Ruth Reichl, one of the New York Times most-celebrated food critics, once wrote: “Every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful. When restaurants hold up their end of the bargain, they give us the illusion of being surrounded by servants intent on ensuring our happiness and offering extraordinary food.
“But even modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality; that is part of their charm. When you walk through the door, you are entering neutral territory where you are free to be whoever you choose for the duration of the meal.”
In dense moneyed cities like Los Angeles and New York City, there are plenty of opportunities to take the dinner-as-theater stage – assuming, of course, the diner in question is willing to lay out the requisite cover charge. And when I say you will pay for this sort of experience, I mean starting at $300 or so.
And, no, that doesn’t include wine.
I’m sorry, but if I’m paying that sort of money for a meal – an event that generally occurs three times a day, every day, and virtually always costs far, far less – the staff very well better be intent on both ensuring my happiness and showering me with extraordinary food. Anything less is grounds for a lawsuit of some sort.
But after you have enough restaurant experiences that are more like frustrating tugs-of-war than effortlessly flowing dances, you start to wonder if shelling out hundreds of dollars is the price you have to pay to stop the maddening cycle of begging for a refill of water and feeling guilty for expecting a simple steak to be cooked correctly.
Then I walk into 99 Main and – perceptibly, I’m sure – catch my breath when the bright-eyed hostess sweetly smiles and asks, without the slightest hint of pretense, if I would be joining them for dinner. Escorted to my table, I’m handed off to a cheerful waitress who is both enchanted with the kitchen’s creations and seemingly excited that I’ve decided to dine at 99 Main.
This opening act pretty much plays out this way every time I eat at 99 Main, and that’s a huge part of the restaurant’s charm. This is one of the few places in Hampton Roads where everyone gets the star treatment – something usually reserved for stratospherically priced big-city joints. And after dealing with too many waiters and waitresses who are more committed to their cell phone text missives than doing a moderately decent job, 99 Main is a wonderful relief. Every time I walk through their front door, I feel the tension in my shoulders evaporate, because I know it’s smooth sailing as long as I’m in the restaurant’s care.
The dishes at 99 Main are generally as meticulously designed as the service is conscientious. Even when the kitchen stumbles, the thought and effort behind the dishes shine through, nearly erasing any transgressions that manage to find their way to the table.
99 Main’s kitchen turns out some of the most intriguing plates you’re likely to find in Hampton Roads. Take, for example, their maple bacon ice cream.
Yeah. Maple bacon ice cream.
I think there were some other dessert specials that night, but after I heard “maple” and “bacon” and “ice cream” in the same sentence, they might as well have been telling me about a nuclear reactor melting down next door, because all I was thinking was: “I have got to have some of that.”
This dessert was, well … excellent. The bacon bits (cured in-house!) actually tasted like crunchy caramel bits until the very end, when I got a whiff of smoky, salty bacon goodness. Pair that up with sweet ice cream, and it’s like the state fair just rolled into town via your mouth.
This dessert? It’s basically a miracle.
And that’s kind of the way they roll at 99 Main. It’s Iron Chef creativity married up with the feeling you’re eating at a good friend’s house. A good friend who is intent on nothing other than making sure you have a good time.
99 Main’s vichyssoise is a cool silken leek and potato soup that buoys wisps of fried leek threads, while the duck breast arrives perfectly seasoned, crisp and cooked to a precise medium rare on top of bright spring vegetables and a rich pan sauce. The lobster and soba noodles come bathed in a startlingly luxurious mushroom broth. Their gazpacho is summer in a bowl with a lightly chunky texture and farmers’-market-fresh flavors.
The bar is no slouch, either, reviving the oh-so-five-years-ago mojito with fresh mint “from out back” and the ideal degree of refreshing tartness. Their peach julep is a nice spin on mint julep – essentially a Jim Beam mint julep with peach flavors served up with thin layer of crushed ice floating on top. It’s a far cry from the harshly toxic tall-glass-of-bourbon-and-granular-sugar mint julep that your friends made you for that Kentucky Derby party you remember less for the party itself and more for the hangover you had the next day. Gin martinis are – as advertised – perfect. Which is to say, they’re ice cold and delicately seasoned with Vermouth. The basil-strawberry martini is a beautifully green drink, even if it suffers from too much of the sour component, lending it the flavor of a strawberry SweeTart.
There have been a few dining disconnects. One pounded-thin chicken dish was powdery and dry, and a hopelessly under-seasoned potato gratin showed up crunchy and inedible. A red pepper coulis hit the table still shrugging off a refrigerator chill one night, and ice-cold “braised” leeks proved to be a strange foil for the rest of a room-temperature salad on another.
On another visit, I ordered the filet mignon with a habanero sauce. The steak? Beautiful. It’s been a long time since I had a steak of such quality cooked so perfectly. The problem? The intense habanero sauce completely steamrolled the mild-mannered flavor of the filet. Maybe this would’ve worked better with a rib-eye or a New York strip?
But then you try things like the impeccably tender fried calamari perched on top of an arugula salad, the dual-layered chocolate derby cake with caramel frosting that’s far lighter tasting than you’d think, the gorgeous fried goat cheese they sometimes serve with their salads … and, suddenly, those transgressions are faint fuzzy memories of some other place, clearly not this one, sometime long, long ago.
What grounds 99 Main visit after visit is the warm, friendly and educated waitstaff that’s never the slightest bit pretentious or condescending. They know the food. I tend to believe they even love it. If asked, they’ll tell you what wine they think would go well with your meal. If they’re unsure, they’ll go consult with the bartender and even the chef. On a couple occasions, they brought me samples of wine so I could decide between their top picks. And for those who worry about such things: they don’t clear the plates until everyone at the table is done eating.
Speaking of wines, the wine list is more interesting than most, and is still eminently reasonable price-wise. On my last visit, the most expensive bottle on the list was $85. There were a few in the $70s, but the vast majority were $35 and under. Go on Wednesdays, and you’ll find bottles 20% off. The restaurant also sells “off premises,” which means you can walk in, buy a bottle of wine (at a discount), and walk out.
All in all, 99 Main is a sophisticated restaurant where you always feel both welcome and appreciated. And that is well worth the price of admission.
Address: 99 Main Street, Newport News
Phone: (757) 599-9885