“Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall” is one of The Atlantic’s “Six Rules for Dining Out.” More so than restaurants in high-rent urban areas, strip mall restaurants in the suburbs can “experiment at relatively low risk” and thus are “more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall.”
Despite what other critics think, and as much as I’d like Richmond chefs to embrace this trend, The Shaved Duck in Midlothian isn’t a strip mall restaurant. It’s a restaurant in a large shopping mall — specifically, Westchester Commons — hidden within a sprawling maze of interconnected strip malls with rows upon rows of suburban fixtures, such as GNC, Hair Cuttery and GameStop.
To mislabel it a strip mall restaurant is to miss what The Shaved Duck, as a restaurant in a large shopping mall, actually contributes to the dining scene. It serves a distinct yet important purpose. Like H&M has with haute fashion and Crate and Barrel has with high-end interior design, The Shaved Duck brings upscale dining to a more populist audience of mall-goers.
The restaurant’s vaguely “New American” menu doesn’t cater to culinary elitists who value experimentation and risk-taking. Its target demographic is everyday people who visit the mall, including those who might not typically venture out of their way to try new restaurants. What the kitchen produces, therefore, is creative but approachable and interesting enough without being offensive or threatening. It’s food that’s not meant to challenge; it’s meant to be enjoyed.
Take, for instance, the golden-brown discs of fried green tomatoes ($8), with a schmear of sweet red-tomato jam and herbed goat cheese. They evoked the simple and relatable pleasures of a deli bagel with tomato and cream cheese, without the bagel.
Just as delightful were the “duckoyakis” ($11), a play on Japanese takoyaki fritters, that had more of the homely texture and flavor of Italian arancini. Their thinly battered shells, rough like sandpaper, once penetrated, released an affable sigh of steam. Encased in each fried orb were silken strands of duck that were difficult to begrudge, even if the overall filling was a bit too gluey.
Ephemeral nubs of Parisian gnocchi ($14), which practically dissolved on your tongue, also came together nicely with the aromatics of celery and brussel leaves and the lush fattiness of shredded duck confit.
As for the mains, the lamb bolognese ($18.50), though lacking any discernible flavor of lamb, still resembled a well-crafted bolognese — with a sauce hearty enough to take the chill out of the winter air, lavished over loosely tangled ribbons of pappardelle.
The duck leg ($18), perched atop a brioche pillow, had been fried to the farthest reaches of crispiness, teetering on the edge but avoiding any hint of dryness. Pickled cauliflower and a slathering of tomato-butter sauce added an enlivening jolt of tart and sweet, a perfect counterpoint to the sleep-inducing heft of duck and brioche.
Some dishes could’ve been less ingratiating and more sophisticated — like the shrimp and grits ($22), featuring a B-list cast of dispirited shrimp impersonators and pork belly, limp and listless, in a bland mush of grits. And, while I recognize that the dessert selection wasn’t crafted with someone in mind like me, who prefers stinky cheeses and savory-sweet desserts, the “Love of Bananas” ($7) was too much even for a sugar-starved monkey on insulin.
Much to its credit, The Shaved Duck has undertaken a project that feels essential in a way, especially when considering that the first places you see in this area are fast-food joints and chain restaurants. By making upscale dining more accessible, more democratic, The Shaved Duck is uniquely positioned to introduce new audiences to a way of eating they’ve possibly never experienced before.
Indeed, while it’s inspiring to see restaurants produce innovative cuisine, they’re nothing without an existing culture of people who can understand and appreciate good food. And that starts with places like The Shaved Duck. If the restaurant continues winning over diners like the young boy who sat next to us and gushed that the duck was “the best thing he’s ever had,” then the future of Richmond’s food scene is looking bright.