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Dogwood Grille and Spirits
1731 West Main Street
Richmond, Virginia
(804) 340-1984

Owned by chef David Shannon and front-of-the-house maestro Roger Lord, Dogwood Grille and Spirits, which is about to celebrate its second anniversary (doors opened in March 2003), is both stylish and sophisticated. The intimate interior boasts exposed brick walls embellished with splashes of modern art, cozy booths -- fifteen tables at the max -- and a comfortable, diminutive bar.

And the menu is as enchantingly appealing as the décor. An intriguing linguistical exchange between wittiness and whimsy, it has obviously been devised to fire the imagination as well as tickle the taste buds. Consider, if you will, the following venturesome vignette: "Better-Than-Sex-in-the-City steak: a sizzling New York strip getting it on with bacon-bound oysters, roasted fingerlings and tender green beans, while being caressed by a naughty little oyster cream." A risqué revelation if ever there was one. What a shame this darling little dilettante no longer graces the bill of fare. Oh, well... take heart; there are a number of other equally exciting possibilities available to the enterprising epicure.

"Gimmicksville?" Undoubtedly. And gimmicks, as discriminating diners are well aware, only go so far. "The proof of the pudding," as Cervantes so quaintly put it, "is in the eating." And the thing that sets Dogwood apart from the usual ptomaine tricksters is the fact that this establishment has the chef and the gastronomic goods to back up its luscious literary flights of fancy.

Indeed, among the other interesting items gracing David Shannon's curriculum vitae is an eight-year sojourn at the Inn at Little Washington, which is, needless to say, quite an impressive culinary credential. And there is absolutely no question that his international fare with a decidedly Southern flair is endowed with both savvy and sass. He neither overreaches, nor, conversely does his reach exceed his grasp. There is just enough pizzazz on the plate to tantalize rather than traumatize both the eye and the palate.

One of the restaurant's most provocative presentations is the "Grilled Caesar -- 'yes, folks, that's grilled lettuce' -- with creamy garlic dressing & all the usual suspects" ($7.00). And although I've encountered a number of versions of this intriguing oddity in the course of my pursuits as a professional hired belly, Mr. Shannon's rendition remains the culinary canon by which all others are judged -- and usually found wanting. A sheaf of romaine is rubbed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt & pepper, and baptized, ever so briefly, upon the grill. It is then anointed with a latticework of Caesar dressing and embellished with a huge crunchy crouton, slices of tomato, and extraordinarily tasty grilled white anchovies. Often duplicated, never -- at least in my experience -- equaled.

Another semantically sensuous starter is the "Free lovin' hippie three-way: papadams with hummus, tabbouleh & babaganoush" ($8.00). All three representatives are incomparably delicious, with the delicate wafers forming an eye-catching superstructure... Or there's always the chef's innovative take on the shrimp cocktail: "Swimps gone wild on Tijuana -- a veritable fiesta of jumbo shrimp & black bean salsa with tomatilla cocktail sauce" ($12.00).

Entrées, of course, are every bit as intellectually and gastronomically stimulating... The "Pan seared breast of Moulard duck over a manic mélange of ancient Chinese secrets in a light hoisin barbecue sauce (aka Mongolian Cluster Duck)" ($24.00) features an artistic arrangement of moist medium rare slices, a pastiche of exotic vegetables, and a suggestively spicy hoisin that contributes an inspirational rather than an incendiary gestalt.

The "Seared rare tuna on the Orient Express with wasabi mashed potatoes, miso broth & excess baggage" ($25.00) is yet another feast for the eye as well as the palate. Succulent slices of tuna are dotted with black and white sesame seeds, exquisitely seared, set on an island of zippy wasabi mashed, and surrounded by a sumptuous sea of miso broth. Excess baggage? The divine decadence of a foie gras dumpling is beautifully counterpoised by refreshingly pungent shavings of fresh ginger.

Desserts ($6.00) are more straightforward than their predecessors but no less pleasurable. The tarte Tatin with crème fraîche is nothing short of benchmark; and the Key lime torte is tumultuously tart but as light as a feather and finds a consummating counterpoint in the gentle embrace of a seductively sweet blueberry sauce.

Dogwood Grille and Spirits is a delight for the senses: upscale but not uptight, laid back but not lackadaisical, convivial but not clubby. Messrs. Shannon and Lord have a definite winner on their hands... and the menu madness and gastronomic gimmickry only add to the fun. Enjoy!

The Artful Diner
December 2004

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