Plantain-wrapped mahi mahi, served with a tostada and pineapple-kiwi salsa Photo by Beth Furgurson
Richmond seems to have more than its fair share of quirky restaurants. Some, like hipster sushi, are successful. Others, like an ill-fated burger joint that refused to accept cash, not so much. Then there's Parkside Café.
It's a little out of the way (well, for me, as a North Sider who rarely crosses the river) in a nicely gentrifying neighborhood on Forest Hill Avenue. The menu by chef/owner Brian Munford (formerly of Patina Grill), at first glance, seems a little scattered, with pasta dishes alongside Southern standbys and a mix of Latin American, Cuban and — hey, why not — a little Middle Eastern thrown in for good measure. It shouldn't make sense, but somehow it does.
A weekday lunch (served only on Thursday and Friday) can be a quiet affair. Munford doubled as chef and waiter on our visit. In this age of celebrity chefs, with friendly, bigger-than-life personalities, it's hard to remember that a fair number of chefs are barely housebroken and are closer to Anthony Bourdain, minus the charm, than to Paula Deen. He might not have had the smoothness of a professional waiter at the table, but he more than made up for it with product knowledge and an obvious passion for his food. I opted for a Cuban sandwich, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. The ham was accented with shaved pieces of house-made roast pork. The thin pickle planks and dabs of mustard were all in the right balance for this classic grilled sandwich.
As people arrive back in the neighborhood in the evening, the pace picks up quite a bit with families and couples. We started our evening with an array of appetizers. The fried calamari was a bit of a disappointment; we found the cornmeal coating was a little too heavy and dry. But the black-eyed pea fritters were excellent. Firm yet still moist, they tasted vaguely Middle Eastern with perhaps a little cumin. We quickly consumed them. The big surprise was the white cheddar baked in phyllo. This classic '80s appetizer — which generally had morphed into a horror of microwaved cheese of questionable origin — has found new life here with just the right mix of thick cheese slices wrapped in phyllo dough. The sharp cheese, eaten with a slice of fresh crisp apple, reminds you of why this dish was once a classic.
The entrées are all reasonably priced, with nothing higher than $15, and a number of items under $10. My son Finn was a huge fan of the potato gnocchi. Obviously house-made, they were perfect little pillows tossed in just enough pesto cream to coat, but not so much as to drown. The wife's shrimp and grits were a departure from the norm, the more familiar pink cream sauce replaced with a rustic sauté of mushrooms and thyme with a hint of country ham. It was a rather unique take on a classic dish, although the ham seemed to get lost in the mix. My grilled pork tenderloin was nearly overdone, but not to the point of dryness. Between the very tasty bacon spoon bread and the bright freshness of a blackberry reduction painted across the plate, it was the kind of dish you wish your Southern grandmother would make for Sunday dinner.
Munford is especially proud of his ever-changing dessert blackboard. And he should be. The dishes are imaginative and all house-made. As one who just started brewing his own tonic at home, I was most intrigued by the root beer float, and it didn't disappoint. The root beer had all the woodsy flavors you expect, but was much more nuanced and layered — soda for the more refined palate. The chocolate-cherry shortbread torte almost defies description. A thick, flaky shortbread crust almost pielike, not overly sweet, it was more something I would expect to find in a big-city sidewalk pâtisserie when having an afternoon coffee, not in a small neighborhood eatery on the South Side.
Brunch, served Saturday and Sunday, is also a revolving door of items off the blackboard: three or four omelets, stuffed with seasonal, local vegetables and savory meats, or a simple house-made granola with fresh fruit. Parkside is the perfect place to sit and do brunch before or after hitting the South of the James Farmers Market across the street.
3514 Forest Hill Ave., 864-8888
Prices: Sandwiches $6 to $9; entrées $8 to $15.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to Sunday; 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.