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Jordan’s Great Epicurean Escapes – A Visit to the New Richmond

Jordan Wright

The Jefferson Hotel Rotunda

The Jefferson Hotel Rotunda

Brunch at The Jefferson Hotel in its magnificent columned Rotunda, where ceilings soar to seventy feet, is an over-the-top event. Guests come from miles around to enjoy the finest gourmet Southern cuisine and this spring I wrote glowingly about my experience.

Recently I returned to The Jefferson eager to revisit this splendid property, replete with Tiffany glass ceilings and sweeping Scarlett O’Hara staircases, and to stay where luminaries like Elvis and F. Scott Fitzgerald; actors Morgan Freeman, Sarah Bernhardt and Charlie Chaplin and no less than the great explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, had wined, dined and reveled…presumably after his Everest climb. After all, if nine American presidents and Sheryl Crow thought it had a cool vibe, I knew I would too.

After a short drive from Washington, we crossed the cobblestone drive to the elegant portico. Valets whisked off our bags and seamlessly ushered us in. Along the way we were warmly welcomed by every staff member we passed. In fact, throughout our stay we wondered if they hadn’t confused us with the hotel’s owners or long lost cousins returning to the fold, so very genteel was the staff’s daily attention.

As one of one of the last remaining bastions of Southern hospitality, everything about this hotel spells graciousness and grandeur. Built in 1895 by Major Lewis Ginter, a visionary in the extreme, to compete with Europe’s grand hotels, it featured more luxuries than the QE2 and Titanic put together. The Beaux Arts architecture is breathtaking, the life-size marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, awe-inspiring and the alligators intimidating. Well, actually the alligators aren’t there any longer, but not so long ago they roamed the lobby. Memorialized on the dining room staff’s cute blue and green silk ties they have been revered and adopted as the hotel’s iconic mascots.

Richmond has been enjoying a stunning renaissance of late. Big tobacco no longer dominates and the story on everyone’s lips is the success of Virginia Commonwealth University. To accommodate its 32,000 students VCU has bought up and restored many of the old warehouses and historic Victorian homes that had fallen into disrepair and the city now boasts the largest contiguous Victorian neighborhood in the US.

The revitalization appears all over town in areas like Shockoe Slip and Tobacco Row along the waterfront, where old tobacco warehouses have been turned into shops and offices and in Carytown, the Museum District and the Fan District where you’ll find hip nightspots, coffee houses, quirky boutiques and charming restaurants. I loved the too too fabulous Can Can Brasserie, housed in a former bridal salon, which will have you believing you’re dining at Paris’ La Coupole, and Zeus Gallery Café, a tiny bistro, next to Chadwick and Son Orchids, in the fashionable museum district serving brilliant food.

But foremost on my mind for this quick visit was the redesign of both menu and décor of The Jefferson’s famous restaurant Lemaire. Nine months shuttered, its reopening was greatly anticipated.

Executive Chef Walter Bundy had his early culinary training on a family farm along the Chesapeake Bay where he learned to tend a garden, hunt, fish and prepare meals from what was available. Later he was to learn Southern coastal cuisine on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and train at Mark Miller’s Coyote Café in Santa Fe and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley. He has a keen and dedicated sense for local ingredients in his dishes and he keeps a small herb and vegetable garden behind the hotel where he gleans ingredients for his dishes.

In recent years Lemaire had become stodgy and out-of-date, attracting an older crowd known to preserve their traditions under glass. So when the menu was changed to attract a hipper crowd they feared they might lose their loyal though waning clientele. Instead Richmond’s scions and well-heeled doyennes have embraced the smaller portions and innovative cuisine and the place is filled with a mix of old and young establishment Richmonders flocking to the lively bar before dinner.

It was there we sampled hand-crafted cocktails like ‘Two Grapes”, a sublime concoction of Tomio Junmai Ginyo sake, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and red grapes…quite irresistible…and enjoyed along with Jamerson Farms braised rabbit egg rolls and Kite’s Country Ham with a sweet tangy dipping sauce of spicy orange marmalade and rabbit liver mousse on a caramelized brioche.

With great anticipation we left our nibbles and sips and went to table where we entered into a profound understanding with some Rappahanock River oysters, a locally farmed oyster which I adore and sourced earlier this year for my Inaugural menu. We enjoyed the “Sting Rays”

"Sting Rays" and "Old Salt" oysters at Lemaire - photo credit Jordan Wright

Sting Rays and Old Salt oysters at Lemaire - photo credit Jordan Wright

and “Old Salts”, briny and beautiful, and the ginger-crusted Virginia soft shell crab atop a cous cous tower stacked with watermelon and avocado mousse and highlighted with chili oil. A peppy 1999 J Brut sparkler from the Russian River paved the way and we were off. Wine Director, Ben Eubanks, took savvy charge of the pairings for us during our dinner.

