The Green Onion – Gourmet en masse (Grade: A-)

During hurricane season in Hampton Roads, which is basically the entire year except for November through February, it doesn’t really “rain” like it does in other places.  Ordinarily, “rain” equates to drops falling from the sky and watering your flowers and cleaning off your car.  You know, when things are just a little gray and melancholy, but kind of soothing nonetheless?  Here, it’s more like getting a preview of the opening days of Armageddon with lightning shooting maniacally across the sky, loud thunder crashing and rain blowing horizontally in sheets so thick you can’t see much more than a few feet in front of you.  When things finally pass (it can go on for days), you have to slog across the lake that used to be your yard to pull branches off your car and try to figure out how you’re going to get all that water out of the garage.  Again.

I was wrapping up a dinner at The Green Onion recently when Mother Nature of Hampton Roads launched into one of these manic bipolar episodes with an extra-heavy dose of vigor and angst.  While debating whether I should wait and see how long this particular hissy fit was going to last or splash my way to my car only to drive home soaking wet, two dripping wet men toting a medley of grocery-store plastic bags walked in the front door with no small amount of trepidation.  One, whom I assumed was the older of the two, stood at the empty hostess stand, tugging at his gray beard and glancing nervously around the half-full dining room.  When he turned away from me, I could see his shoulder blade poking out of large hole in his worn t-shirt.

“This isn’t going to turn out well,” I thought.

As the patrons collectively patted their overstuffed bellies and wondered whether dessert was on the horizon, the man with the ripped shirt pulled out a black plastic comb and slicked his board-straight hair back in neat, tight rows.  His friend examined the door that led out to the patio, staring curiously at the few diners out there who had decided to soggily wait out the storm.

About this time, I saw the hostess bolt out of the kitchen toward the front door, where the two men were standing.

I braced myself for the spectacle of these two men being ejected back into the downpour.

“Dave,” she said just loud enough to interrupt the nervous hair-combing without rousing the other diners from their ravenous demolition of outsized portions of seared meats and fresh vegetables.

Startled, he shoved the comb back into his pocket, and started moving towards the door.

“Dave,” she repeated.  “It’s OK.”

As the tension evaporated from the room, a second hostess sidled up to the men and offered them one of the patio tables.  Once they were seated, she brought them glasses of water.

And menus.

It was at that moment I thought of The Green Onion as less of “some restaurant in Hampton Roads” and more of “a labor of love that’s part of my community.”

And the restaurant gets a well-deserved bump in the grade I’m giving them for this rare showing of humanity in a region full of people who pride themselves in calling working moms “welfare queens” and screaming, “Get a job!” at legless vets holding cardboard signs on street corners.

Prior to this, I had always imagined writing more about The Green Onion’s portion-size issues (well, my issues with The Green Onion’s portion size), but maybe they, too, are just another facet of a conversation that is far and away deeper and more complicated than dinner.

Or maybe I just have issues.  It’s a toss-up.

My first meal at The Green Onion turned out to be a pretty accurate prediction of every subsequent visit, highlighting both the strengths and the weaknesses of the restaurant.

I kicked off that meal with the smoked gouda and wild mushroom bisque because I can barely resist any dish that involves smoke, cheese, mushrooms or bisque (which I equate to liquefied ultra-rich butter-cream gifts from heaven), so when I see all of those things together … yeah, I’ve got to order that.

So, when half a quart of the bisque hit the table, I had a bit of a moral dilemma.  See, as soon as I took my first oh-my-God-that’s-so-good bite, I simultaneously realized that I wasn’t going to make it through that bowl of soup and then make any sort of dent in the entrée I’d already ordered.  But I couldn’t not eat the soup, because it isn’t really a good doggy-bag kind of thing.  But I still wanted to eat my entrée.  What to do?

A friend of mine recently decreed that I’m a slave to my appetite.  Which is true.  So you can pretty much imagine which side of the eat-it-all/save-some-room fence I came down on.  But, come on – melted smoky cheese with butter and cream and mushrooms?  Ghandi himself would have a tough time resisting this stuff.

In a show of extreme will-power, however, I want you to know that I didn’t lick the bowl clean.  Mainly because the waitress took it away from me before I could.  But still.

After I had way too much of the soup that was way too rich, my entrée (crabcakes), which was also way too big, showed up.  Here, I had two large curried crab cakes (heavy on the curry with a moderate amount of filler) with crisp asparagus on top of mashed potatoes.  That’s right, crab cakes on top of mashed potatoes after about five thousand calories of super-rich bisque.  I was able to get most of one of the crab cakes before I threw in the towel and had them box the rest up.  I staggered, painfully full, out of the restaurant with a death grip on my doggy bag wondering just what had happened to me.

