Carytown restaurant still spry after nearly three decades
Not many restaurants survive past their first years in business. Even fewer manage to combine consistently great food with quality service to become a dining institution. The Track Restaurant, which turns 28 this year, is one of Richmond's oldies but goodies. This Carytown eatery's decor might be a little stuck in time, but its equestrian motif, which is carried out in 30 framed pictures, keeps the interior ageless. Booths on one side, a painted tin ceiling and a single yellow rose and flickering votive candle on each table meld comfort with elegance. The straightforward menu expresses the quiet confidence of a seasoned kitchen. Start with the shrimp potpie, a small ramekin with a scrumptious filling of tender shrimp, small cubes of white potato and carrot in a rich, creamy base. Bacon lends an underlying smokiness, while fresh chives and parsley add delicate herbal notes. I wasn't as excited about the broiled clams with chorizo sausage, chipotle peppers and manchego cheese. I found the topping a tad overwhelming for the sweet shellfish -- six little clams served in their shells -- but my dining companion Laura loved it. An intimate Fan style restaurant, The Track features waitresses who know the menu as well as their clientele, many of whom have been regulars for years. When soft-shell crabs and shad roe are in season, owner Chris Liles has a list of patrons he personally calls. It's easy to understand why The Track has a loyal following. The three entrees I sampled were excellent and reflect chef Graham Reeves' affinity for local ingredients and unfussy preparation. A simple, yet satisfying roast chicken was elevated to near nirvana by the house-made preserved lemon-cream sauce and a smother of sauteed artichokes. A large braised lamb shank had plenty of delicious meat that flaked off with a fork. Accompaniments of seasoned collard greens and a creamy wild-mushroom risotto made with roasted oyster, cremini and shiitake mushrooms completed this faultless trio. Reeves' version of bouillabaisse, made with mahi both times I tried it, was less like a stew than other versions, but it stayed true to the Provençal classic. Filled with scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp and the aforementioned mahi, it was served over slices of French bread that soaked up the aromatic broth. Fennel slices and the traditional saffron flavoring complemented the shellfish nicely, and pea shoots were a tasty garnish with beautiful color contrast. Desserts weren't as stellar as the savory offerings, but it's always hard to get an A-plus in every subject. The amaretto creme brulee was just this side of yolky, but the homemade almond praline on top was delicious. The respectable cheesecake didn't have enough oomph to avoid being overpowered by the overly cinnamony warm apple chunks that were ladled on top. Still, The Track deserves kudos for making its desserts in-house, while being sophisticated enough to stay away from cloyingly sweet finales. The Track's recipe for success is simple: Start with a genuine interest in taking care of patrons and a dedicated and professional staff, mix in top-notch ingredients and fair pricing, and stir. Finally, add a truly talented chef and a prime location for real staying power.