Richmond for the Holidays

Jordan Wright
December 5, 2017
Photo credit Jordan Wright

The holidays are a time for making memories with loved ones.  Agreed?  But if thoughts of capturing your seasonally-imbued memories feature a well-worn sofa and boxed wine, then read no further.  This adventure requires you trot out your childlike sense of wonderment.

In a city that has emerged as a world class destination with cutting-edge cuisine, art exhibitions often seen nowhere else in America and a five-star luxury hotel, Richmond provides everything a couple or family could ever dream of.  Okay, no skiing.  And that’s what the holidays are all about isn’t it?  Making wishes come true.

The magnificent stained glass skylight in the Palm Court lobby

The magnificent stained glass skylight in the Palm Court lobby

I admit, I get a thrill of anticipation each time I check into The Jefferson Hotel – a turn of the 20th century American classic in the tradition of the country’s grandest hotels.  The more familiar I am with its pleasures the more I feel the need to revisit, if only to assure myself that all is well with the world.

Carrara marble statue of Thomas Jefferson amid Tiffany windows in the Palm Court lobby

Carrara marble statue of Thomas Jefferson amid Tiffany windows in the Palm Court lobby

On this trip, I planned to experience the recent room renovations.  The improvements at this 2017 recipient of the Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond Award are not mere window dressing, they are both elegant and technologically clever with television screens built invisibly into the vanity mirrors.

New marble bathrooms at The Jefferson Hotel – Courtesy photo

Marble, marble and more marble abounds on bathroom countertops, soaking tubs, and the spacious walk-in showers.

Grand Premier Room – Courtesy photo

Luxuriate on poufy comforters and down pillows adorning beautifully tailored designer bedding.  Recently the hotel’s 262 guest rooms were rebuilt into 181 spacious new rooms, including 15 suites with entry foyers and spacious dressing areas.  Our suite had a kitchen with marble countertop plus a large mahogany dining table and spacious living area with a view of the city.

JEFFERSON SUITE LIVING ROOM

Jefferson Suite Living Room – Courtesy photo

Perfect for inviting guests in for cocktails before dinner, or entertaining six for dinner in your private suite.  And though room service is 24-hours a day, you’ll want to get out and about.

 Jefferson Hotel Holiday Tree ~ Photo credit - "The Jefferson Hotel".

Jefferson Hotel Holiday Tree – Courtesy Photo

But first we stare in wonder at the Christmas decorations.  Hundreds of poinsettias, yards of garland and ribbon, thousands of twinkling lights and dozens of toy soldiers adorn the Palm Court Lobby and the surrounding areas.  A gingerbread display made from hundreds of pounds of gingerbread, royal icing and candies dazzles even the grownups.  At midday, musical ensembles play familiar carols in the Rotunda and the festive ambiance is utterly magical.

Courtesy photo

Pro tip: If you’re planning on being here on a Sunday, book ahead for the lavish ‘Champagne Brunch’, and do not miss the spoonbread.  The hotel’s signature breakfast concoction with deep Southern roots, is as light and fluffy as a cloud.  Ask for the recipe.  No, beg!  I did.

Oh, and be sure to swing by Blooms at The Jefferson, the flower and gift shop on the lower level.  I always find great hostess gifts and, of course, petits bibelots pour moi.

The hotel is currently offering a Holidays at The Jefferson Package for those wishing to celebrate the season with an overnight stay.  It includes a newly constructed Grand Premier Room, complimentary valet parking, and rates from $275 per room, per night.

Sally Bell’s Kitchen

Sally Bell’s Kitchen

There is so much to do in town that after dropping off our luggage with the bellman, we head for lunch at the iconic Sally Bell’s Kitchen, a luncheonette directly across from the Science Museum of Virginia where you can tour special holiday exhibits including Ralphie’s, A Christmas Story, and “Fruitcake Science”.

At Sally Bell’s find throwback lunch fare like pimento cheese, corned beef spread, Smithfield ham on a roll, tomato aspic (this must be a Southern thing) and more, plus thirteen different flavors of cupcakes (caramel!) and five different kinds of pies (lemon chess!) with which you can fortify yourself for the day ahead.

Black History Museum of Virginia is housed in the former Leigh Street Armory

Cross the street to visit the Science Museum or opt for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center featuring art exhibitions and artifacts commemorating the accomplishments of African Americans in Virginia.

Black History Museum of Virginia

Black History Museum of Virginia

Recently relocated to a beautifully renovated location (at the Leigh Street Armory), it is an interactive and modern museum.  For hours of operation visit website.

A must see is the Lewis Ginter Gardens spectacular Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights from 5 till 10pm.   This annual holiday tradition glows with more than half-a-million twinkling lights, hand-crafted botanical decorations, model trains, holiday dinners, a fire pit with s’mores and hot chocolate, nightly family activities and more.  For tickets and information visit website.

A restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about is L’Opossum, where chef and proprietor David Shannon has been creating masterfully complex dishes in an eclectically decorated, nondescript corner spot on China Street.  I promise you’ve never seen anything like it with its Flintstones throw pillows and 50’s satellite chandeliers in a cozy, candlelit, appealingly garish room that feels like Gay Paree meets your granddad’s rec room. But don’t cast a gimlet eye on the quirky décor or the 1940’s illustration of a chic pirate on the menu – Shannon has a curatorial eye for mid-century modern – this is serious cuisine and it’s the essence of the new Richmond.

Charred and chilled Chinese five-spice slices of venison – Chasing Dragons Above the Clouds of Yuzu with Lotus Chips (Left) – Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Fernet-Branca soaked Apricots, Butternut Squash Puree, Cherry-brandied Apples and Brown Butter Toasted Pecans (Right)

Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fab craft cocktails made with top shelf liquor and house made ingredients.  Expect the unexpected.  The ‘Hooty Hoo’ is a White Russian served with Yoo-Hoo, Black Lava salt and Xocolatl bitters.  The ‘Honey Badger’ is a blend of Belle Isle Honey Habanero Moonshine, muddled jalapeno and orange, Ginjo Sake and St. Germain.  Go on with your bad self.  Have one of each.

Les Escargots a la Ham Biscuit with Sweet Garlic Beurre Blanc (Left) Old Thymey Chicken Fricassee - Port and Chardonnay Drenched Breast and Thigh Topped with Lemon Spaetzle, Escarole and Lardons in a Mustard Jus (Right)

Les Escargots a la Ham Biscuit with Sweet Garlic Beurre Blanc (Left) Old Thymey Chicken Fricassee – Port and Chardonnay Drenched Breast and Thigh Topped with Lemon Spaetzle, Escarole and Lardons in a Mustard Jus (Right)

Shannon, who was a semi-finalist for ‘Best Chef Mid-Atlantic’ by the James Beard Foundation, likes luxe ingredients – caviar, foie gras, brandied figs, absinthe mists, escargots and flambéd desserts.

La Petit Mort au Chocolat en Flambe avec une compote de la cerises noir (Left) – The Rainbow Spoonicorn – “A mythical saffron and citrus confection with hand churned blackberryice cream. “A defiant lack of inhibitions and sprinkles” (Right)

Expect a dining experience that would wow even the most sophisticated palate.  Reservations are a must in this tiny, romantic spot.

Citizen restaurant

Citizen restaurant

On day two we rose early and headed downtown for breakfast at the industrial-cute, Citizen.  Laser-focused on the Southern thing, we order bowls of stone ground Byrd Mill grits topped with swirls of melted butter, sour dough toast with pear butter, Benton’s bacon, lentils with feta (too healthy?) and steaming hot cappuccinos.

Citizen’s bar and open kitchen

Citizen’s bar and open kitchen

This lively spot serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu that trends hip, healthy and international.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, one of the nation’s premier museums, is currently featuring ‘The Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China’.  The exhibition showcases ten majestic terracotta figures, including a cavalry horse and 130 works that tell the story of China’s birth.

The Sculpture Garden at VMFA

The Sculpture Garden at VMFA

You’ll also see arms and armor, horse and chariot fittings, ritual bronze vessels, works in gold and silver, jade ornaments, precious jewelry, and ceramics from the First Emperor’s mausoleum complex.  If that isn’t thrilling enough, there’s the reinstallation of the museum’s breathtaking Fabergé Collection.  For timed tickets to The Terracotta Army exhibit visit website.

The Urban Farmhouse Market & Kitchen

The Urban Farmhouse Market & Kitchen

You can linger at lunch at Amuse or the more casual café, or head over to Scott’s Addition to The Urban Farmhouse Market & Café, a nifty, rustic place that features local artists and farm-to-table.  It’s a friendly, low-key hangout with wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling retractable windows and, naturally, a farmhouse vibe.  The daily selection of gourmet sandwiches and salads, smoothies, espresso drinks, fresh pressed juices and fair-trade teas are listed on the chalkboard menu.  Browse the antique wooden cupboards for local foodstuffs to take home.

Scott’s Addition is the trendy neighborhood for millennials, with its reconverted warehouse loft apartments, hipster eateries, coffee brewers, and craft beer breweries like The Veil Brewing Company, Strangeways Brewing, Isley Brewing Company, Väsen Brewing Company, Ardent Craft Ales and more.  It’s the holy grail for brewhounds and those who like their aging done with apples.  Blue Bee Cider has moved to the hood and is now firmly ensconced in a 19th century reconverted stables.

Blue Bee Ciders

Blue Bee Ciders

While in the neighborhood, scour Class and Trash for cool retro collectibles, farmhouse tables, architectural elements and garden ornaments.