The next time I had the crabcakes, I had the “southwestern” version, which involved three huge smoky-spicy chipotle-infused crabcakes on top of a pile of ultra-dense/hyper-spiced Old Bay mashed potatoes.  I love mashed potatoes.  I love crabcakes.  I needed someone to save me from myself, but my notes from that evening simply say, “obscene amounts of food.”

After a few weeks passed (and many hours in the gym), I went back to The Green Onion to give their brunch a shot.  An artichoke and crab frittata?  Really?  They had me at artichoke.

A frittata is basically a crust-less quiche.  That is, it’s an egg omelet concoction that’s baked, rather than fried in a skillet.  Typically, it’s cooked in a 10-inch skillet, and a normal portion would equate to a quarter of the inch-thick frittata.  But not at the The Green Onion.  No siree – at The Green Onion, the unsuspecting diner gets the whole thing.  Granted, they cut it into quarters, but an order of the frittata gets you all four quarters, laid overlapping like fish scales on a foot-wide plate.  Overbrowned and devoid of any garnish, the dish looks absolutely horrible.  It tastes great, which is good, since you’ll have leftovers for the next three days.

Another outsized, yet fun, brunch option is the shrimp and grits.  At $14, it’s a heck of a bargain, because you get eight or so shrimp and a deadeningly rich butter-based sauce poured over the whole thing.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good.  It’s really good.  It’s also sheer excess and probably not something to have if you hope to accomplish anything else that day other than a multi-hour nap.  Having this more than a few times a year is probably just creating job security for your cardiologist.  To help offset the ensuing food coma, The Green Onion serves coffee in funky 70s-décor French presses.

“Are all of your dishes this huge?” I asked one waitress who had just deposited a pound’s worth of salad in front of me.

“You know,” she said, “we tried to do a small-plate-tapas menu once, but the guys in the kitchen – they didn’t get it.  ‘Small’ just isn’t in their vocabulary.”

And how.

I ordered an arugula-bleu cheese-spiced walnut balsamic dressing appetizer salad.  One would think this would be a small, light salad, right?  It showed upon on a rectangular plate at least a foot wide and piled high.  The walnuts had a good kick to them, heatwise, but the salad itself was way too huge, looking very much like someone knocked a tub of arugula over onto the plate while the kitchen was composing it.  Now, I understand folks wanting to get their money’s worth, but there comes a point where your options for non-doggy-baggable fare are:  1) eat too much of it, or 2) send the remnants back to the kitchen to be tossed in the trash.

One of their small plates I’m particularly fond of is the fried oysters with a parmesan

Oysters with parmesan and spinach cream sauce

and spinach cream sauce with chopped up bacon sprinkled on top.  The dish comes as a small salad with about ten or so fried oysters.  The oysters are very nicely cooked, with a crisp herbed crust and a silky soft interior.  The sauce tastes a lot lighter than it sounds, so the added richness and saltiness of the bacon works well.  The green salad with port-poached pears, gorgonzola, candied pecans and prosciutto with a maple-dijon vinaigrette dressing is, overall, a great salad.  The port-poached pears were nothing special, though – they somehow absorbed all the wine color but almost none of the flavor.  In fact, the port’s contribution to the pears seemed to be limited to leaching out all the pear flavor, leaving behind a bland and fibrous entity.  The Green Onion also has a good selection of cheeses with a tray of three cheeses going for $15 or so.  Their accompaniments could use a little imagination, though (last time, I got stacks of generic grocery-store water crackers).

In case you don’t think you’re going to get enough to eat just ordering off the regular menu (note that their chicken entrée involves chicken breasts as opposed to the singular breast most folks satisfy themselves with), The Green Onion offers a we’ll-give-you-all-the-rope-you-need option on Wednesdays:  all you can eat mussels for $17.  This is also one of those deals of the decade, because you not only get to eat mussels to your heart’s content, but you get either a beer or a glass of wine to go with it (and they’re not serving up PBR, either – they were almost all craft beers and the wine options were across-the-board great).  The mussels themselves are wonderful and served in an excellent garlic-spiked sherry broth.  The presentation is a nod to The Green Onion’s “big food” ethic:  you get a huge square bowl that looks like it’s designed to be a centerpiece of some sort overfilled with mussels.  On top of the mussel mountain is a large knotted mass of (very, very addictive) fries.  Once you polish that off, they’ll keep bringing you bowls of mussels into you cry uncle.

“Does anyone ever actually ask for a refill?” I asked a waitress.

“Well, we do get a couple of Marines who come in every now and then and eat like six bowls or so,” she answered.

Just thinking about eating that many mussels made me a little queasy, but they are really good, and I don’t think it’s possible to beat The Green Onion’s $17 pricing.  Another awesome deal not to be missed is the half-price bottles of wine on Tuesday night.  Half price!

