Eating through Richmond for 36 hours

Last week was frenzied in so many ways that when T and I drove away from home on Friday, the enormity of my exhale likely could have pushed us all the way to Richmond. The TED Radio Hour was excellent, restorative company, and by the time we rolled up to The Jefferson hotel, we damn near felt normal. We napped (!) and showered (!) and then began an epic eating marathon.

First stop, The Magpie. You might recall how tremendously I enjoyed my solo dinner there last June. That was the night, in town for the Mid-Atlantic Food Writers Symposium, I sat at the bar and plowed my way through quite an order. The bartender actually said, with real awe, "Wow, you have eaten a lot of food!" I took that as a compliment.

Because those memories remain indelible, I knew I had to take T. It did not disappoint. The same bartender was manning the ship, the same jovial spirit pervaded the small, warmly-lit space, and we proceeded to enjoy a really excellent meal. T ordered a local IPA while I chose an Oregon pinot which I knew would counter the chill we'd just left outside. My eyes fixed immediately on the fried gnocchi with pumpkin puree, spicy pecans and asian pear mostarda, while T wanted to try the potato-manchego soup (he loves soup; never can pass it up). We also decided on an arugula salad with goat cheese, asian pears and a blood orange vinaigrette. Because greens.

Though I found the soup a bit sweet, T loved it and nearly licked the bowl clean.

I love real arugula; you know, the peppery green also known as rocket. It's best if you grow it yourself and then pick what you need just before eating. In that treatment, it never needs to stand up to the ravages of cold store, losing the warmth and perk it maintains when just snapped from its root. If you can't grow it yourself or just don't want to, I beseech you to look for the parcels of fresh arugula you might find at the market, eschewing the plastic clamshells of who-knows-how-old arugula that never smells or tastes like the real thing. Yes, you'll have to wash and rinse the fresh bunches once or twice to remove the grit, but you will be generously rewarded by beautiful green leaves that actually taste like something; a bit of fire and pepper and sweet and health in every bite.

Long tangent short, The Magpie uses fresh arugula for the love, and we very much enjoyed our salad.

Sadly, the magnificent image I had of pillowy gnocchi quickly fried to produce a thin, crisp exterior and a souffle-like interior did not come to pass. Rather the gnocchi were tough, chewy and dry, though I admit to loving the remaining elements: the silky sweetness of the pumpkin puree was a great foil to the spice of the pecans and the zing of the mostarda and the pecans and pears provided toothsome elements of texture to the whole mess. A work in progress, I hope!

For our mains, T chose the braised rabbit with an acorn squash, sausage, Brussels sprouts and squash cream hash, while I opted for the smoked sirloin with red bliss potatoes, baby carrots, au poivre butter and rosemary pistou. As I am not a rabbit eater, I simply watched with pleasure as T oohed and aahed appreciatively after every bite. I did steal and love a bite of the accompanying hash; it was beyond wonderful.

My smoked sirloin was absolutely marvelous. Thank you, Magpie, for not giving me shit about wanting it cooked medium-well, and thank you to whomever decided it'd be wise to first smoke and then grill it. Smokiness is such a hell of a flavor addition to so many foods, and in concert with the grill-grate caramelization on the meat's exterior, the au poivre butter and the rosemary pistou, well this dish sang to me.

You might now be thinking, "They didn't go for dessert, right?" Wrong. We did because I am a custard fool and couldn't pass up the blood orange custard with ginger whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa. We were both exceedingly glad I insisted on this, although in truth it didn't need (but wasn't hurt by) the cocoa. Why some people don't like the satiny creaminess of egg custards is beyond me. I could eat custard daily and enjoy it anew each and every time. This one was sublime.

Just before leaving, I told the bartender how very much I'd enjoyed my dinner last June and how happy I was to be back. Then we asked if we could buy one of the glasses from which we were drinking water because last week Oliver accidentally broke Dot Cup (his favorite glass in the world) and was destroyed. We spent an hour searching online together, and he said he felt we'd never find an acceptable substitute. T and I thought the Magpie glass might suffice, and the bartender kindly, and somewhat bemusedly, said he'd happily sell us one for $6.

It never hurts to ask.

Yesterday, after stopping at The Lab at Alchemy for cappuccinos (good coffee; terribly weak latte art; was like the milk just took a dump on top), we walked to The Black Sheep for breakfast because we stop there for lunch every time we're driving from DC to Wrightsville Beach, NC, and T likes that it's our regular, recurrent spot. It's not unreal but is always good and feels like a completely neighborhood, locals joint which we love. We sat in the same booth as we did with Jack last summer, and I thought, in the halo of that memory, of ordering an hecho en Mexico Coca Cola because they are SO much better what with the real sugar and all. But I didn't because breakfast.

Anyway, we ordered hulking messes of yum that don't photo well in the least. But we talked about how really delicious breakfasts almost shouldn't photograph well because the best ones are all runny and saucy and carby and mushed together. So, here's mine which I love, loved:

Smashed potatoes amply seasoned with salt and coarse black pepper, scrambled eggs, shrimp and an enchanting sauce of piquillos, smoked paprika, and choriqueso. Smoked paprika, aka pimentón, is the cats meow, in part because, per my discourse above, of the smoky element it imparts. This sauce was so, so good!

