James Dickinson photo
A food critic, a gourmand with sensitive taste buds and three enthusiastic writers make up our five tasters, who were sent to try chocolate cake, braised meat, and macaroni and cheese at area restaurants. Here, we present their findings.
Tested by Melissa Minetola Leddy and Hollister Lindley
Who can pass up a slice of homemade chocolate cake on a winter's night? This season, indulge in our top-three picks from a restaurant, café and bakery.
- The chocolate cake at Church Hill's Cuban restaurant Que Pasa (623 N. 25th St., 402-7502) proves an unexpected delight. What most struck us was the cake's fabulously moist texture; your fork will simply sink into it. The flavor suggests a blend of chocolate and cocoa, which adds depth and makes the cake multidimensional, Hollister says. Melissa's favorite part: The chocolate frosting; heavenly describes it best. Another plus: The cake wasn't served ice-cold. On weekends, enjoy this treat at a half-price discount — $2.25.
- Part of food's appeal is its visual presentation, Hollister points out, and The Desserterie (6161 Harbourside Centre, 639-9940) strikes gold with its glossy chocolate Disaronno cake. This liqueured-up dessert almost — almost — looks too beautiful to cut into. This work of art features alternating layers of cake and whipped ganache, enveloped in a dark-chocolate glaze. Hollister calls the mix of flavors "chocolate chemistry at its best."
- Let Jean-Jacques Bakery (3138 W. Cary St., 355-0666) enchant you with its elegant chocolate truffle cake, featuring three whimsical, white-chocolate dots on top. Hand-cut layers of cake alternate with layers of ganache for a light, creamy taste, which Melissa loved. The chocolate is high quality; the ganache, not too buttery. When you cut into the cake, delicate, tender crumbs fall off; this "perfect" crumb, Hollister says, indicates the cake was made with care and the right kind of flour.
Macaroni & Cheese
Tested by Susan Early and Bethany Emerson
Bethany and Susan teamed up to find Richmond's most satisfying bowls of macaroni and cheese, a traditional dish that they found to be by no means boring. As you'll see, their tastes diverged a bit at the end.
- The testers discovered their favorite at DeLux (2229 W. Main St., 353-2424) — elbow noodles drenched in a superb Vermont white-cheddar sauce. The dish is accented with the crunch of a light sprinkling of fresh green peas and sweet but salty Virginia ham. With the first bite, diners will savor the best part — Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs baked into a beautiful crusty topping.
- A close second was Joe's Market (400 Libbie Ave., 285-5637) , which serves ultra-creamy mac and cheese all day long, either on a hot plate or in a container to go; our tasters tried them both, and they were equally delicious. Bethany particularly enjoyed the chunks of cottage cheese, while Susan loved the sharp cheddar, with both cheeses creating an amazingly rich custard texture. The ultimate comfort food, this dish is perfected with a layer of cheddar melted on top.
- Susan was enamored with the side dish of home-style mac at Mama Mary's Sugar & Spice (3406 Mechanicsville Turnpike, 321-1880) . Mama Mary's sauce — a secret blend of cheeses — was less creamy than that used in Joe's Market's offering, but Susan appreciated its lightness and delicacy.
- Bethany went nuts for an unortho-dox twist on macaroni and cheese at Avenue 805 (805 N. Davis Ave., 353-2505) — a mix of scallops, sautéed cre-mini mushrooms and zesty chunks of chorizo, with a rich cheese sauce poured on top of large macaroni noodles. And, oh, yes, let's not forget the shrimp and accompanying crusty bread.
Tested by Hollister Lindley and Paul Spicer
Our esteemed tasters (with the assistance of chef Brian Koziol) were sent to five restaurants to try braised meat — a large portion of meat that gets browned and then cooked long and low in a seasoned liquid. These three dishes are ones the testers would order again.
- At Six Burner Restaurant (1627 W. Main St., 353-4060) , the braised short ribs with parsnip purée were magnificent, with the meat tender but not mushy. Pomegranate in the au jus gave this dish just enough acid tang to balance out the rich beef. The purée was silky, and the presentation was beautiful without being fussy. Six Burner's menu changes with the seasons, but the restaurant will serve this standout selection through January.
- For comfort food, the braised lamb shanks at Mamma 'Zu (501 S. Pine St., 788-4205) are really hard to beat. Slow cooking released all of the collagen in the lamb, and the sauce's velvety texture complemented the entire dish. White beans made for the perfect side, while little crisp cubes of pancetta added snap and porky contrast to the lamb. The seasoning was a tad potent, but the tasters became members of the clean-plate club!
- At Can Can Brasserie (3120 W. Cary St., 358-7274) , the braised lamb was tender, with no tough bits. The presentation was elegant, and the accompanying medley of parsnips, Brussels sprouts and oyster mushrooms was a perfect match. The braising liquid had just the right amount of salt, a feat that's not as easy as it may seem. It can be a real delight when everything combines and no one taste dominates.
Although Mamma 'Zu and Can Can both served lamb, the dishes were far from identical — the brasserie's lamb was pleasantly subdued, while the Mediterranean hotspot served a bold and authoritative version.
What do you eat when you're having a bad day?
Interviews by Miles Dumville
WRIC 8 anchor
Christina's favorite comfort food is cheese fries, but she notes, "they have to be layered, not just with cheese on top," and with bacon and ranch dip included. The best ones she's found are at Outback Steakhouse and Brick House Diner.
President and CEO of SunTrust (Central Va. Region)
When she's feeling blue, Gail enjoys low-fat mint chocolate chip ice cream. C'mon, Gail, you're making all of us unhealthy emotional eaters feel bad.
WTVR 6 anchor
Rob goes for pork chops and mashed potatoes or his wife's chicken soup, and, he adds, "gotta throw a cheesecake on top of that."
71st District delegate
After a bad day in the House, Jennifer enjoys mac and cheese or ice cream, specifically the coconut and pineapple flavor at Haagen Dazs or anything with chocolate in it from Cold Stone Creamery.
Richmond commonwealth's attorney
Actress and Haynes Furniture spokeswoman
Jan loves potato chips, "the saltier the better," she says. Her favorite brands are Ruffles and Grandma Utz.
Managing director of New York Private Bank & Trust, wife of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor
On her tough days, Diana orders a Brooklyn-style pizza with mushrooms from Domino's. Plain and simple. (Full disclosure: She's on Dom-ino's board