virginian pilot flavors favorites 1991 cover

Flavor's Favorites: The Year in Dining

By Donna Reiss, The Virginian-Pilot
This 1995 article was my last end-of-the-year overview before I retired from the columns in September 1996. The cover view is from 1991.

IN 1995 I crossed the country, indulging in my favorite activity between business meetings -- sampling regional cuisine. In addition to cities throughout Virginia, the year took me to Washington, New York, St. Louis, San Diego, San Antonio, New Orleans and Houghton,Mich. I feasted on boudin, fried ravioli, breakfast tacos, buffalo burgers, street-vendor pretzels and Dungeness crab cakes.

How does Hampton Roads cuisine compare with dinner at Daniel, the restaurant that had New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl licking her lips? Or with lunch at Nola and dinner at Emeril's, venues that keep chef-owner Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans on the pages of the glossy gourmet
magazines?

Better than you might expect.

Our area offers plenty of good cooking, and the scope of ethnic cuisines expands a little every year. Sushi is everywhere (even the supermarket), and we have more than one Indian and one Thai restaurant. Vietnamese influences show up on a few menus, notably La Caravelle in Virginia Beach.

Eastern European fare is available at Norfolk's Monastery and Portsmouth's Cafe Europa. Chinese and Italian restaurants and dishes continue their popularity. Lebanese, Greek, and Turkish flavors appear on several menus. Mexican restaurants proliferate, many of them owned and operated by
natives of our southern neighbor.

We still await Cuban and Moroccan restaurants, however, and dishes from the Philippines are hard to find.

Fusion food -- combinations of culinary cultures that are magical when they work and unappetizing when they don't -- has a limited but lively representation at Bistro! and Bobbywood, both in Norfolk, and Eurasia and Timbuktu, both in Virginia Beach.

There's not much basic Southern country cooking (home cooking, of course, usually is done at home), but there's splendid new Southern at the Dumbwaiter in downtown Norfolk. Animation gives a southern slant to its menu in Virginia Beach. Practically in the country are Virginia Beach's
Pungo Grill and the newcomer Brewer's East, which grow some of their own produce.

In the suburbs of Virginia Beach, Steinhilber's and The Lucky Star also feature fresh vegetables and fresh fish. Louisiana influences spice up the menu at the Bienville Grill in Norfolk, and southwestern specialties are features of the Coyote Cafe and Five-01 City Grill in Virginia Beach. We
have plenty of barbecue, too.

Seafood remains a highlight of regional cuisine, often enhanced by sea views: Amory's Wharf in Portsmouth; Ships Cabin, Tracy's, the Blue Crab and the Waterside eateries, all in Norfolk; and dozens of restaurants on the Chesapeake Bay, Lynnhaven River and Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach.
There's even a restaurant on the inland waterway, at Locks Pointe in Chesapeake.

Traveling has given me a taste of the fine food our country offers; but I have plenty of good food to come home to.


Transitions

Every new restaurant offers us a chance to sample another dish or a familiar recipe with a twist. It's fun to check out a new chef or critique a familiar chef in a new venue. This year we had several opportunities as restaurants started from scratch, relocated, or remodeled.

Sage's opened in a brand-new upscale shopping area on Pleasure House Road, with an extravagantly understated ambiance and an eclectic menu of wisely prepared American and European-inspired dishes and homemade sweets.

Several make-overs were especially noteworthy. Animation, for example, converted a retail space to a colorful American restaurant with fanciful cutouts and cartoon stills as background for a menu of salads, soups and all-American favorites like chicken and dumplings and meatloaf.

Eurasia transformed the site of a deli at Loehmann's Plaza into one of the first fusion restaurants in Virginia Beach, with its chef's background in Thai, German, Italian and regional American cookery.

Tautog's is a careful conversion of one of the few early beach cottages remaining in Virginia Beach. Lovingly preserved by several partners as a casual beach seafood house, it offers a comfortable mood to compensate for its lack of ocean view. In Smithfield, the Inn that has gone through several
renovations over the years was elegantly appointed in 1995 and serves local favorites such as peanut soup and sweet-potato pie.

The space that won a following with Southwestern and Delta specialties as Crawdad's and later as the Big Tomato changed hands again. Now known as Three East at the Jetty, the restaurant at the south end of the Boardwalk is serving seafood and etouffee in a casual setting. Also on the boardwalk, Timbuktu was revamped as a showcase for innovative-eclectic new American cooking. Nearby on Pacific Avenue, the building that once housed the legendary Golden Dragon and which has seen several shifts in ownership became the Great In-Pasta, serving family-style Italian dishes.

Some places changed name, location or both. In one dizzying example, the Isle of Capri, which had been on Laskin Road since the 1950s, closed last year but reopened this year on the Oceanfront. In its place on Laskin near Atlantic Avenue, the California Cafe opened and then closed. Meanwhile,
Piranha's in Norfolk's Ocean View changed its name to Monroe's and then closed. Chef Monroe Duncan moved his staff into the kitchen vacated by California Cafe and changed the name to Suddenly Last Summer, which had been the name of one of his former restaurants.

Fellini's, on 21st Street in Norfolk, moved to Colley Avenue, displacing Wilma's Chili Parlor. After renovations by owner Joe Hoggard -- also proprietor of the Ships Cabin in Norfolk's Ocean View -- the 21st Street site reopened as Cafe Rosso, a handsome room for light Italian dishes. Bobby Huber, former chef of the Ships Cabin, opened Bobbywood at Norfolk's Wards Corner, in the space that once housed a neighborhood tavern known as Jerry's. Last year, Phil's Grill in Virginia Beach was quietly sold; this year its former owner, Phil Haushalter, quietly opened Open Wide on Granby Street in downtown Norfolk. In another name change, Bella Pasta, on Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach, became Cafe David, expanded its menu, and offered wine dinners and cooking demonstrations.

