I first visited the Hobbit's new home last fall, about a month after brothers Raymond and Forrest Edmonds finally reopened in a half-timbered house between Portsmouth and Richmond. After a quarter-century on Shepherd, then construction delays on Richmond that seemed again as long, the Hobbits were no longer "in the hole," as Raymond joked; the Edmondses rechristened their beloved institution the Hobbit Café.
The spreading live oak tree that the Edmondses spent so much time negotiating to save prettily shaded the outdoor deck that afternoon -- and, ungrateful wretch, pelted the diners beneath its branches with a hailstorm of acorns. I wished for a crash helmet as nuts pinged musically against chairs, tables and plates, splashing into fruit smoothies and rebounding into scoops of guacamole.
This first visit was also memorable in that four -- count 'em, four -- of this city's food writers had individually and coincidentally gathered to check out the Hobbit's new digs. In a city of some 4,000 restaurants, what are the odds? It says a lot about the nostalgic esteem so many of us feel for the Hobbit, whether health food aficionados or not. The brothers might have freaked out, had they recognized any of us; they didn't, and it was just as well, because the food I had that first luncheon fell sadly short of my expectations. The fried cheese shrimp rolls ($4.99), stuffed with lots of cream cheese and very little shrimp, were sadly bland; the grilled tuna steak ($11.99) was dry and overcooked; and the jerk chicken ($8.99) was astonishingly overspiced, red hot with way too much cayenne. My friend, herself a former food writer, and I made disappointed faces at each other across a table littered with acorns.
The hardest part of a food writer's job is to return to the scene of a previous bummer, but someone's got to do it. So I went back to the Hobbit Café just last week, prepared to duck and cover. What a difference those intervening months made! For one thing, the acorn drop season apparently ended early in spring; even better, the kitchen had regained its senses and was now sailing smoothly. The most spectacular turnaround dish was that same jerk chicken, its seasoning balance vastly improved, subtle and dark with allspice and cloves. Served with toothsome brown rice, black beans and great slabs of grilled eggplant and zucchini, the plate made for a hearty lunch, and would have done equally well for dinner. I chose not to douse it with the proffered bottle of "liquid amino"; although I read the label carefully, I still wasn't sure what exactly that stuff was. It looked like plant food and smelled like sour soy.
The hamburgers were as stellar as ever, I'm glad to report. We tried the Martinique burger ($5.79), which was built around a half-pound of truly admirable Angus beef, dressed with chipotle mayonnaise and sandwiched in a sturdy whole wheat bun. The Martinique's generous topping of sautéed mushrooms and onions made for messy eating, of course; we thought we'd have to turn a hose on our friend, but he was supremely happy, if a little grease-splattered. I was glad he ordered the french fries with it (99 cents extra): My theory is that a kitchen turns out either excellent fries or excellent onion rings, never both. In the case of the Hobbit Café, the fries, crisp outside, soft inside, and lightly sprinkled with Cajun-style seasoning, are your better bet.
Meanwhile, another friend contemplated the Hobbit's mysterious affinity for carrots. (If you've been there, you know that all the trademark sandwiches are served with a veritable haystack of shredded carrots.) He was a rookie, and so was taken aback by the shaggy, bright orange mountain looming beside his Frodo classic ($7.39). Just in case there's anyone else left in town who doesn't know the Hobbit menu by heart, the Frodo is the sliced turkey sandwich, topped with grilled bell peppers and tomatoes under a thick blanket of melted Monterey Jack cheese. You might think seven bucks is a lot to pay for a sandwich, but bear in mind these are jawbreakers, fillings piled high between half-inch-thick slabs of fresh whole wheat bread; the slimmed-down versions for smaller mouths run $1.20 less.
Puzzled, my friend raked his carrot shavings into Zen garden arrangements. "You know, you could probably use this stuff for mulch," he said thoughtfully. He toyed with the notion of wetting the dry stack with liquid amino, but put the bottle down with a shudder after one quick sniff.
We renewed our acquaintance with several Hobbit favorites on this trip. Does anyone in town make a better fruit salad (small $3.99, large $5.79)? The trick, I think, is in the just-sweet-enough dressing of honey and yogurt, or in the perfect ripeness of those slices of fresh pineapple, melon, papaya and banana, or maybe in the judicious sprinkling of grated coconut and slivered blanched almonds. I also love the Hobbit's guacamole salad ($5.79), a serving large enough to split among several diners; it's unabashedly salty and garlicky, and I could just lick the plate. Don't even think about ordering those knockout tender quesadillas ($4.99), stuffed with melted Jack and grilled peppers, without asking for the guacamole ($1.79 extra).
Then there's the Hobbit's take on tabbouleh, the recipe I've tried so hard to reverse-engineer at home over the last 20 years. Their bulgur wheat grains are so tender, the proportion of fresh mint and parsley so finely judged, that I haven't been able to match, much less master, it. You can get it solo on a lettuce bed for $5.29, or packed between bread slices in the Thorin Oakenshield sandwich ($6.19 or $7.39), topped with fresh mushrooms and melted cheese. Why, I even admire the Hobbit's egg salad, an item I usually find dreadfully uninspiring; their rendition is dilled and dense and chewy, at its best in the Far Down sandwich ($6.19 or $7.39), dressed up with that killer guacamole and fresh red tomatoes.
When the waiter stopped by to offer us carrot cake, my mulching friend burst out laughing. He had molded his uneaten carrot shreds into a six-inch pyramid. "What do I look like, Bugs Bunny?" he sputtered. We ordered a slice anyway ($5) and were quite pleased with it, the moist, nut-studded cake layers split and topped with thick, creamy icing. We weren't as fond of the key lime pie ($5), finding it a little heavy, and less limey than we'd have liked. It occurred to me, too late, that the best dessert would have been another plate of the ambrosial fruit salad.
While you can dine indoors at the Hobbit Café, I much prefer the outdoor deck. Inside, the warm, dark color scheme renders it either cozy or claustrophobic, depending on your personal comfort notions. Outside, though, there's plenty of entertainment even in the absence of free-falling nuts.
Sipping kiwi-strawberry smoothies in shady comfort, we watched the crew of construction workers feverishly swarming the roofs of the Hobbit's neighbors-to-be, Budda Bubba and the Lizard Lounge. (Both boast the same mock Tudor timber-and-plaster look as the Hobbit Café, and both are running some four months behind schedule, I'd guess.) A plumber took his lunch break seated unself-consciously in the Lizard's backyard on a white porcelain commode, which presumably will be installed indoors someday soon. I wonder what the impact will be on the Hobbit when the neighbors finally open for business. Will parking in the shared lot reach an unpleasant impasse, or will it be fun to wave at friends seated on the patios across the way? Life is uncertain, so I say go to the Hobbit Café now, before bigger crowds, or more acorns, descend.
Hobbit Café, 2243 Richmond, (713)526-5460.
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