The Jefferson Hotel has revamped its flagship restaurant, Lemaire. The former bastion of fine dining is now a more approachable restaurant, with a new lounge and an earnest commitment to quality, regional food.
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Chef Walter Bundy in his "killer" garden (left); A sprig of lavender (right)
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Fried Green Tomatoes
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A plate of pimento cheese (left); Bison ribeye (right)
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Spring strawberries with Brie, pistachios, spicy greens and aprium (left); Berkshire pork chop (right)
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The stately Jefferson Hotel in Richmond is about the last place one would expect to hear a computer term used in reference to one of its eateries. But Ben Eubanks, director of restaurants and wine at the establishment, does just that when describing the transformation of the hotel’s flagship restaurant, Lemaire, from version 1.0 to the new and updated 2.0. It’s a bit of a jarring analogy for anyone who’s been in Lemaire’s historically impressive dining room, with its high ceiling and old-world windows, all befitting its original purpose as a ladies’ parlor and then home to the private Rotunda Club.
Starting in 1986, Lemaire—named after Thomas Jefferson’s White House maître d’ and head chef, Etienne Lemaire, who is said to have introduced America to the idea of cooking with wine—became a Southern standard-bearer for fine dining: elegant, expensive, award-winning. It had, not surprisingly, an older clientele.
About a year ago, after a six-month renovation, the new Lemaire was unveiled. Structurally, the space is unchanged, but everything else related to the restaurant has been modernized—the décor, the furnishings, the menu, all aimed at making the restaurant more contemporary and appealing to somewhat younger customers—while at the same time taking pains to maintain tradition. “Demographically,” says Eubanks, “we want to cast a wider net,” making Lemaire more accessible to “a variety of people on a variety of budgets looking for a variety of experiences.”
It would be hard to argue with that strategy, especially given the difficult economic environment for restaurants over the last two years. The Jefferson has smartly added a new cocktail lounge, a warm and inviting space where I recently spent a few easy hours with friends enjoying some new “hand-crafted” cocktails. Both the lounge and restaurant have adopted the alligator as a whimsical logo, as if to reinforce the idea that the new Lemaire is more casual and carefree than its predecessor. The alligator logo—a nod to the reptiles that once lived in marble ponds surrounding the lobby’s statue of TJ—can be seen on the bar stool upholstery and on the ties of the waitstaff.
The one constant over this transition is Executive Chef Walter Bundy, a Richmond native who has led the restaurant for nearly a decade. On a hot summer day, Bundy meets me at the hotel, wearing his white chef jacket and dark pinstripe pants that he says were de rigueur in Napa Valley, where in the late 1990s he did a stint with Thomas Keller at the vaunted French Laundry. An easygoing and candid man, and a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Bundy is quick to dispel any misconceptions about cooking as a glamorous occupation, noting the long working hours and pressure of turning out great dishes night after night. He mentions that Eric Ripert, the executive chef and co-owner of Le Bernadin in New York City, dined in Lemaire in early June—he was in Virginia to film some segments for his TV show Avec Eric—and that a few years back he prepared a tasting dinner for 150 people at the restaurant, one of whom was Daniel Boulud. As pressure goes, it doesn’t get much bigger than cooking for such luminaries. Still, Bundy says it’s “rewarding.”
Nowadays, there isn’t a quality restaurant in North America that’s not trumpeting its “farm-to-table” philosophy—but Bundy is especially committed to the concept, and has been for years, partly because he’s an avid hunter who, even in college, was living in an old farmhouse in the woods and cooking for friends—typically wild game that he had downed (by gun or arrow) only hours earlier.
Not more than a stone’s throw from the hotel, Bundy and his staff have constructed a smallish garden atop a parking lot. There, they grow all manner of herbs on raised beds—basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, as well as a surprising array of vegetables, including peppers, squash, several varieties of tomato (German Johnson, Green Zebra, Brandywine, to name a few), even corn and rue, the last an herb that Keller brought to Bundy’s attention.
During a tour of the garden, Bundy points out a patch of okra sure to be used in his succotash, and shows me some serrano peppers that are starting to come in. He plucks a sprig of fresh mint he’ll use in tea, sauces and even cheesecake, and does the same with lavender, which will infuse Lemaire’s crème brûlée, giving it, he says, “a floral, almost feminine touch.” Eyeing some lemon verbena, Bundy says, “That’s one of my favorites,” and adds that it is used to infuse some of Lemaire’s cocktails.
The garden is too small to meet all of the chef’s needs. “I want to be honest about it,” he says. “This is more about highlighting the cool, fresh produce we’re growing” through short-term specials. There are less-tangible benefits, too. “The cool thing is that the cooks get excited about the garden,” Bundy says. “They see where food comes from—taste it and prepare it and serve it to the guests. It develops a good sense of respect for the product, the whole process.”
You won’t find a bigger proponent of the local food movement than Bundy, that’s for sure. And he seems a teeny bit annoyed that “a lot of [restaurant] people are standing up and screaming that they’re doing it now.” Been there, done that. He buys oyster mushrooms from Dave and Dee’s Mushrooms in Sedley, Virginia; bison meat from rancher Billy Salmon in Madison, Virginia; goat cheese from Goats R Us in Nottoway County; grits from Byrd Mill in Ashland; local micro greens from Manakintowne Specialty Growers and Cabbage Hill (both outside Richmond); chicken, pork and veal from Ayrshire Farm in Upperville; and country ham from Jim Kite, whom the chef describes as a “killer guy who’s been making hams his whole life.” Bundy frequently uses the word “killer” to connote exceptional quality, as in, “For local food, Virginia is a killer state.”
All of which is prologue to dinner at Lemaire. My colleague Tina Ennulat and I started with a couple of drinks. I ordered Two Grapes (Kluge Estate Cru with St. Germain elderberry liqueur and red grapes) while she tried a Bee’s Knees (Beefeater gin, house-made lemonade, smoked honey-thyme gastrique from the garden). Each was a delightfully refreshing aperitif after a suffocating day. For appetizers, we splurged and tried four dishes—spring strawberries with Brie salad, fried green tomatoes, a plate of pimiento cheese, and Blue Ridge apples with Surryano ham—a Spanish-style proscuitto from Edwards ham in Surry. The fried green tomatoes, breaded with Japanese panko, were crunchy and delicious—a favorite at our table. So was the pimiento, which, slathered on toasted sourdough bread, both evoked and exceeded the memories of having eaten it as youngsters. The pyramid of strawberries, Brie, pistachios, spicy greens and aprium (a hybridized plum/apricot fruit) was good-looking and fresh-tasting, and the combination of golden delicious apple slices with the dry-cured, razor-thin ham was a contrasting dash of Southern panache. The four dishes barely lasted four minutes amid a voracious clash of forks.
For our entrees, we went a little conservative. We ordered Virginia bison ribeye, a Berkshire pork chop and—hoping to balance the hit to our cholesterol count—a pan-seared Pacific halibut. We gave the bison our close attention, partly because it’s something of a red-meat rarity, but it garnered full respect: The meat was tender and flavorful, and it paired nicely with green tomato chow-chow. The pork chop was hearty, its heft leavened by “Coca-Cola BBQ sauce” and a heaping portion of collard greens. The halibut came with herbed spaetzel, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and mushroom broth.
For dessert, we shared two guilty pleasures out of the half dozen on offer. One was a warm strawberry rhubarb cobbler (with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream) and the other the perfect foil: a hazelnut caramel layer torte, with dark chocolate, almond sponge cake, orange zest mousse and notes of cinnamon and espresso. And with those the conversational pace slowed, replaced with the air of ample satisfaction that comes with an exceptional meal. We were not surprised to learn that restaurant critic John Mariani, writing for Esquire magazine, put Lemaire on his list of “Best New Restaurants” last year.
Remarkably, says Eubanks, about 80 percent of Lemaire’s customers come from outside the hotel. He would like to see the restaurant capture more of the Jefferson’s guests, which ought not to be a problem. More generally, he says that Lemaire 2.0 “is starting to resonate with the community. There are still issues to address, work to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
He says younger guests are coming in to try the new cocktails, and the restaurant aims to attract more of them with a new three-courses-for-$30 menu. “We want to make sure that people respond to the things that we do,” Eubanks says. “So far, the public has given us the flexibility to try new things.” We’d be disappointed if they hadn’t, having experienced, and enjoyed, the new Lemaire ourselves.