The paradox of “the ship of Theseus” asks whether something as structurally dependent as a ship loses its identity if its constituent parts are replaced. One theory says the ship is the sum of its parts and thus, if parts are changed, its identity changes. A competing theory says that, despite such change, the ship’s identity can continue to persist.
Replace the ship with The Roosevelt in Church Hill, and you’ve got the same paradox. The Roosevelt has changed a lot recently, after years of uninterrupted success, including three James Beard nominations. In 2011, when it opened, Richmond’s nationally recognized food scene was in its nascency. Led by owners Kendra Feather and chef Lee Gregory and bar manager Thomas Leggett, the restaurant helped put this city on the map with its cuisine and craft cocktails. Then, in 2017, Leggett left for The Jasper. The next year, Gregory left to open Alewife. Feather alone remains at the helm, joined by her new partner, Mark Herndon. They brought in chef Matt Kirwan and bar manager Cary Carpenter.
Fortunately, the theory of continuity prevails. Notwithstanding these significant changes, The Roosevelt is the same restaurant, with its old-timey general store facade, its homey dining room with oddly hung frames, and its saloony bar that beckons guests to stay and relax. It also seems to have grown more confident of its identity as an eatery that’s successfully elevating Southern regional cuisine.
Under Kirwan, the kitchen brings renewed energy to the food. The pork rinds ($4), on their own, have a diaphanous crisp and seasoning so compelling I’d gladly snack on these in place of spiced popcorn. What makes this dish transformative, though, is a side of pimento cheese and pickles that, when paired with the pork rinds, channels a Southern-style nacho.
The wings ($9), one of my favorite dishes in Richmond, are coated in an intense salty-spicy rub that leaves your fingers painted like Cheeto dust and your tongue tingling like Sichuan peppercorn. They’re the American cousin of chongqing chicken, milder but equally craveworthy. A mellowing drizzle of “Alabama white sauce” provides the perfect counterpoint.
The oysters ($14), though fried, are enrobed in a cornmeal crust that entombs their oceany sweet juices, as if they were freshly shucked. Though they are served with a remoulade, ask for the housemade hot sauce as well; it contributes some extra acid and heat that really elevate the dish.
As for the mains, the pork chop ($25) is disarmingly simple, but, like many of the restaurant’s dishes, deeply sophisticated. The Roosevelt’s version isn’t dry and mealy as it often is at other places. The pork, sliced off the bone and finished with a maple bourbon glaze, has the meaty velour of an Easter ham. While the slaw and roasted mushrooms accompanying this dish give it a down-home picnic-on-your-plate vibe, the side of creamy pimento grits evokes the rustic decadence of a French le saupiquet (ham with cream sauce).
As masterful are the scallops ($25), a rich penny-colored sear on the outside, still lustrous and pearlescent on the inside. Vinegary black-eyed peas and pickled jalapeños add notes of brightness and effervescence, while English pea purée and green garlic yogurt, with flavors forthright and pure, serve as a welcome reminder of spring.
Only a couple of dishes I tasted are less than exceptional. The crudo ($9), instead of capturing the delicate flavor of raw red snapper, tastes more like an ice cream sundae, thanks to the restaurant’s regrettable decision to pair the fish with a cloying strawberry gel. The rockfish ($24) was a bit underseasoned, and, though a briny hit of Virginia ham remedied this somewhat, the dish is overpowered by the sweetness of sweet potato hash.
With a sense of renewal permeating the space and the food since the recent changeover, The Roosevelt proves that a great restaurant can both endure and transcend change. As Feather and her team eventually steer this ship toward new waters, I’m confident the restaurant will only emerge stronger because of it. The restaurant continues to stand unwaveringly as a symbol of how Richmond’s growing food scene came to be and where it’s going. And if its most recent evolution is any indication, The Roosevelt is here to stay.