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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Photo by Ash Daniel
A standard issue No. 2 pencil or Rockport walking shoes for men: These are essentials for completing a standardized test or hiking the Mall of America — not objects of desire. Some things aren't cool. They're useful.
Kitchen on Cary is the restaurant equivalent of a No. 2 pencil or walking shoes. It's a place where choosy eaters of both the vegetarian and the meat-and-potato set can comfortably cover culinary bases in the small plate-sandwich-main course-dessert game. Located in an airy Shockoe Bottom building, Kitchen on Cary offers a European and American menu of well-known dishes. Dining doesn't require a quick peek into the Food Lover's Companion for a definition.
From overly bright night lighting to an odd musical selection ("Unbelievable" by EMF, followed by "Kiss Me," that song from basketball Jumbotrons), Kitchen on Cary comes across as hip as an early-bird special. But don't let that keep you from going. This training camp for culinary students merits the description "most well-rounded." It's also affordable, with small plates that are actually big enough to share around the table.
Kitchen on Cary is one of several training restaurants for Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College, run by instructor and chef David Hughes, former owner and executive chef of Graffiti Grill. All of Culinard's restaurants exist as for-profit endeavors and are helmed by experienced chefs. Their job is to execute a menu that is consistently and classically prepared while turning a profit.
A Continental menu — house-made ravioli, braised meats, salmon-and-brie salad — with some regional American add-ons like shrimp and grits, crab cakes and fish tacos, reads succinct yet comprehensive. It's a one-page itinerary, different at lunch and dinner, with wine and beer listed on the back. The most expensive dinner plate is cola-braised short ribs at $22. At the opposite end of the spectrum are grass-fed beef burgers, gourmet topped and served on starched linen, for $12. Appetizers range from a Virginia cheese plate scored with lavender honey to potato crisps with a bouquet of herbs and whiffy blue cheese drizzle.
Menu information came not from a student but from a visiting corporate manager, who explained the regional differences between crab cakes to our table. Kitchen on Cary uses little besides crabmeat in theirs, and it's one of the most popular small plates served. The same can be said for shrimp pasta, grilled flat bread and goat cheese salad. These dishes are the stars and plough horses within the menu matrix. Like Mead and Rockport brands, they aren't sexy, but they move.
An airline chicken breast, roasted until its skin crisps, sauced with a kick, rests next to a soft thigh confit on my plate. The accompanying risotto, cooked to perfect tender-but-toothsome, tastes mainly of sage and reminds me of the bad bits from last Thanksgiving. I'm both hungry and full while looking at the cioppino, a bowl of tumbling shellfish and whitefish in a stewy tomato broth.
Kitchen on Cary can be thinly populated at dinner. I've also observed busy nights where guests are either from out-of-town or regulars who like that they can navigate the menu without reading glasses. It doesn't have that buzzy, "Who's here tonight?" vibe of a newly opened restaurant (it opened last fall). The wine list offers several Virginia choices, as well as local beers on tap, in a selection of mostly New World wines from well-known producers. That's important in a tourist area. Local wine and beer interests travelers as much as local food.
Desserts are sturdy standards that could use a shot of creativity. Pot de crème, flan, berries in cream and tiramisu are all tasty, but a bit disappointing considering there's a pastry arts concentration at Culinard. I wish there were the same range of technique offered on that part of the menu as on the dinner menu. During my visits, service was fast, friendly and efficient, though one server needed a bit more training on the definition of "local." A little pencil sharpening aimed toward dessert, dimmer lighting and perhaps letting the students DJ at dinner could make Kitchen on Cary cooler. Either way, I'm comfortable eating here in my walking shoes.
Kitchen on Cary
1331 E. Cary St., 643-1315 or kitchenoncary.com
Hours: Lunch, Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Small plates $6 to $11; large plates $16 to $22; lunch $7 to $13; handicapped accessible