Menu trends don't just sprout up. They're grown, shaped and formed by chefs, just like rolling meat into meatballs. First comes an idea — shreds of ingredients. Then it sticks. And then we can't get enough of it
New ingredients go through five crazy stages. They begin in nouveau restaurants, like Chicago's Next, and then end in ubiquity, as a Hardee's sandwich. Take pork belly: It's still bacon at the drive-thru but not at mid-priced, independently owned places. These stage-three spots serve dishes at their peak of desirability, just before they're everywhere. Here, pork belly is shellacked and worshiped.
The Savory Grain Restaurant & Draft House is a stage-three restaurant, meaning that it's in a sweet spot to cash in on plates that we can't stop ordering. Chef Sean Murphy executes a menu that everyone seems to want. After stints at F. W. Sullivan's and Lady N'awlins, he's brought his A-game to Savory Grain, serving familiar but fashionable food, such as citrus-glazed pork belly and fried-green-tomato and pimento-cheese sandwiches.
Owner Jami Bohdan has worked dining-room feng shui on the former Empress space. It's light and airy; she's added seating and a longer bar; a shabby chic chandelier hangs in a secluded niche. And the patio is full, because the restaurant is delivering what Richmonders hunger for.
A wide-ranging selection runs from warm kale salad to knife-and-fork burgers, suiting a place that fills growlers of beer to-go. Meatloaf comes in a size that says, "Don't rile the villagers." Moist, meaty and snuggled up to Gorgonzola mashed potatoes, it's best eaten in drawstring pants. Most of the menu is self-explanatory, as if to compensate for the dozens of taps with mysteriously funky names that your beer-geek friends will know more about than you care to find out.
Farm-to-table are words that run the risk of becoming meaningless, sort of like "artisan." Savory Grain does well supporting local purveyors, buying from Deltaville Oyster Company and using locally made buns for sandwiches. The marriage of local and gastropub is tied together by integrating craft beer into sauces, making for an interesting menu.
Our waitress explains the dinner specials. She does it with our first pull of a beer, before we glance at the menus. Though written on a chalkboard, it's easier hearing about the rockfish from someone who knows every ingredient in the squash casserole that it comes with. She brings cranberry-thyme cornbread and rolls made from Bohdan's family recipe.
We order the fried calamari with runny egg, chorizo, smoked shallots and grilled jalapeños mostly out of disbelief. We ask our waitress to talk us out of it — but she doesn't. She says, "I think you should," and she's right. The calamari is tender, the bowl soupy with egg and spicy tomato sauce. We finish the mountain of it.
A grilled portabella sandwich is lovely to look at, piled with fresh spinach, but a touch too vinegary. Hand-cut fries do a smashing job of absorbing vinegar, so we pile them on top. Not pretty, but it works.
A salad of grilled romaine with dried figs, almonds, onion straws and blue cheese is a head of lettuce in search of more vinaigrette once its leaves are unbound. Husband doesn't miss a bite of the house-cut pork chop with mushroom ragout, but to me the cream sauce tastes bland after the mattress-sized fried chicken sandwich with jalapeños that I'm eating.
For some people, dessert is mandatory. The cream-drenched, chocolate-chip bread pudding needs only a bed to make it more sinful. A workhorse of a dessert for sure, but who cares? I'd hop on it anytime, cold and straight from the fridge.
The Savory Grain Restaurant & Draft House
2043 W. Broad St., 592-4000,
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 4 to 11p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Dinner, $5 to $20