Stove, The Restaurant – Sweet, Savory and Slightly Surreal (Grade: A-)

“EaT HEER” the sign outside beckons.

Say what?

The paper towels in the restroom tell us:  “soon he new it was thyme 2-go & Really start cookies [cookin’?] cause the yeast was prof-n good & he KNEEDED 2 try dat NEW FORMULA … . . Besides, BLAdE hAd retiRED 2 wheRE hE was X-AlED.  smeers”

Of course!  It all makes perfect sense … wait, what – who’s Blade?  Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Olive Garden any more.

I like to think of eating out as a short-lived contract that no rational person would ever enter into between the diner and the establishment.  There’s rarely a meeting of the minds, and the parties are typically committed before the terms of the deal are even known (I have to pay for this?  They want me to do what to their steaks?).  But it’s usually this fumbling, yet delicate, exchange that makes a meal wonderful, loathsome, or simply forgettable.

Most restaurants in the Hampton Roads environs reduce this interaction down to a lukewarm commercial transaction.  That is, you give them money, they give you food and maybe a nice place to sit with a few pleasantries from the waitstaff.  In the more accomplished restaurants, like 99 Main, the diner takes center stage and you’re gently fussed over for a couple hours.  At funky neighborhood places like Six, you’re treated to the casual familiarity of hanging out with old friends.

Every once in a great while, you stumble upon a restaurant like Stove, where you’re invited to step through the looking glass and spend an evening in someone else’s vision of what a restaurant (or reality itself) should be like.  The someone else in this case is chef-owner Sydney Meers, who has garnered no small amount of attention for his entirely quirky and equally implausible Port Norfolk (or as he calls it, “PoNo”) eatery.

One can’t help but get the sense that Meers painstakingly hand-picked every decorative detail scattered throughout the restaurant, from the vintage pinball game nailed to the wall, to the collection of stuffed dead animals eerily staring down diners.  Of course, much of the décor is Meers’ own elusive folk art, so that just might have something to do with it, too.

Part of Meers’ schtick is a loose appropriation of the chronically mangled English that was the provenance of Deep-South folk art (Meers is from Mississippi, although he tends to evoke more of a Louisiana flair), and the menu gets the treatment in full force.  In fact, the menu gets the treatment so much so that the back page is a glossary of the less-than-obvious terminology like “smoochie bear ham.”  A dog in one of Meers’ paintings cryptically proclaims:  “HEy cowboy, whERE dA Lion, it’s my turn Now, I’vE BEn workin out & I’m goin 2 EAt dA Loin in PIECE 4-ED.”  For a real insight into the strange world of Stove, check out the restaurant’s website, which is textbook conspiracy-theorist (that is, lots of sheer randomness plus a healthy dose of outdated information and a maddeningly arcane link structure).  Be forewarned that you could easily misplace a few hours of your day sorting through the operation.

Despite the flea-market-recluse vibe the restaurant works pretty hard to put out, the place is pretty hard-core about its food.  I mean they make their own ham.

Seriously – they make their own ham.  A-plus just for that, ya think?

When I spotted Meers shuttling across the street between garden and restaurant with huge bowls of greens, I started to understand what a labor of love Stove really is.  Meers focuses on the fresh, local and sustainable, another rare find in Hampton Roads.  It’s clear the restaurant places a real premium on patronizing local farmers, which is a huge plus.  As Meers describes on his website:  “really we make most all things, I just can’t grow fish or meat right now, not enough room here, anyway you can see we are devoted to preparing real good and healthy foods for our clientele.”

When I find myself salivating over a platter of locally sourced cheeses, I’m a little skeptical about the “healthy” part, although I’m completely on-board with “real good.”  (I’m also way past caring about whether the cheese is, in fact, healthy – I mean, cheese has calcium, right?)  In addition to a great selection of east-coast cheeses, Stove typically features a local goat cheese blended in-house with different herbs and spices.  The chili-herb spiced cheese is a great one to try, although it may be too hot for more, ah, sensitive palates.

