Chez Foushee's prix-fixe dinner menu includes choices such as sesame-carrot soup or a mixed green salad with Manchego cheese, white beans and caramelized-onion vinaigrette (left); followed by pork tenderloin scaloppine with polenta cakes and wild-mushroom sauce (lower right); and for dessert, an almond shortbread stack with berries and citrus curd.
Of the many downtown eateries, the exterior of Chez Foushee always has seemed to me one of the most interesting. Reminiscent of New Orleans, the arched façade is unique to the Richmond food scene.
It's a bit of shame, but since the main focus in the evening is catering, I had never been inside. That changed when I heard Chez Foushee is now open on Friday and Saturday evenings with a special three-course fixed-price menu as well as a full dinner menu that changes seasonally. The interior, to me, was as interesting as the exterior. With stark white walls, mirrored panels and black wrought iron, it was reminiscent of the 1980s power restaurants. Today that style is rare enough to make it nostalgic in a good way.
Prix-fixe menus, while the norm in much of Europe, have only recently been making a comeback here. The problem I have found, though, is that sometimes the reasonable price results in tiny portion sizes; also, many restaurants have an all-or-nothing policy — everyone at the table orders prix fixe or no one does. Chez Foushee has no such restriction. It also turns out that its prix-fixe dinner does not suffer from tiny-portion syndrome.
If you've ever been to a catered event, you'll notice quickly that the food, even though it may be the same dish you've had before, is a little different. Catering requires its own skills and tricks to feed dozens, or even hundreds, at nearly the same time. Try to seat every table in most restaurants in less than five minutes and you'd be looking at a total collapse of service and kitchen. Some of these tricks translate well in day-to-day service; others don't.
The catering influence became evident at Chez Foushee as soon as the first course came out. For the wife, a small, basic spinach salad (with the dressing painted on the plate so that if you are plating dozens of salads, the first one won't wilt by the time you get them all out) and some rather bland, creamy chicken-liver pâté (emphasis on the creamy) for me. Neither dish benefited from the added toppings: dried cherries on the salad and candied walnuts on the pâté. Both toppings are easy to add quickly but are completely at odds with the flavors of the dishes.
The catering theme repeated at dinner. The hanger steak and cod were just slightly undercooked with heavy, stable sauces — methods that are often used to ensure food that has to sit for long periods under heat lamps is still edible. Portions were uniform, perfectly cut for weight and cost control.
The shortcuts have less of an impact at lunch, when time is often in short supply; even when the place is crowded, the food comes out quickly. Being able to get a nicely roasted piece of red snapper for $13.50 in the same or less time than it would take in a chain restaurant, and with much better service, counts for a lot. Sandwiches are reasonably good and can be ordered in boxed lunches to go. The bread is touted as artisanal, a much-overused word in restaurants in general and not how I would describe the bread here, though it's perfectly adequate. I recommend the tarragon chicken salad, nicely balanced with herbs and just the right amount of mayonnaise.
Soup is also a bright spot at Chez Foushee. A soup of the day with seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs was slowly cooked to give layered flavors that just can't be replicated by fast preparation. With or without a little crumbled bacon, it's very satisfying.
Caterers tend to do desserts well and Chez Foushee is no exception. For the chocolate lover, there is an individual cake with a splash of crème anglaise, but I found the simple almond shortbread to be the most pleasing. Nicely flaky and simply flavored, it reminded me of what a great treat good shortbread can be. The house specialty is the lemon butter cake. It looks a lot like a very creamy cheesecake and tastes a bit like one as well. Ours, however, must not have been allowed to fully set, as we watched our piece slowly collapse on the plate.
Reading all this you might think I don't like the place. That's not really true. Even with all the little problems I pointed out, there is a lot of skill in the kitchen — it's just that there are a few hiccups in the translation from catering preparation to traditional restaurant fare. The front of house staff is very friendly and professional — better, in fact, than at many other restaurants in town. The prix-fixe dinner menu, at $27.75, is a great value for those on a budget in search of upscale food, and lunch is quick and tasty. Finally, if I were throwing a large luncheon, dinner or needed an event catered, Chez Foushee would be at the very top of my short list.
203 N. Foushee St., 648-3225
Prices: Lunch sandwiches and salads $7 to $9.75, entrées $10 to $14, desserts $2 to $5.75. Dinner appetizers $5.50 to $8.50, entrées $17.75 to $27.75 (prix fixe menu $27.75), desserts $7.75.
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., bar open until 10:30 p.m.
Note: Chez Foushee will begin serving Sunday brunch on May 8 and Saturday lunch on May 14, both from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.