Saturday, April 18, 2009

Millie's, Gilly's, and Bernie's

I try not to judge a restaurant by its name. But, I have to admit that I can't help feeling naturally drawn to one named after an actual person. There is just something really personal about it - something that begs me to enter the front door and learn the actual story behind the name. Or, at least, learn about the food behind the name. My affection for personally named restaurants also goes back to my upbringing in Richmond, VA. It was there that I was introduced to Millie's - my very first gourmet restaurant. Even though I know it's probably not the case, I really felt that I, at age 12, had been the one to discover it! I still feel like I can call this restaurant my very own - making that particular place and name that much more personal.

It is amazing to see that 15+ years later, Millie's is still going strong (much to my credit, I'm sure). The restaurants roots are actually Californian - starting in the 1980's in LA when owner Paul Keevil bought a tiny diner named Millie's from a couple, Millie and Jack. It quickly overcame its diner image with the inventive, gourmet cuisine he began producing. When he moved to Richmond, Paul took both the atmosphere and his culinary expertise with him. Located near the old row of tobacco warehouses along the James River (an area I used to fear going to, but now completely appreciate), Millie's definitely still has a casual diner feel - booths with individual jukeboxes, stools at the counter, and an open kitchen. The food, however, is anything but dineresque. The menu changes daily, but offers everything from Southern to Asian to Italian to Mexican. It is one of those places where everything looks so appetizing on the menu, so I usually end up ordering two starters for my meal. While the menu does so often change, look out for repeats. If spotted, do not pass up the crispy duck spring rolls with orange hoisin and cucumber salad or the seared sea scallop with asparagus risotto and ginger-carrot broth. Both are starters, but together make a great, filling meal. One of my favorite main courses which is actually so popular that it is almost always guaranteed on the menu is the Thai spicy shrimp with asparagus, shitakes, lime, red cabbage, cilantro, and peanuts over soba noodles. You really cannot go wrong with anything ordered. There are truly few spots where the energy level and quality level have been able to stand the test of time - and Millie's, making its way from west to east, really is one of them.

For years, I, along with close friends and family members, have been trying to get my mother, aka Gilly, to start a catering business. She (well, her cooking and love for food) is basically the reason that I was drawn to frequenting and discovering top-notch restaurants. Her kitchen could take on any of my NYC favorites any day of the week. And, last weekend during Easter, she did just that - boasting her amazing culinary skills to me once again. Since my sister and I hardly make it home more than three times a year, my mother basically goes over the top with any home-cooked meal. And, our encouragement definitely doesn't stop her. Last weekend, our feasts fell on Saturday night and Sunday for Easter lunch. My mother is capable of cooking all cuisines - and last Saturday at Gilly's, it was Mexican night. She made a filet mignon with a tomatillo-chipotle sauce. This is a great dish for a dinner party. Each plate had a layer of the salsa (so good I wanted to dip just about anything in it) under a lightly fried corn tortilla creating a nest for the beef filet. The filets had been sauteed and broiled for a minute or two with a slice of manchego cheese on top. To accompany such a decadent dish, we made a jicama (pronounced HICK-a-ma) salad with avocado, mint, jalapenos, lime and cayenne. This extremely light Mexican vegetable looks like a turnip, but has a sweet and crisp taste to it. It was a great compliment to the rich beef dish, but both had very nice spice and kicks to go along with it.

Since we were going strong, Gilly continued right on through to Easter morning. I can't remember the last time I spent Easter at home, but it was great to be there. I felt like a kid again as I searched around the house for my Easter basket - and to find it full of malt balls, peeps, various chocolates and jelly beans. Well, there was one indicator that I had grown up. I had to smile admiring the two 3.5 ounce jars of Duke's Mayonnaise sitting prominently in my basket on top of all my candies. There is nothing like Duke's - and sadly, they don't sell it up North. But, with these carry-on friendly jars, my kitchen pantry in NYC just seriously increased in its value! We then sat down to our final feast - Lamb Persillade from the Barefoot Contessa with a side of crispy smashed roasted potatoes and fresh asparagus. The meal was delicious - shouting springtime in both presentation and taste. Now, why is it that I only make it home just a few times a year?

And then, there is Bernie's - the Richmond sandwich shop that brings generations of Virginians together every day at lunchtime. No trip home is complete without a stop at this divey joint located in one of Richmond's many strip malls not far from the University of Richmond. I have no idea who Bernie is, but I like to envision him as a jolly, old man who peaked in college. This place is covered in pennant flags from colleges all over the US. Sure, I had to send them the Middlebury flag, but they immediately placed it right up there with the rest of them. The concept and menu is simple - subs, subs, and subs. Choices are basic - meat, cheese, and hot peppers. Hands down, there is really only one, well maybe two ways to go. Order the Italian (ham and salami) or Salami with cheese and a few hot peppers to give it a nice kick. No need to order more than a half for $3.75 since this is usually more than enough. There is just something about the way the sub bread is toasted and the right amount of ingredients that makes these sandwiches different from any others. If I could find something even remotely close to this in NYC, I might never get homesick again. Although, its fair to say that nowhere in New York would people actually wait 45 minutes, as we did last week, for a sub! But, just think of it as a time to socialize since I have never left there without running into a familiar face.

So next time you are in Richmond or if you need an excuse to get down there, just check out Millie's and Bernie's. You might even want to ring up Gilly- you never know what she will be serving and there just might be room for you at her hot ticketed table. That's the nice thing about names - they are an introduction. Once you learn them, you start to know a place or a person. If nothing else, it's an entryway. And, you never know what you will find behind the name. Certainly, there is a last (and usually a middle) name to follow. But, what I find more interesting is what is beyond the name. A name can only get you so far - it's personality and talent that will take you the distance. Millie, Gilly, and Bernie definitely have it and it's up to you to enjoy it!


Ashley said...

Finally a Richmond post!!! Love millies, especially brunch! Love Gillys for an meal, snack or party! And bernies is great but the wait is sometimes too much for this hungry lady! And I especially love the Duke's shoutout!! It's the best and should be represented up north, maybe u can sell it out of your apt?!?!

Carrie said...

There really is nothing like Gilly's home cooking! And, Bernie's....mmmm... my mouth waters just thinking about it. I have yet to find a sandwich in NYC that even compares!

jonah said...

I love Millie's! The only time my grandmother ever came to Richmond, I took her here. She loved it too. I'll never forget that visit. She loved the table juke boxes!
I always thought Millie's was named after a dog! because of the logo.
Do you have Gilly's number? I'd love to hire her!
I'll have to check out Bernie's - never been there though it is in my 'hood.

Arushnyc said...

I love that I've had the pleasure of eatting at 2 of the 3. Good stuff. Oh, I also love that the Lehigh pennant made the cut in your pictures.

2shoes said...

What a fabulous compliment from such a worldwide traveler gourmand.....xxoo

Nan said...

Finally... you wrote about my favorite place in Richmond to eat... Bernie's.

Brubis said...

You can make almost any food seem tremendously appetizing with your wonderful desciptions and fluid writing style. You could probably make dog food sound tasty! However, I have eaten at all three of these "establishments" and know how truthful you are in your reviews of the cuisine at each. For home cooking of a loftier sort, Gilly's is not to be missed--plain or fancy! I agree about the Duke's mayonaise--it is the best, and I can eat it by the spoonful, right out of the jar. NYC is missing out on that score!