Pasta e Pani, on Laskin Road in Virginia Beach, picked up stakes and moved a few doors down to a large building that long ago was a family fish house, more recently Dick's Clam and Cow. In the process, it gained a larger open kitchen and more comfortably spaced seating.

Middle Eastern meals gained popularity, evidenced in the expansion of Norfolk's Tabouli and the relocation of Virginia Beach's Azar's to a much larger space with room for eating in. Kyushu in Virginia Beach converted from full service to takeout and reinstalled a sushi bar, tables and chairs.

Norfolk added a beer parlor: In the fork of 21st Street, the space that had seen various restaurants come and go became the Taphouse Grill, with a wide assortment of brews and an eclectic menu. Virginia Beach added a wine vault: Walls came down at Five-01 City Grill for a temperature-controlled vault and an impressive collection of wines.


Trends

Bakeries were on a roll in 1995, with additional shops, moves or expansions for Baker's Crust, the Real Bread Company, Bagelworks, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Sugar Plum Bakery, Plaza Bakery and La Patisserie. The small bakery-deli once associated with Pasta e Pani has become a large Bella Italia, with a broader selection and seating for lunch. Incredible Edibles in Virginia Beach has become an eat-in coffee-sandwich shop as well as a dessert caterer.

National chains forged more links, as if every new individual restaurant required a standardized counterpart. But local chains expanded, too. Frankie's Place for Ribs built two branches, and Taste Unlimited added a Great Bridge location with seating for dining in.

Cigars became chic in South Hampton Roads. Already in vogue in big cities, cigar rooms with handsome humidors and high-powered ventilation systems found their first niche here at Areo Sea Grill in Virginia Beach. Special wine-and-cigar dinners already are a regular feature. (Watch for other
restaurants to install cigar rooms, including Bobbywood in Norfolk.)

Ironically, smoke-free restaurants also are increasing. Pasta e Pani and Cafe Rosso are among them. Wine-tasting dinners became more popular. Expert pairings of multicourse dinners with wine selections from one winemaker or from several, these events are educational as well as delightful. There
were wine dinners at Ships Cabin, Coastal Grill, Town Point Club, Le Chambord, Bobbywood, Areo Sea Grill, Cafe David and Bistro! Watch for more in 1996, and look for more beer tastings as well. Also last year, the Dumbwaiter introduced its house label Dumbtraminer, and offers selections of four (2-ounce) flights for tasters.


Enduring favorites

After 20 years of dining in South Hampton Roads -- 15 as a newspaper restaurant critic -- I have acquired some longstanding favorites, as idiosyncratic as anyone's. Sometimes I want the comfort of the tried-and-true or the close-to-home. Other times I want clever twists on the classics or stunning
innovations and am willing to drive 30 minutes or more for the experience.

Usually I want dishes that would take too much time or trouble for me to make myself. I have a preference for Continental haute cuisine, innovative new American dishes, authentic ethnic foods and homemade onion rings. Like most diners, I enjoy restaurants where the staff knows and welcomes us and remembers that we want lime with our sparkling water and prefer our salad dressing on the side.

Because I live in Virginia Beach, many of my favorites are in that city. I return regularly to the Coastal Grill, on Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach, where not much changes -- besides the fresh fish of the day -- but where I can always count on well-prepared meals. In summer, I go at least once a
month for some of the best fried soft-shell crabs in town. When I'm in the mood for a moderately priced elegant lunch or for a grand European-style dinner from an honored chef, Le Chambord always lures me. More often I go next door to the Bistro at Le Chambord, comfortably casual with excellent soups, salads and dinners.

For Italian, Pasta e Pani is usually my first choice. For simple steamed seafood and water views, I prefer a couple of places on the Lynnhaven River, especially Chicks Marina. Coyote Cafe and Five-01 continue to please with their eclectic, somewhat-Southwestern dishes.

I'll gladly drive to Norfolk for a good meal. Ships Cabin remains a favorite for its Chesapeake Bay views, specialty breads, attentive service and excellent wines, plus a menu that balances traditional seafood favorites with trends in international cookery.

La Galleria in downtown has the kind of New York look I like from time to time and good Italian food to go with it; I especially enjoy the breads from the brick oven. Bienville Grill on 21st Street is where it's at for gumbos, crawfish, Mardi Gras festivities and free jazz on weekends. The Dumbwaiter, where the decor is like the last act of the evening's entertainment and the menu offers interesting variety with roots in the Mississippi Delta, always cheers me. For lunch or dinner, early dinner or post-theater supper, wine-tasting evenings, or any time at all, I can never resist the imaginative dishes or the knowledgable staff at Bistro! Fresh lychees, white truffles and homegrown organic vegetables are affectionately and carefully prepared at this very special restaurant.

In Portsmouth, I choose Cafe Europa with its old-world charm and hearty European slant or Brutti's coffee house and bakery. In Chesapeake, Locks Pointe is my selection for a special evening.

Williamsburg has the wonderful Williamsburg Inn and the charming taverns of the restored area. On Merchants Square, the Trellis, with its seasonal menus and internationally acclaimed desserts, is always enjoyable. Off the beaten path, the Kitchen at Powhatan Plantation offers intimacy and an
emphasis on Virginia specialties.

Copyright 1996, Landmark Communications Inc.

modified 08 September 2000 by D. Reiss