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Hanover Tavern’s lemon crème brûlée cheesecake is a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Beth Furgurson photos
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roasted Cornish game hen with spring onions, grapes, walnuts and oven-roasted fingerling potatoes.
Hanover Tavern & Pub sits in a charming little town filled with attractive old buildings, including the courthouse, a couple of antiques stores and a crossroads so cute it could easily be pictured on a postcard. It's a convenient, history-infused location to have a meal before a production of the Barksdale Theatre, which may be the country's oldest dinner theater.
The Barksdale's Hanover branch is a 150-seat venue just steps from the pub. The two have been synonymous for more than 50 years. A special three-course, pre-theater menu guarantees a meal that won't make you late for the play. The 200-year-old, white clapboard building also provides a quaint and picturesque backdrop for special events such as wedding receptions, which take place mostly in a tent on the expansive back lawn.
The pub itself is somewhat dark. It's basically a basement. There are tippy tables and a curious attempt at faux finishing, but despite its flaws, the chocolate stained floors, the low-rafted ceilings and the decorative ironwork on creamy yellow walls create a certain casually romantic atmosphere. On a cold winter night, a roaring fire in the fireplace that dominates the wall opposite the entrance would fill out the setting magically.
A year ago, ownership of Hanover Tavern & Pub changed hands. Michelle Williams, a partner in Richmond Restaurant Group, sold it to a pair of investors: Frank Bradley and Bob Bailie. I was curious to see what kind of change new leadership and a new culinary team would bring about.
Unfortunately the restaurant's offerings generally struggled to match the pleasant ambiance. The she-crab soup that my boyfriend, Russ, ordered as an appetizer was thick and goopy. We had a hard time finding the crabmeat, though there was the barest hint of sherry, which made it agreeable. My hands-down favorite item in an otherwise regrettable meal was the fried okra starter served with a grainy mustard sauce that was light and not at all greasy. I love this Southern dish, and the execution of it was truly fabulous.
My $13 meatloaf served with the classic pairing of mashed potatoes, green beans and country-style gravy was passable, although light on flavor and heavy on the stomach. I ate only enough to sample it. The shrimp and grits with fried Brussels sprouts were just plain bad. The menu description listed "salsa verde," but that consisted of limp and bland green peppers. And while many versions include bacon, this one had Cajun sausage in addition to the aforementioned (and odd) choice of Brussels sprouts. The generous portion of medium-sized shrimp was cooked perfectly, but the Byrd Mill grits that served as the foundation of the entire concoction screamed for salt and more white cheddar cheese. (Brownie points for sourcing locally, though. The mill is located in nearby Ashland.)
Russ and I split the house-made lemon cheesecake for dessert. The graham-cracker crust was too thick, but the filling was pleasantly zesty, and the consistency was velvety and firm. And it wasn't too sweet. Not a spectacular rendition, but it helped end the evening on a good note.
Brunch a couple of weeks later with my daughters was similarly disappointing, redeemed only by the amazing house-made jam that accompanied my biscuit. Cranberries, strawberries and blueberries came together in a zippy combo that was the highlight of the meal. The complimentary miniature blueberry muffins, served in a basket while we perused the menu, were almost black on the outside. While they were surprisingly edible, the appearance was off-putting. Cary ordered a bowl of grits with a side of bacon. The same lumpy grits that had begged for salt in the shrimp-and-grits dish appeared. Cary was polite and nibbled at the portion, but after a little while she leaned over and whispered, "Granddad's are much better."
The service throughout both meals was sincere, but there were some oversights. No butter for the biscuit or the grits, no spoon for my coffee and water only on request left me feeling that the staff had some kinks to work out.
Halle ordered the beet salad, a predictable mélange of roasted red and yellow beets over arugula with a skimpy sprinkling of goat cheese, red onions and pecans drizzled with an orange-and-tarragon vinaigrette. She loves a similar salad at a French bistro in Carytown and scarfs up that version. This one she picked at, eating the beets that were overcooked and slightly shriveled and the lumps of goat cheese. The dressing had an unpleasant, strong and sour taste, so the greens stayed on the plate.
My fried green tomatoes with eggs could have been fabulous. The kitchen has a talent for deep-frying vegetables, and these reminded me of the okra, which I had enjoyed. The tomatoes had a light, crispy batter coating and were yummy. However, the accompanying scrambled eggs were overcooked and grainy.
I need to make one more point here, given the widespread support and downright trendiness of farm-to-table cuisine. Don't serve pineapple with my meal when the garden offers a plethora of local, seasonally appropriate fruit at the height of summer.
13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, 537-5050
Prices: Appetizers $3 to $10; entrées $13 to $26; desserts $6.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.