Diners should be aware that while the cheese does arrive in generous two-ounce

A well-sized, if not so well-priced, cheese course.

portions, it’s not cheap.  Prices on one recent excursion ranged from $7.50 to $9 per cheese, which brought a three-cheese plate to $24.20.  The plate does come with a few small slices of the aforementioned smoochie bear ham, some yellow pita-like chips and pickled cabbage (curiously identified in the menu as “hamberger relish”).

I’d probably describe the restaurant’s menu as New American with southern influences.  Meers, however, describes it thusly:  “our cuisine is kind of neo-southern, French and American regional all bundle together which I call Mid-Atlantic cuisine, I mean who cares, it’s good food so come and eat it please.”  So, yeah, let’s just roll with that.

Offerings from the occasionally changing menu are generally excellent, and since Stove offers half orders, you can easily turn any entrée into an appetizer.  And trying as much of Meers’ food as possible is something I highly encourage.

A half portion of the salmon.

Beautifully seared salmon arrives perched on a vibrant cucumber and tomato relish so good that it comes close to outclassing the salmon.  The “pork o rama bbq” is a pork sampler comprised of home-made sausage, pork belly and two kinds of ham.  Huge scallops – piled on mashed potatoes decorated with a tomato-basil reduction – were cooked perfectly, giving the whole dish an unexpected light and bright feel.  Stove’s kitchen deftly avoids the overcooked-scallop pitfall that plagues so many of Hampton Roads’ cooks.

Desserts are also done nicely.  The cobbler comes in a neat cylindrical tower of sugar-cookie-like crust with cream on top.  When you break the crust, the tower spills tons of spiced fruit onto the plate.

Sometimes, however, I get the sense Stove is just phoning it in.  When I got the half-sized pork o’rama recently, the three small slices of the vaunted smoochie bear ham – which should be one of the stars of what is a pork sampler plate – were lost underneath a dollop of sautéed vegetables.  A New York strip on special one night came out very rare, despite being ordered medium rare.  The small cylinder of Virginia cheese on top of the steak hardly raised the steak to anything particularly new or exciting.  Vegetarian entrees are often bland and underseasoned — surprising, given the restaurant’s Creole flairs.  Inexcusably, the pita chips adorning one cheese plate were many days beyond being simply stale, having achieved a weird chewy al dente texture.

Steak a la Stove.

Meers’ happy folksiness kinda, sorta makes its way to the waitstaff.  One waiter was very animated and enthusiastic about just about everything, but most occupy the nice/attentive/knowledgeable orbit, and there’s nothing wrong about that.  I am, however, still somewhat bent out of shape over being charged $7.50 for a double shot of espresso one night.  On a later visit, the damage came to a more tolerable $4.50.  Was I overcharged out of an honest oversight?  Or bland indifference?

I recommend you plan your visits to Stove in advance – at least a day or so for the weekends – since they only have something like eleven tables.  The website gently notes they aren’t a kid-friendly place.  That is, no high chairs, no colorable kiddie menus, but they also say:  “[if] your children are used to eating in this type of restaurant and are well behaved please bring them in for a wonderful experience.”  For those of you put out by this position, please get over yourselves and take the faux outrage somewhere else, because the stuffed dead animals are unsettling enough – I don’t think I could take a shrieking toddler adding a soundtrack to the mix.

Despite the occasional missteps, Stove is a fun and funky world to spend a few hours in.  It’s easily one of the most interesting places you’re going to visit in Hampton Roads.  So, go, and be part of Sydney Meers’ world.

You might not want to leave.

Here’s Urbanspoon’s vote (check out some of the comically deranged comments, especially the one by the guy complaining Meers’ art isn’t religious enough):
Stove on Urbanspoon
Grade:  A-
Address:  2622 Detroit Street, Portsmouth
Phone:  (757) 397-0900
Website:  http://www.stoverestaurant.com
Note on hours:  open Tuesday through Saturday and first Sunday of the month

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