To thank our bodies for accepting such generous amounts of such rich food, we then walked miles around Richmond, wending from Carver through The Fan and Carytown, down The Boulevard and finally back towards The Jefferson, in Monroe. We went into any shop that caught our eye and reveled completely in 'splorin (exploring) lazily like we did pre-children.

At Mongrel, T found a 1,000-piece Wayne Thiebaud puzzle for me, and I am truly thrilled. Do you know his paintings of cakes and pastries? Delightful! I snagged an espresso at Rostov's which although they roast beans daily on the premises, I simply cannot recommend because it smells like a coffee-based Bath & Body Works and I about died of a wildly overwrought olfactory response. I got a cute pair of earmuffs at a vintage joint and some hard-to-find spices at Penzey's.

Six hours after leaving our hotel room, our legs were pleading with us to return home. So we meandered back to Christian's Pizza (yes, the Christian's from Charlottesville, y'all! Terrific pizza- great crust) on N Harrison St for a slice to tide us over until dinner and then back to our room where we napped (!) and showered (!) and T went to the fitness center while I happily did not.

I'd made a reservation at the new (last August) and well-regarded restaurant, L'Opossum, for T's birthday dinner last night. In the Oregon Hill neighborhood, L'Opossum feels somewhat oddly and delightfully off the beaten path. You are driving along a residential street and then, at the corner of China and Pine, sits a rather inconspicuous painted-black brick building that meets the "which doesn't match" criteria.

It's as eccentric inside, and I was stunned to find that our waitress looked exactly like Mrs. Goodkind -the original cat lady!- in the 1960 book by Esther Averill, The Fire Cat. I loved The Fire Cat as a child, and the boys (and I still) love it now. Anyway, our waitress so closely resembling Mrs. Goodkind was a real text-to-life connection, as Jack's third grade teachers might encourage him to find.

From there, my hopes for L'opossum were slowly but surely hacked at the knees. We ordered four dishes, and I can honestly say that I didn't like one. Not one! T started with the escargots with a country ham biscuit. The escargots were fine, though I wanted more garlic butter sauce and no ham. The cinnamon-sugar biscuit was quite good but slightly dissonant with the snails.

I started with the lobster taco with tomatillo and guacamole and was doubly disappointed that it was a crunchy taco shell rather than a soft tortilla and that the spicy sauce drizzled everywhere was so darn sweet. Gah- not necessary! Distracting! And the black beans were hard as rocks. Were they supposed to be hip, sprouted things?

Certain that fried baby chicken on mashed potato waffles with kale, pickled okra, pan gravy and fire ball butter would not disappoint, I was wrong and dearly dissatisfied. Again, I couldn't wrap my head, or mouth, around the maddeningly sweet elements that kept me from enjoying what was probably nicely brined and fried chicken. I think I ate four bites.

T chose the fish special which was sea scallops in a wild rice, surry sausage and mushroom broth melange. I admit to not liking scallops anyway -I hate the texture and often find them fishy- but the wild rice-broth biz was so odd and underwhelming. I didn't enjoy it at all.

Because of this disappointment but despite the fact that we'd become fast friends with the married-32 years couple next to us, we opted against dessert. However, Mrs. Goodkind generously brought us a flaming chocolate slab for T's birthday dessert. It came with a cherry compote and was lovely. So I guess I did enjoy one thing and was very appreciative of it and that pleasurable end.

Overall, though, I would recommend many places in Richmond before L'opossum. Boo! But I did finally wear a beautiful dress I bought LAST June (in, ironically, Richmond) and the fabulous pair of heels my sister gave me for Christmas.

I slept late this morning and awoke to T walking in with Round 2 of cappuccinos from The Lab at Alchemy. After enjoying them, we decided to hit Stella's for brunch. Stella's is also off the beaten path as it sits in a residential area of Richmond's near West End, but as it was raining and we planned to drive anyway, the allure of Greek food overrode all other considerations. I love Greek fare and don't eat it often enough at all.

We loved Stella's from the moment we drove up. This is its third iteration since 1983, and I am just thrilled we happened upon it. It's casual, friendly, popular in the way truly delicious restaurants are (but without any of the sniffing, snootiness some of those places affect) and the aesthetics are terrific.

We immediately ordered a plate of saganaki (flaming kefalograviera cheese), and could.not.wait. for the flame of flambé to expire so that we could dive in to the tangy, salty melted pool and spoon it onto warm slices of just-from-the-oven bread.

Good saganaki thrills me every time I eat it. It's almost briny, and I adore it. Plus it's hot and gooey, and I like to use spoons to eat things not usually in need of said spoon. Brownies still warm and in the pan is another excellent example of unorthodox spoon food.

I chose the black kale skillet for my entree: Tuscan kale sauteed with a lemon-dijon vinaigrette and served with grilled olive oil bread, fried eggs and shaved kasseri cheese. It was magnificent. Even Tom admitted that it trumped his Loukaniko sausage omelet. Suffice it to say that we were STUFFED when done and have not yet eaten again since save for a lone blood orange for moi and a bit of cheese for T. At Stella's too we met a delightful couple! They travel for food like we do, and Tom and I both very much enjoyed comparing meals and restaurant experiences, both at Stella's and far beyond.

I should add that Stella's sells many of its appetizers in pre-baked form, a restaurant feature I love and appreciate. Because we couldn't order everything we wanted, we bought some spanakopita to bring home and cook there. It will be a real treat!

So now to nap (!) and shower (!) and enjoy what's left of this much-needed adults-only weekend.