– BY DAVID L. ROBBINS AND SHERRIE PAGE NAJARIAN –
THE MAGPIE: 1301 W. LEIGH ST., RICHMOND.
The evening’s plans started with promise. He had tickets to a touted production of Death of a Salesman at the Firehouse Theatre and called to ask for a restaurant recommendation. The gal who answered didn’t hesitate to name The Magpie, only minutes away in the historic Carver neighborhood.
He set the alarm on his new Kindle Fire for 5:30 and took a nap. The alarm would go off on time – at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, where he’d mistakenly set it.
But this evening, Saturday, he overslept and picked her up late, flustered and rushed. She looked great, though he – dunderhead – didn’t notice until she was seated across from him in this friendly, homey, eclectic new restaurant.
Not a restaurant, as it turns out, but a “gastropub,” a fairly new convention of a contemporary eatery, one that serves high-end food and alcohol in a range of portion sizes.
They were tended to by one of the two owners, Tiffany, affable wife of chef Owen. This young couple is living their dream, owning their own establishment after toiling for years in several notable Richmond dining spots, including Helen’s, Iron Horse and Bacchus.
Word has already spread on The Magpie, just a little over a year old. With table and bar seating totaling only 36, you should plan on a wait at peak hours. The dining room is small and noisy; rock music over the loudspeakers needlessly adds to the cacophony.
As always, she perused the menu while he asked for the darkest beer on tap and took in the décor. The setting is Victorian farmhouse: Table seating along one wall features a restaurant-length red velvet, ornate sofa headboard; small deer antlers hold back the crimson curtains; and antelope skulls with twisting horns catch the eye, as does a stuffed duck. You can’t help but expect old Hunter Brown to barge in the door any moment, slap his brace of dead pheasants on the bar, lay his trusty double-barrel beside them and call for a Bourbon County stout to slake his fieldsman’s thirst.
THE MENU: MISSES AND HITS
This leads to the menu, which carries forth the theme of fresh game and seafood. Plates featuring wild boar, duck, octopus, pheasant, rockfish, scallops, veal, oysters and a homemade sausage du jour scour the countryside for the best flavors of the outdoors.
She orders for them both, selecting dishes from each category: Small, Medium and Large (which he later dubs Extra Small, Pretty Small and Just Small). From the Small list came a duck liver mousse, served with currant leek jam on crostini. This opening shot of the meal was wide of the mark; he wanted more mousse to cover the three bits of hard toast. The duck was bland, lost beneath the tartness of the jam. Round Two also missed the bull’s eye, a Manakin Towne Mixed Greens that lacked distinction of flavor and, like the duck – even she agreed – too tiny for the price.
The entrées were more on target. His rack of wild boar was redolent of its name, tasting of the woods and the hunt, vivid and perfectly served over a bed of collard greens with sweet garlic pecan butter. Her rockfish was part of an innovative medley of warm farro salad, currants and pearl onions.
A well matched glass of sauvignon blanc for her, a black beer for him, and the check for $90 ended the meal.
Knowing him well, she placed a hand on his wrist and told him to save what he had to say for the short ride to the theater. In the car, she explained to him, patiently, that they’d eaten in a gastropub, where food is meant to fill the senses, not the gut.
A DREAM COMING TRUE?
This small plate/high price eating experience is a tough one to embrace for a boomer. But these young restaurateurs have brought a promising new spot to a neighborhood hungry for fine dining and diversions.
So he and she sat in the theater holding hands, watching Death of a Salesman. While Willy Loman’s life dissolved on stage, they were happy to know that just around the corner, two young folks were building theirs. Though the faire is not yet worth the price, it’s clear this creative, hard-workIing duo has what it takes to make The Magpie a dream come true.
Best-selling author and BOOMER columnist David L. Robbins’ novel about Somali pirates, The Devil’s Waters, was published in November. Visit him at DavidLRobbins.com.
Sherrie Page Najarian is a freelance writer who lives and dines in Richmond’s restaurant-heavy Museum District.