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BlowToad introduced Richmonders to coal-fired pizza, a house specialty that pairs well with the numerous craft beers available on tap. Photo by Beth Furgurson
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Blow toads (puffer fish) dipped in tempura are a specialty here. Photo by Beth Ferguson.
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Pound cake makes for a sweet end to a meal. Photo by Beth Ferguson
If you lived in Richmond in the '90s, or even if you didn't arrive until after The Frog and the Redneck closed, you knew about it. Jimmy Sneed's restaurant, at the edge of Shockoe Bottom at a time when many refused to go there after dark, put Richmond on the culinary map. It was the talk of the town.
I wasn't quite so enamored with it, thinking it was good but not great, but I loved how the restaurant and Sneed exposed people to new ingredients and familiar ones done in new and exciting ways. They raised the culinary bar, and Richmond liked it.
Sneed's latest venture is BlowToad and, instead of braised veal shanks and stone-ground grits, he's serving pizza out of a 900-degree coal-fired oven, washed down with craft beers, from a prime Carytown location. For hooks, because Sneed has always been known for his hooks (Who would have put stone-ground grits on an upscale dinner plate before he did?), there are blow toads and Bleu Ball pizza made with "swinging steak." Yes, swinging steak is exactly what you might guess it to be. Frankly, if it's on your food bucket list, order it. It makes for a great story for years to come, and it's worth eating as a novelty — but get the appetizer version (strips served with anchovy mayo), not the pizza, trust me.
Good, now that you're done with that, order the blow toads. Actually puffer fish (and also known as sugar toads), the blow toads are dipped in tempura batter and fried in hot peanut oil. Mild in flavor, these tasty treats are reason enough to stop by. A plate of those, washed down with a pint of Richmond's own Hardywood Hoplar (one of 24 beers on tap) out on the porch watching the Carytown scene, is a great way to spend the afternoon.
The coal-fired pizza oven holds lots of promise, but in a town crowded with pizza makers striving to rise above the competition, the product just doesn't stand out. The crusts are inconsistent, sometimes perfectly done with a bit of char, other times uneven or undercooked. The House Red Margherita could have used more salt, and the too-thick slices of mozzarella never had a chance to heat up. The Edwards & Sons pizza, made with Virginia smoked sausage, bacon and "Surryano" ham, verged on being too salty but was quite tasty, especially if you enjoy pork products. With the walk-up pizza window open till 3 a.m. on the weekends, that would be my choice on the way home from a night out.
During four visits, my dining companions and I never noticed Sneed in the restaurant, and I wondered whether an absence of leadership may have led to the inconsistencies in the pizza crusts, as well as an unpleasant experience with my steak order. For $15, not a bad price, you can order Steak Frites. I opted for the outside skirt steak — big mistake. The outside skirt turns out to be much tougher than I expect a normal skirt steak to be, and this one had a heavy iron taste that rendered it inedible. The server replaced it with the other beef option, called a Bistro Tender. The tenderloin was better, albeit overseasoned. The fries, however, were excellent.
For sandwiches, BlowToad uses house-made bread. Described as ciabatta, it lacks the usual large air pockets and crispy crust. But with sandwiches like ham or egg salad, the tougher, more traditional version of the ciabatta might not work with the soft, minced fillings squirting out the sides at the first bite. I thought the country ham salad was very nice, a good balance of salty and creamy. The wife though, citing her Southern tastes, thought it had too much mayonnaise.
BlowToad also serves brunch on Sundays. A 900-degree oven screams for a cracked-egg pizza. Sadly, what we got was a drizzle of beaten egg drowned in cheese. There are a couple of omelets to choose from, including an Edwards & Sons version that's packed with pork, which should be perfect for a morning meal. But cooked within an inch of its life, then lugubriously plopped on the plate, this uniformly brown mess was a disappointment on nearly every level.
BlowToad does have some bright spots like, well, the blow toads. The fries were great, as was the fried calamari appetizer. There's even an out-of-this-world almond pound cake.
If you go to BlowToad looking for evidence of Sneed's innovative culinary past or even some of the fresh ideas from Fresca on Addison, his daughter's meatless place down the street, you'll be disappointed. Instead, stop by during nice weather for a plate of blow toads and a craft beer on the patio, or maybe before or after a movie at the Byrd Theatre for a reasonably priced pizza or even for a late-night slice on the way home. You'll be happier for it.
2907 W. Cary St., 355-8623
Prices: Appetizers and sandwiches, $8 to $12; pizzas and entrées, $10 to $15; desserts, $6.
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (pizza window until 3 a.m.; credit cards only), 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday.