In major food cities, diners will pay hundreds of dollars in advance for multi-course tasting menus at the best restaurants. Though Richmond is fast becoming a major food city, some critics seem to resist the notion that a place like Longoven should expect the same of us, calling it a “hard sell” for Richmond.
Longoven shouldn’t be a hard sell. The restaurant, which opened last year in Scott’s Addition, offers an otherworldly tasting menu for $110, with an exquisite wine pairing for $55. Sure, its tasting menu is pricey for Richmond. But Longoven isn’t like any other restaurant in Richmond. Though it may not have Michelin stars, it’s already performing at that level. Longoven isn’t just excellent “for Richmond”; it’s excellent, period.
The minute I arrived, I knew I was somewhere worthy of reverence. The zen-like interior, with its clean lines and earthen tones of blue-gray and natural wood, combines elements of modern Nordic design with those of traditional Japanese design — which, a friend tells me, is called “Japandi.” Longoven’s open kitchen stands like a Shinto shrine in the back center of the dining room.
The food also reflects a “Japandi” sensibility. The kitchen follows the New Nordic tradition of using ingredients that taste as if they were foraged from the forest floor or the seashore and employing time-honored techniques, such as smoking, drying and curing. It also subscribes to the Japanese tradition of evoking the elusive “umami” essence of each dish. And, as in both culinary traditions, underlying everything is an abiding respect for the purity of natural flavors.
During my visit, Longoven’s tasting menu was nine courses — seven savory, two dessert — and five wine pairings, including a ceremonious glass of Besserat champagne. And, as a memorable postscript: a plate of mignardises and a soothing after-dinner digestif.
Among the savory courses were several knockouts. A beet — sous vide then smoked — was skewered on a rosemary sprig whose aroma infused every bite; it was served with a dab of black garlic that had the musk of Mexican mole. The dish, my husband proclaimed, captured the essence of smoked barbecue without the meat.
A cured rockfish dish tasted like a day on the beach — subtle sweetness from the rockfish, a lemon peel-like bitterness from the flowery Buddha’s hand, an earthy depth from the soy-garlic gelee, and a burst of seawater from the purple-hued ogo.
The humble sunchoke was brilliantly transformed into a spume of white cream. Underneath lay hidden succulent rubies of shrimp and an emerald-green drizzle of mint oil.
And, my favorite: grilled pork rib slices and shimeji mushrooms in a dashi that magically distilled the dark and heavy flavors of bacon into a refined and clean-tasting broth. The alluring smokiness of the dish was punctuated by the briny sweetness of gigamoto oysters lurking at the bottom of the bowl like buried treasure.
Two of the savory courses had polish, but were otherwise lackluster. A celery root, roasted in kombu, resembled something that had been buried and unearthed after the apocalypse, encased in smoldering ash. Though dramatic-looking, the dish had little flavor.
Miso-glazed duck breast, cooked to a healthy pink, would’ve been acceptable at another fine dining restaurant. But, at Longoven, it was forgettable, which is a testament to the other dishes that evening.
As for the desserts, the sunchoke mousse, with an elegantly nutty sweetness countered by the wispy bitterness of coffee foam, was one of the best I’ve eaten in years.
If you’re still not ready for the tasting menu, ordering a la carte is a good way to start. It isn’t quite the same — think “Longoven Light” — and the service lacks the finesse of the tasting menu service, particularly in the pacing.
Still, certain a la carte dishes capture the thought and intentionality behind the restaurant’s cuisine. I was impressed by the roasted new potatoes with malted koji rice cream and ogo ($13), a forager’s bounty of land and sea. As enthralling was the intense umami of raw wagyu beef, encased in a steamed cabbage leaf with robust and savory egg gel ($15).
The arrival of Longoven marks an important moment in Richmond’s evolution as a major food city. If we believe in the capacity of Richmond, with its growing food scene, to achieve great things, then we must embrace our city’s world-class dining destinations like Longoven, whose tasting menus are worth every penny.