For the most part, the kitchen turns out excellent fare.  Both the ribeye and duck breast are spot-on productions.  The steak comes well-seasoned with a wonderful seared crust, and the duck breast is done to a precise medium rare.  The sautéed scallop entrée is simply one of those dishes you owe it to yourself to try.  The scallops themselves are flawlessly prepared and the “lobster cheesecake” (think polenta) is cool, unique and really tasty.

Sometimes, however, it seems like the kitchen is either on autopilot or out to lunch entirely.  The restaurant’s gazpacho is simply awful.  It’s dull, flat, and lifeless with no discernable texture (usually you process some of the vegetables to give the soup some body).  I get the sense they’re making it with canned tomato juice, which Rachael Ray doesn’t even do in her 30-Minute Meals version.  As if that wasn’t enough, it’s entirely under-seasoned.  I watched one diner take a taste of the soup and immediately call the waiter over to ask for salt.  The final misstep with this dish?  An over-charred baguette slice propped up in the soup itself means the submerged piece of bread is a soggy blob by the time it gets to the table.

Not quite as egregious was the flourless chocolate torte I had one evening.  The torte itself was really moist, but the mint “glaze” on top was a thick, gritty sugar crust, turning the dessert into a hyper-sweet sugar bomb.

The service at The Green Onion is fairly middle-of-the-road.  The staff is always nice and friendly, but they can be a little vacuous as well.  The aforementioned gazpacho, of which only three or four spoonfuls had been consumed, was cleared from the table without comment from the waitress.  This sort of leads me to wonder if the waitress wasn’t paying attention, or if folks not eating their purchases is a common occurrence at The Green Onion.  I’ve sat at the bar and had the bartender literally ignore me, even when there are only a handful of other customers.  My waiter described the “chocolate torte” as just that, while I overheard one waitress describe it as “Mexican chocolate” and another tell a different table that it was “spicy chocolate.”  I asked one waitress about a special.  She said she’d hadn’t had it before, but that she would recommend it, since I could always come back later and try the regular menu items.  Fair enough.  Except she gave me the exact same spiel the next time she waited on me for a different special, which she hadn’t tried, either.

As a space, The Green Onion is oddly incongruent.  The left half is bright and arty with a rotating selection of beautiful photographs, half the U-shaped bar, and a small, usually vacant lounge-y corner with a loveseat or two.  The right half is darker and more dramatic, mainly due to the flames shooting up from the open kitchen periodically a la Duran Duran’s Wild Boys.  We might have a metaphor for the white and green parts of a green onion, or even a heaven-and-hell sort of thing, but I’m pretty sure it was all accidental.  Why?  Well, for one, the bar’s overhead iron glassware holder is bolted into the wall, yet no one ever saw fit to paint over the white plaster blobs where iron meets wall.  For two, there are four or so Chinatown-special vertical banners hanging near the kitchen that go with virtually nothing else in the restaurant.  Three:  there are Asian paper-lamp fixtures on the porch outside hanging inexplicably next to a candelabra made out of bent silverware, because nothing says simple zen like reclaimed utensils.  Four is the open kitchen itself.  When one has an open kitchen, the idea is to have a kitchen that’s interesting and exciting to look at.  Thus, I ask:  why does The Green Onion’s open kitchen prominently display Costco-sized plastic vessels of dried herbs?

Yeah, I know the idea is to have the smallest kitchen possible to maximize the number of tables you can fit into the restaurant.  I get it.  But it doesn’t gallon-sized containers of dried oregano equals ambience.  Actually, it just suggests that the herbs in the food probably aren’t fresh and didn’t come from anyplace anywhere near Norfolk, Virginia.

Despite the generally minor missteps at The Green Onion, the restaurant more than makes up for in terms of being warm, inviting and intriguing.  It’s one of the few area restaurants that really feels like it’s part of the neighborhood, rather than simply a restaurant in a neighborhood.  The clientele is diverse, too, which I think is a good thing.  I mean, when you’ve got a table full of white-haired women having a girls’ night out, a young African-American couple sharing a pitcher of sangria and Marines downing mimosas at the bar, well, I think you’ve broken some new ground around here.

So I recommend taking yourself to The Green Onion, having a leisurely dinner, and basking in the glow of a business that seems to be thoroughly entwined in its community.

Just make sure you’re really hungry.

Here’s what the Urbanspoon critics think about the Colley Avenue location:
Green Onion on Urbanspoon

They seem far less impressed with the Virginia Beach location, which I haven’t tried:
Green Onion 2 on Urbanspoon

Grade:  A-
Address:  1603 Colley Avenue, Norfolk
(They have a second location at 1336 North Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach)
Phone:  (757) 963-1200 (248-3474 for the Virginia Beach location)
Website:  www.thegreenonionrestaurant.com

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