The tasting room at Buskey Hard Cider ~ Buskey Founder/Owner William Correll (Left)

The tasting room at Buskey Hard Cider ~ Buskey Founder/Owner William Correll (Right)

Stop by for a tour and tasting at Buskey Hard Cider.  You’ll probably meet Founder/Owner, William Correll, whose usually on site to explain the aging process – some ciders in steel barrels, some in old whiskey barrels from the Virginia Distillery Company.

Stocking up at The Veil Brewing Company

Stocking up at The Veil Brewing Company

Nearby is The Veil Brewing Company. When we arrived, just before the 4pm opening, there was a line around the block.  We were so shocked we thought they must have been having an early bird bargain sale.  No such luck.

This über popular brewery has a comfy lounge area and a very efficient pick up area for take away and growler refill.  You’ve probably heard of their ‘Double Espresso Hornswaggler’, an espresso chocolate milk stout that shouts “school’s out!”.

Back at the hotel we took a relaxing dip in the indoor pool before dressing for dinner at Lemaire.  There’s no way to prepare you for Lemaire, except to describe it as the height of destination dining.  The hotel’s lavish dining room fairly sparkles with grandeur.  The capacious room is resplendent with crystal chandeliers, heavy silk draperies and exquisitely carved period architecture.

Pearl Oysters, with champagne mignonette ~ Chilled Cucumber Soup with Georgia Olive Oil, Poached Shrimp and Preserved Lemon

Pearl Oysters, with champagne mignonette ~ Chilled Cucumber Soup with Georgia Olive Oil, Poached Shrimp and Preserved Lemon

Place yourself in the expert hands of sommelier Shawn O’Keefe who will gently guide you toward the perfect pairings for Executive Chef Patrick Willis’ seasonal haute cuisine.

Fresh Strawberry and Beet Salad with Wildflower Honey Chèvre, Orange, Ginger and Aged Balsamic Vinegar ~ Pan Roasted Swordfish with Carolina Gold Rice, Grilled Alliums, Roasted Fennel, Pine Nuts, Red Veined Sorrel and Strawberry-Rhubarb Gastrique

Fresh Strawberry and Beet Salad with Wildflower Honey Chèvre, Orange, Ginger and Aged Balsamic Vinegar ~ Pan Roasted Swordfish with Carolina Gold Rice, Grilled Alliums, Roasted Fennel, Pine Nuts, Red Veined Sorrel and Strawberry-Rhubarb Gastrique

Whether your preference leans toward seafood or meat, vegetarian fare or poultry, everything is sumptuously prepared and exquisitely plated.  Desserts are as pretty as they are delectable and you’ll want to linger over a postprandial port or brandy till the cows come home.

Slow Braised Spring Lamb Shank with Mascarpone Cheese Grits, Baby Carrots, English Peas and Trumpet Mushrooms and Port Jus ~ Meyer Lemon Tart with Toasted Meringue and Raspberries

After a quick breakfast of muffins and coffee at the hotel’s bistro, TJ’s, shopping was on our minds and there are plenty of specialty clothing boutiques in Carytown.  Bygones, the vintage clothing store for men and women, comes to mind.  But my personal favorite is Helen Campbell’s La Petite Boutique on MacArthur Avenue.

La Petite Boutique

La Petite Boutique

Helen has an eye for distinctive and feminine statement clothing in luxe fabrics, often with embroidery or intricate pleating.  She also carries fabulous hats and accessories to complete a stunning ensemble you’ll see nowhere else.

Interview with Culinary Icon Jeremiah Tower Upon the Release of the Brilliant Biopic “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2017 

With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America.  It’s an appellation he richly deserves.  As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine.  After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.

His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America.  In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars.  Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.

In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.  His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.

After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.

Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society.  It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.

One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic.  Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart, give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.

I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor.  A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.

Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?

Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes!  It was very strange for me to watch it.  Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.

Are you pleased with the result? 

It was very odd.  Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film.  I was surprised I did it.  I’ve never really done anything like that before.  Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.

Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?

No.  I did that for 35 years.  I’m now getting my physical and mental health together.  I went to the beach.  Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.

I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse.  Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine? 

I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film.  He had the same reaction as you.  It pushed his justice button.  He wanted to tell the story.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He’s an outrageous guy.  Did you know my book has been revised and reissued?  It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.

Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country.  Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?

It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then.  So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills.  They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that.  The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse.  Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.

What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?

Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge.  But, you know, she couldn’t cook.  Neither could Craig Claiborne.  Pierre Franey did all the cooking.  I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara.  The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food.   As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.”  So we prepared the meal.

The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community.  Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?

As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.”  The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.

I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”.  I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge.  A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.”  When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.

I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef.  Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?

I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris.  If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.

You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.

When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.

The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude.  After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?

When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance.  I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.

How would you prepare iguana?

I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it.  It tastes like a reptilian chicken.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.