Beef tartare, with local lettuces and horseradish cream charmed us with a 2008 Mas le Dame rose Les Baux-de-Provence., while a 2008 Lawson’s Dry Hill Pinot Gris Marlborough complemented the fried green tomatoes, Silver Queen corn, Surry sausage (a Virginia favorite) and Gulf shrimp succotash with sunflower shoots and buttermilk blue cheese cream.

Three things to note: Tender and velvety-leaved sunflower sprouts are becoming a favorite of mine; rose is coming into its own again and I intend to write more about it in another column and finally, I would eat this delicious dinner all over again and right this minute, for this cuisine, canonized by the great hostesses of Virginia, is as beloved as a favorite child.

A petit cadeau from the chef arrives: A Hanover tomato gazpacho shooter with Chesapeake Bay blue crab, watermelon and a drizzle of basil oil spelling s-u-m-m-e-r to the max.

It is no secret that I am a fan of real stone-milled corn grits…not the soupy, breakfasty, diner-style puddle…but the toothsome kind, a close neighbor to polenta. And Lemaire, paean to the cherished cooking of the South, serves their antebellum Carolina grits with seared ocean scallops, sautéed spinach and fire-roasted tomato sauce. As a pleasing counterbalance a 2005 Enotria Barbera from Mendocino shone over all. My partner chose the curry-scented lamb loin that strode alongside of cauliflower mousse, garlic rapini and fresh local huckleberry jus that harmonized with a 2002 Romero and Miller Rentas de Fincas Rioja Reserve. You just knew the riojas were coming, now, didn’t you?

At last we chose a dark chocolate terrine with scattered wild berries and sabayon sauce and a huckleberry semifreddo to crown this exquisite repast.

Chocolate terrine with wild berries and sabayon sauce at Lemaire - photo credit Jordan Wright

Chocolate terrine with wild berries and sabayon sauce at Lemaire - photo credit Jordan Wright

Dining at Lemaire that evening I detected a warm camaraderie. Shared smiles and nods from other diners created the sense that everyone in the room held the same secret…that we were all there for a very special reason. It was a remarkable and unique experience.

In the morning we scampered out to Independence Golf Club, a Tom Fazio designed course just twenty minutes out of town in Midlothian. Its Jeffersonian-styled clubhouse, known as the Charles House, is home to the Museum of Virginia Golf History and is chock-a-block with trophies and memorabilia from tournaments passed. We opted for the nine-hole course. Since, even with a breeze and shaded paths, the heat was stifling. This club has both an eighteen and a nine-hole course. Notwithstanding, we were the only wilted wimps on the nine.

Later in the day we opted for a tour of the famous Hollywood Cemetery, known as one of the more intriguing historic venues in Richmond. US Presidents James Monroe and James Tyler; Confederate President, Jefferson Davis; six former governors and a heap of noted southerners are interred here in a cemetery of over 200 hilly acres. Recently they instituted guided Segway tours of the grounds and, after a few minutes of required instruction, we were ready to “roll” with Mr. Butterworth as our guide. E. L. is a certified guide trained by the Historic Richmond Foundation, and he was a veritable encyclopedia of Virginia arcana. He regaled us with both on and off-the-record tales of this cemetery perched above the beautiful James River. We took in the cool breeze off the mighty river and saw Belle Isle where picnickers were splashing, swimming and wading from rock to rock.

The following day we toured Agecroft, a remarkable 17th century Tudor house brought by sea and train from Lancashire, England and painstakingly reassembled here. Housing one of the nation’s finest collection of 16th and 17th century furnishings, this estate and its elegant Elizabethan gardens are a must see. In summer they present a Shakespearean festival under the stars.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden - photo credit Jordan Wright

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden - photo credit Jordan Wright

On our way home we stopped at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden which has blossomed into a world-class 82 acre garden featuring an enormous conservatory with tropical orchid wing; Bloemendaal House, the antique-filled ancestral home of the Ginter family; a children’s garden; the Lace House Garden with its hand carved gazebo; the Sunken Garden inspired by ancient Rome; the Healing Garden with medicinal plants; and many other separate gardens to explore. A community kitchen garden project, staffed by local volunteers, donates more than 500 pounds of fresh produce each summer to the Central Virginia Foodbank.

Our two-day two-night stay showed us a small snapshot of Richmond and we plan to return soon and often to explore more of the city. Before you plan your trip visit the sites below for more information on these and other attractions.

For comments or questions write [email protected].

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