Article from The Free Lance-Star
For me they’ve come in such disparate places as a mountaintop, a tropical island, a Paris train station, an open-air marketplace stall south of the border.
Sometimes it’s the food that’s stellar; other times it’s the ambience or the setting. And if you’re lucky, it’s all three combined.
That type of experience is getting harder to come by all the time, especially at chain restaurants, where everything from soup to nuts has been engineered and controlled for your dining pleasure.
But thanks to a reader recommendation, my wife and I recently enjoyed a meal that would be awfully hard to duplicate, at Robins Tea House at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden just north of Richmond.
First off, this is one gorgeous garden. Well, more like a dozen themed gardens on 40 well-tended acres, plus a conservatory with some amazing orchids in bloom. And I’m not even a flower guy, or much of a shrub lover, for that matter. Truth is, I go to a garden or Southern plantation and I risk contracting a bad case of “museum-itis.”
Some things you’ll need to know from the get-go: You’ve got to be a member or pay admission to the garden to eat in the tea house. There’s a seasonal lunch menu for weekdays and a seasonal brunch menu for weekends.
A bit of good news: Tea house portions don’t resemble the itty-bitty sandwich and pastry bites you find in tea rooms. Lewis Ginter also features another dining venue, a café with cafeteria-style self-service, which might be a better option for those with young kids.
The tea house incorporates some Asian design elements in its structure, but is so named for the Asian Valley Garden that surrounds it. With its floor-to-high-ceiling windows and exposed beam construction it resembles a great big pool house.
The dining room’s great acoustics, due to the use of special tiles overhead, helped showcase the soft jazz and New Age music on the sound system. While we were there, a couple was busy considering the tea house as a potential site for their wedding reception.
We started things off with a delightful lavender-lemonade cocktail and three apps: a smooth and creamy cup of roasted red-pepper crab soup that had a little heat to it; a colorful baby kale salad, with turnips, sweet potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, almonds and Green Goddess dressing that looked like a work of art; and arancini—house-made butternut-squash risotto that had been lightly battered and flash-fried. It would have been nice to have a sauce with the latter; the three golden, perfectly crisped rice balls looked a little spare all by their lonesome. However, their delicate sweet, nutty flavor really didn’t require enhancing.
For entrées we got the “house-made buttermilk biscuits with traditional red-eye gravy” and “fall hash,” an autumn play on the traditional breakfast staple, with duck confit, bacon, caramelized onions, butternut squash, potatoes, fresh herbs and a sunny-side-up farm egg on top. Both mains came with a side of salad greens dressed with balsamic, which gave the plates nice balance and composition.
The hash was a winner, pleasingly earthy and rustic. The biscuits and gravy had a couple of issues: First, the gravy, which was more of a sawmill or sausage gravy, wasn’t as advertised, and second, too much fresh sage overpowered the mild, creamy flavors of the dish.
I guess the real question is: Why put biscuits and gravy on a bistro-style menu in the first place? Wouldn’t this be better left to Aunt Sarah’s or Cracker Barrel? This is one dish you don’t want to overseason or overly experiment with.
We had satisfyingly robust coffee, with chocolate gelato, for dessert. With less air and fat than ice cream, the gelato had a flavor that was unusually direct, hard and fast. It went a long way toward redeeming our brunch.
Verdict: The food, setting and ambience of Robins Tea House all add up to one very memorable dining experience.