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The Brunchiest of Brunches
A Saturday night pub crawl in the Fan followed by a dance adventure in Shockoe Bottom—for precious example—is likely to yield more than a minor headache the next morning. And so the sun shall shine extra bright through the blinds and the Ibuprofen shall be administered extra leniently when the cock crows. Even if Saturday's to-do reads more hermit than party girl with a TV or book binge, the prospect of rising at the crack of dawn on Sunday holds little appeal. After all, Virginia still honors several blue laws and we all need a break after a week's worth of the ol' daily grind. Perhaps even the James River slows its flow to a lackadaisical rhythm come the Day of Rest. Give yourself a break.
http://weezieskitchen.comLuckily, plenty of fine Richmond restaurants do not skid to a halt on dies solis. Why? Because in the modern South, brunch is definitely a “do.” In Richmond, it is a tradition, a rite of passage, and, well, a lot of fun, too. With restaurants like The Tobacco Company, Pearl, Comfort, Weezie's Kitchen, Strawberry Street Cafe and The Black Sheep—among many other jewels—in town, call brunch (and champagne in the morning) common sense.
For those who believe something is not real unless it is online, just look at the Yelp.com thread “Sunday Brunch Richmond, VA.” It is a thing indeed. At the time of writing this piece, there are 12 pages' worth of Yelp comments and ratings on the very topic of brunch in Richmond. Forget day-old chicken and soggy waffles. Think upscale. The Washington Post recognized Richmond's culinary bravado in an August 2013 article entitled, “Richmond dining is surprising, seasonal, sophisticated.” Google away. Then book your reservation.
Sunday's fare famous for heaping portions, languid conversation and the stylishly relaxed atmosphere has been a ritual since at least Victorian England. Foodie lore has it that the word “brunch” first appeared in the Aug. 1, 1896 issue of Punch, a British magazine. Here is an excerpt from that very article, Guy Beringer's “Brunch: A Plea”:
“Instead of England's early Sunday dinner [lunch], a post-church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee...By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.”
Brunch at the renowned Jefferson Hotel on West Franklin is the epitome of the Richmond brunch. To experience brunch at the Jefferson Hotel is to taste Virginiana. Hyperbole, you scoff? I know it to be true because I have been. Call me the prophet of Jefferson's Signature Spoon Bread, but I know the promo to be accurate: “Sunday Champagne Brunch at The Jefferson is a culinary dream, reminiscent of a bygone era of grand buffets and lavish feasts.” Yep and yep.
My friend and I parked with ease and no complication in front of the Downtown YMCA. Because it was Sunday, no parking restrictions applied and we did not have to feed the meter. We only had to worry about feeding ourselves. And after rising early out of giddiness and anticipation, we were famished. Our heels hit the pavement as we relished an unusually warm winter day. We already had visions of Three Cheese Grits, Chocolate Truffle Torte and glazed ham dancing like sugarplum fairies in our minds. We had earned this treat, we reasoned.
Stepping into The Jefferson always conjures the same sense of awe. The high ceilings, the marble columns, the golden glow—the startling design makes me feel like a lost but marveling character in a children's story set in the Old World. By late January, all of the dazzling Christmas decorations had been ushered into storage, but the main lobby still felt warm and welcoming. Yet even as the space beckoned us, my friend and I had to stop at the top of the stairs and admire the feasting parties in the Rotunda lobby below us. Families, couples, friends, business partners and whomever else, numbering about 400 we later learned, helped themselves to a beautiful buffet lining the perimeter of the grand room. We later found out that at any given Jefferson brunch, at least 40 to 50 dishes are put out for guests to savor.
Our main concern was finding a place to seat ourselves, but, of course, our table had been carefully selected. Our polite, college-age hostess led us to a quiet table on the Mezzanine so we could observe the scene unfold below us. The table donned a pristine, white table cloth and all the necessary accoutrements. Soon our server Stephanie greeted us, poured us champagne upon request and explained the buffet set-up. Her friendly demeanor suddenly made the overwhelming display of food much more manageable to digest (figuratively and, perhaps, literally, though our eager stomachs did not require much prodding.)
Though my friend and I were seated close to the elevators, we decided to make our entrance by taking the 36-step, carpeted Grand Staircase. Admittedly, the trip back to our table, with our plates piled high, proved a tad more problematic, but still hardly a burden. On my first go, I chose oysters, shrimp, grits, braised beef and fresh fruit. With so many options, especially in terms of pastries, I felt delightfully tasked to cram small samples of this and that onto my plate until I reminded myself that I could always go back for more. Needless to say, I did exactly that.
Halfway through our meal, my friend and I had a chance to chat with Executive Banquet Chef Patrick Ehemann. Raised in a military family, Ehemann's German/Irish father and Mexican mother greatly influenced his eclectic tastes. At The Jefferson, Ehemann specializes in what he called “New Southern Cuisine with a French technique.” The brunch menu is planned according to seasonality. Food is locally sourced when possible, with most local food coming from Charlottesville farms. Local seafood may include oysters and rockfish, for example. Throughout our conversation, Ehemann emphasized the importance of taking pride in perfecting a regular, consistent menu that guests come to expect. This includes the likes of Jefferson's Signature Spoonbread (which is soft, fluffy and delectable), Eggs Jefferson (an interpretation of Eggs Benedict) and Peanut Soup (a Tidewater favorite to the uninitiated), among others.
Fifteen cooks prepare The Jefferson's classic Sunday brunch, an event orchestrated by a staff of about 40. Two of those people work seven days a week just polishing The Jefferson's Italian silver. Preparation for many items is begun a couple of days ahead of time. Take the sauces, which the cooks usually get started on the Thursday or Friday before brunch. Perhaps surprisingly given the hotel location, only 20 to 30 percent of the diners are in-house guests. Many Sunday brunchers are wedding guests from Saturday night ceremonies. The rest are generally local Virginians—and they come in droves. Even a slow summer Sunday will still average about 320 brunch guests.
In order to produce quality quantities, Ehemann says, “I hire cooks who actually know how to cook, not just follow recipes.” Most of his cooks have worked for him for eight or nine years.
So they have had time to practice and grow as a team. Ehemann landed in Richmond in 2003, when he started as the sous chef in The Jefferson's restaurant, Lemaire. A year later, he was promoted to Executive Banquet Chef and, in 2012, he also became the Executive Chef at TJ's Restaurant. The knowledge and artistry Ehemann has developed while at The Jefferson is present in the freshly made waffles, the made to order omelets, the housemade charcuterie and all the other elements that make brunch at The Jefferson the brunchiest of brunches.
And if you're hungry for further confirmation, Yelp.com user Jenny B., a 2014 member of the Northern Virginia Elite Squad for top reviewers, writes, “This is a brunch that shouldn't be missed and all Richmonders should try this once during their time in Richmond!” (Obligatory exclamation mark.)
Just try the Spoonbread.
Children 6-12 years: $19.95
Children 5 and under: Free
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