The more I eat out and the more I write about food and restaurants, the more I am charmed by places like Ettamae's in Jackson Ward. With a family focus that starts with the bistro's namesake, the grandmother of brother-and-sister-team chef Matthew Morand and Laura Morand Bailey, this quirky two-story edifice packs a lot of punch.
Laura was manager of the Byrd House Market for two years, and Matthew's résumé includes local retaurants such as Du Jour. The location, dear to Laura, who used to live in the neighborhood, was found on Craigslist. The picture immediately drew them in and within a week of seeing the ad, the pair had signed a lease.
Downstairs is an attractive open kitchen and to-go counter. Desserts tease from under glass domes. Seating is upstairs, and the décor in this converted row house manages to merge nostalgia and bohemian hippieness. An adorable small patio has room for five tables, and offers a romantic setting complete with festoons of twinkle lights and an elevated view.
The café serves lunch and dinner, as well as brunch on the weekends, in a section of downtown Richmond that's become hot again. Jackson Ward was once known as the Harlem of the South, and the Hippodrome Theater, which is next door, hosted the likes of James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald. That turn-of-the-century treasure is slated to re-open in September. My hope is that the chef and the staff at Ettamae's can keep up with demand as word gets out and volume is sure to increase.
The lunch menu features old-fashioned favorites like the meatloaf sandwich, which I thoroughly enjoyed on one of my visits. The thick slab of moist and well-seasoned ground beef meatloaf, nestled between delicious Amish white bread Matthew had made that morning and accompanied by a generous squirt of ketchup, hit the spot. I hear the same bread makes its way into the stuffed French toast at brunch. Now I'm swoony. Sides run the gamut from spoon bread to potato salad to a refreshing cucumber salad that was light on the mayo and generous with the fresh dill. My friend was less happy with her roasted-red-pepper-hummus sandwich. While Nina loved the wheat-berry bread she chose, the hummus was too garlicky for her taste. We ended up with two small tarts to conclude the meal – one with a custard filling and raisins, the other with apples. They weren't exactly what we were expecting, but the bite-size pastries were flavorful and went well with the cup of Blanchard's coffee I ordered.
Dinner was a similar mix of tasty fare and disconcerting flaws, but a few unexpected treats left Russ and me with a happy glow and no question that we would visit again soon. The romance of the second-floor balcony cannot be understated, but the poor waiter had to traipse back and forth through what probably used to be a window. Also, tangled thick orange extension cords, and bus tubs balanced on chairs, might be functional, but they are unsightly.
Live music in the dining room was a pleasant surprise and since my favorite dining companion and I weren't in the room with him but under a balmy night sky instead, the folksy guitar music didn't drown out our conversation. We shared an order of shrimp cocktail, a classic interpretation that requires no fussiness. Six succulent tiger shrimp with a wedge of lemon surrounded a dollop of piquant cocktail sauce. We devoured them.
Russ' hanger steak was juicy and flavorful and perfectly grilled. Hearty cheddar-cheese grits made a delicious accompaniment. Though the stewed collard greens could have been more vinegary, slow-cooked and with a hint of brown sugar and a little bite, they were still damn good. My St. Louis ribs tasted great – not too sweet or sticky, with a smoky flavor that gave them balance. I thought they were a tad fatty, but Russ thought they were awesome. I liked the zucchini gratin even better. The squash retained enough texture to offer substance and gooey delight with Swiss cheese and toasted-bread-crumb topping. For dessert, Russ and I opted for the "strawberry shortcake" – an untraditional version with crazy-good, house-made strawberry ice cream and the café's signature Canadian tea biscuit. We loved it.
I've eaten at Ettamae's four times now. While my reaction to the food varied from out-of-this-world to mild disappointment, the service could not have been friendlier. It's run by caring owners who make good food from scratch. There is a concentration on technique — execution versus pretense.
On my second trip, my daughter Halle downed two delicious peach-infused iced teas while I sipped a fabulous champagne cocktail called the Gracie, made with organic lemonade and basil simple syrup. We split a spot-on small pizza topped with caramelized onions and smoked Gouda while a spontaneous summer shower cooled the air. From the large second-story windows, we spied a dazzling rainbow. I know that Matthew and Laura didn't conjure it, but it sure felt that way.
522 N. Second St., 888-8058
Prices: Lunch sandwiches and combos, $5.25 to $11.50; dinner appetizers and pizza $5 to $10, entrées $14 to $26, desserts $4 to $5.50.
Hours: Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; brunch is offered Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.