Lemaire’s Grand Marnier terrine is recommended for lovers of intense chocolate flavor. The fall menu also features pumpkin-seed crusted Loch Duart salmon (left) with roasted corn polenta, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and smoked bacon Ash Daniel
The Jefferson Hotel — long heralded as a tranquil refuge of classic, refined accommodations and dining — went boldly back to the proverbial drawing board in reinventing its crown-jewel eatery, Lemaire. After months of renovation, the acclaimed dining destination — which recently found itself on Esquire's list of "Best New Restaurants of 2009" — re-emerged during the summer with an updated, more casual space and a matching dressed-down menu focused on moderate pricing and "going local." And while such an act is almost certainly considered by some as no less brash than the likes of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa or adding a few raging electric-guitar licks to Handel's Messiah, the venerable establishment has pulled off its impressive personality transformation with flying colors, and it's hard to see how anyone who has visited since the big change could argue with the results.
Much of the praise must go to executive chef Walter Bundy, a Richmond native who's now in his eighth year at the helm of Lemaire. The contemporary, Southern-inspired menu he created is crafted to make it as easy to put together a meal from its tempting array of small plates as it is to dive into an entrée-centered feast. Restaurant and wine director Ben Eubanks has assembled an equally impressive wine list that is as affordable as it is well rounded. Higher-end offerings are there for the taking, but so are numerous sub-$30 bottles dubbed "discoveries." A sampled $25 Bordeaux from that grouping proved a fine accompaniment to my meal.
Going local here is both easy and delicious. I highly recommend kicking off the evening with a glass of Kluge Estate Brut Blanc de Blancs and a sampling of three local oysters on the half shell. Better even than the less salty (albeit tasty) Rappahanocks and Mobjack Bays for this oyster lover were the brinier Olde Salts.
But even more exceptional and indulgent as a starter is the foie gras. Magnificently seared, ultra-rich and decadently perched atop crisp brioche toast, it couldn't have been better with its silky lavender cream; sweet, firm summer peach; and peppery micro-arugula counterparts.
Seekers of sub-$20 entrées are in luck. While both the oyster-mushroom risotto ($19) and "barnyard" burger ($18 and kicked up a notch with applewood bacon, a sunny-side-up egg, cheddar cheese and foie-gras sauce) were enticing, it was the vegetarian house-made fettucine with seasonal vegetables that most caught my attention. The veggie broth and the mélange of crisp carrots, peas, zucchini and squash were wonderfully satisfying, but the noodles could have been cooked a hair less, and I would have liked more of the delicious shaved Pecorino Romano.
You can't really go wrong with the "as Southern as it gets" pork chop with Coca-Cola barbecue sauce, creamy mac and cheese and ham-studded collards — a somewhat simple, yet delightfully executed, nod to country cooking.
Deliciously ultra-fresh and spot-on medium rare was the seared salmon fillet. Not as impressive, unfortunately, was the slightly overcooked and relatively bland orzo sharing the plate. There to help rescue matters, however, were a zingy citrus glaze and a crisp arugula salad.
Finishing up with the chocolate Grand Marnier terrine is strongly advised only for lovers of intense chocolate flavor. While the paired ginger-créme anglaise and tangy kumquat marmalade were relatively subdued, the main ingredient in this finale is anything but and is best left, perhaps, to true chocoholics.
Hats off to Lemaire's handlers for taking such bold steps in reinventing their restaurant and, in so doing, making a local institution more accessible and alluring to the ever-increasing gourmand masses. Even with all the changes, one thing seems to remain constant: Lemaire's winning combination of pampering service, cosmopolitan atmosphere and consistently top-shelf fare is indeed hard to beat in our fair city.