Robbie Burns in Richmond

By Corinna Lothar – – Thursday, March 7, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The unmistakable skirl of a bagpipe announced dinner, and bagpiper Tim MacLeod, resplendent in full highland attire, entered the great dining room of , as a hundred guests in kilts, skirts, scarves and bowties in the plaids of various clans waited for the opening of Burns Night.

Recitations of the poems of Robert Burns, the poet laureate of Scotland, followed, with highlands music, frequent toasts with Richmond-made Reservoir Bourbon and a fine dinner of Scottish fare, including Cullen skink soup (traditionally made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) and neeps and tatties (turnips and smashed potatoes). In keeping with tradition, haggis — sheep’s offal mixed with oatmeal and cooked in a sheep’s stomach — was brought in by the chef with more bagpipe. Burns Night concluded with a boisterous rendition of Robbie Burns’ traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”

is a perfect setting for Burns Night. It’s a faux Victorian mansion, built as a private home and now a bed and breakfast. Burns Night has been an annual celebration for more than two centuries in Scotland since 1801, commemorating the poet’s birthday. A big night for the Scots and those who are Scots for the night, like the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

is a half-hour northwest of Richmond, a city rich in American history, and now also a culinary and cultural center. Start a visit with the RVA Trolley Tour of historic Richmond. The daily two-hour tour takes visitors through the historic downtown, including the 1818 White House of the Confederacy, now the Museum of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the Civil War; the elegant, renovated Jefferson Hotel, where le tout Richmond meets for Sunday brunch; the Sephardic Jewish cemetery dating to 1791; and Monument Avenue with its graceful houses and imposing statuary.

The tour goes through Jackson Ward, once called “the Harlem of the South” for its vibrant African-American community. First home to Irish, German and Jewish immigrants during the ante-bellum period, free black people began to concentrate in the neighborhood. After the Civil War, former slaves and freed blacks built a thriving business community. The self-sustaining economy included not only banks and other businesses, but theaters, clubs and restaurants. The area is now part of the city’s Arts District. There’s an aluminum statue of Richmond native Bill “Bojangles” Robinson facing an intersection where the dancer paid to have a stoplight installed.

The trolley climbs Church Hill, a neighborhood of elegant pre-Civil War houses of Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne architectural styles. Church Hill is located on a bluff overlooking the James River, one of the city’s highest points. It was named in 1742 for St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” The neighborhood has some fine contemporary American, Southern and German restaurants.

Carytown is one of Richmond’s hip neighborhoods, the site of the city’s first strip mall. The shopping and restaurant area runs for about nine blocks on Cary Street, named for Archibald Cary, one of Virginia’s richest men and friend of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Art galleries, clothing and gift shops, and restaurants abound. One of Carytown’s highlights is the Byrd Theater, a restored movie house which has been showing films continuously since 1928. It still costs only $4 a seat for first-run movies; the popcorn is good; and on Saturday nights, Bob Gulledge plays the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.

The Richmond Museum of Art in the Museum District has temporary exhibits and an outstanding collection of some 200 Faberge eggs and other objects, the largest public collection in an American museum.

Richmond’s newest neighborhood is Scott’s Addition, once a commercial and industrial area, and now home to trendy restaurants, art studios, apartment buildings, cideries and breweries. At the recently opened Perch (2918 W. Broad St.), Chef Mike Ledesma turns to his Filipino heritage for some of his dishes, including excellent, crispy pork lumpia. The airy, attractive restaurant features a large bar, unusual lighting and an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven in which succulent steaks and octopus with charred Napa cabbage are prepared. Chef Ledesma’s ceviche is a spicy combination of scallops, shrimp and octopus. Duck confit on flatbread is rich and flavorful, easily shared. Roasted oysters with herb butter are beautifully tender.

Nor do you have to go to Kentucky to find fine Bourbon whiskey. Reservoir Distillery in Scott’s Addition makes three unique whiskeys — Wheat, Bourbon (100 percent corn mash) and Rye — and a terrific Bourbon barbecue sauce with local ingredients and Southern culture. Behind the company’s tasting room are a customized pot still and quarter cask barrels.

A few blocks away is Blue Bee Cider, named for a wild Virginia bee, Virginia’s first urban ciderie. As well as cider tastings, Blue Bee offers one-hour tours during which participants will learn about the history and process of making cider.

Approximately equidistant southeast from Richmond as is northwest, is Upper Shirley Vineyards, named for the adjoining plantation. It’s a bright, friendly, magical place overlooking the James River. The wines are wonderful, akin to French burgundies. My favorites are a lovely dry yet flavorful chardonnay and a rich, full-bodied Zachariah, named for owner Tayloe Dameron’s late father. Mr. Dameron and his wife, Susan, are gracious hosts and their winery is a perfect place for lunch or a tasting. The memory of the beauty of Virginia’s Tidewater region, and the grilled cheese sandwich — a fusion of pimento cheese, country ham and fig jam, paired with a flavorful tomato bisque — linger long in memory once the taste buds have forgotten how good it was.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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