics. Ingredients are proudly sourced from Virginia farms to highlight the bounty of local terroir.
The appetizer and bar menus play it safe by offering iconic snacks of the South and Chesapeake Bay. These include pimento cheese, grits, crab cakes and chicken-fried oysters (though I was surprised to find no fried green tomatoes on the list.) While these dishes are by no means avant-garde on their own, their preparation and plating at Lemaire shows plenty of innovation and skill on the part of Bundy. Crab cakes, for example, appear atop a smear of parsnip mousse with tender baby spinach and crunchy fennel tempura added for texture. The plate is painted with bright red and yellow bell pepper butters. Local Rappahannock Barcat oysters from the Chesapeake are deep fried to achieve a crispy, golden brown crust and served on a mound of creamy stone-ground grits, peppered bacon and a refreshing slaw of Tuscan kale that cuts the fatty oyster with its bright acidity and crunch. And the pimento cheese – well –it’s just your traditional pimento cheese, made with sharp white cheddar. But who doesn’t love this classic, the “caviar of the South,” especially when it’s served with fresh sourdough and whole cloves of roasted garlic?
Despite the familiarity of the rest of the menu options, the Dot and Woodrow’s Powhatan rabbit hand pie caught my attention. A hand pie is a portable pie, semilunar in shape, whose roots can be traced back to the plantation days of the American South. As Alton Brown explains in a Good Eats episode “A Pie in Every Pocket,” some plantation slaves would sneak away leftover dough and filling with which to make hand pies (also known as “pocket pies”) for themselves. The pies are filled, folded over and crimped before being fried or baked. In shape and preparation they are quite similar to the empanadas ubiquitous across South America. While hand pies are traditionally sweet with a fruity filling, Bundy’s are a savory spin on the classic. Moist and tender shreds of rabbit, raised by Dot and Woodrow Jamerson in Powhatan, serve as the filling here. The warm, fried pies are balanced in temperature and texture by a refreshing salad of watercress, endive and shiitake mushrooms from amFOG Farms located in the nearby Afton Mountain of Virginia. Some bright New Mexico red chile sauce adds the kick that the fried pocket needs, but does so without overpowering the subtle flavors of the rabbit within.
When it came time to choose entrees, all but one non-vegetarian at the table ordered Lemaire’s signature rooftop honey glazed pork loin chop. The loin is grilled to perfection. As I prodded the center of the thick chop with my forefinger, the meat responded with the perfect bounce. It was tight but perfectly tender, the natural sweetness of the pork heightened by the honey with which it was glazed. Adding to the “cool factor” of the dish is the fact that the aforementioned honey is produced by bees lucky enough to have taken permanent residence at the historical hotel – or on top of it, rather. The rooftop honeybees, installed by beekeeper David Stover and garden consultant Nina Zinn, owner of Urban Backyard Edibles, produce only enough of the sweet stuff to flavor a few of the restaurant’s cocktails and dishes. But the mantras of quality over quantity and farm-to-table (or in this case roof-to-table) ring clear. The pork chop is served with slow braised turnip greens and some juicy roasted pears, drizzled in a bourbon pan sauce. Accompanying the meat is also a delightful pillow of old time spoon bread, a cornmeal based Southern staple with the consistency of Yorkshire pudding. The natural, ripe sweetness of the corn harmonizes beautifully with the floral sweetness of the honey and the more subtle meaty sweetness of the pork. The savory bourbon pan sauce adds contrast and tames the dulzor.
Comfortably satiated from the ample hunk of pork, dessert was something I nevertheless could not refuse. My favorite was the warmplum brown butter cake, a moist pound cake in the shape of a pop over. The nuttiness of the toasted butter provides a great backbone of flavor to the sweet chunks of caramelized plum baked in and goes perfectly with the crunchy candied almonds sprinkled over the top. Melting bashfully against the warmth of the cake was a scoop of delicate Virginia ice cream and some crunchy spheres of puffed rice that resembled glittering pearls strewn across the plate. A close second was the meyer lemon crème brûlée whose caramel surface is delicate enough to break with a single tap of the spoon but whose custard within could maybe use a bit more juice for citrus flavor. The large ramekin of crème is served with a crumbly blackberry shortbread thumbprint cookie. It’s a wonderful dessert to share with a friend or special someone and the perfect way to end a night out at one of Richmond’s most treasured spots.
Lili Kocsis is a self-proclaimed gastronome. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a BA in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine under the penname MyAmusedBouche.