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"Q" Is for Comfort 

Q

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
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My friend Leah hit somewhat of a rough stretch. For one thing, she had far too much work to do (a chronic condition). For another, she and her boyfriend broke up. Then, she got a sweet little note from her landlord informing her that -- surprise! -- she was being evicted, and to top it off her checking account was overdrawn, which left her with a million things to do, and yet hardly a scrap of fresh food or even a cigarette to smoke as she contemplated her upcoming lonely-homelessness. In other words, life was screwing her deeply, although to be honest I wasn't too worried about her surviving these tribulations, because she's as strong as a mountain, as invincible as the sea, and at least 10 times as fierce. Still, I figured I should help out however I could, so I bopped out to the Richmond and bought her a pack of smokes, then ushered her over to the phantasmagoric little chill spot she's been telling me about since forever: Clement Street's Q.

I suppose the first thing that's impressive about Q is how really, truly good the food is, and the next would be how unbelievably good it is for the price. The Q comes from barbecue (BBQ), an abbreviation among a group of friends who opened Q two years ago. While the barbecue concept runs strong at Q (lots of grilling), it's also an exuberant, over-the-top, mad genius-style clambake in which spicy slaw and grilled meatloaf meet New York steak with tarragon-zinfandel butter and almond-crusted chicken breast with mango chutney and braised chard -- all of it served in pleasantly gargantuan portions under the moniker of "eclectic chow."

The man responsible for these things is one Andrew "Smilin' Andy" Gillen, a former sous-chef at Cha Cha Cha and executive chef at Bitterroot. We actually saw him dancing in the open kitchen, this Smilin' Andy, and Lord knows he's a fearless cat who appeared to be having fun. The space itself is an intimate, diner-style setup in which stars adorn the walls and a slightly less than life-sized reproduction of the moon hangs from the ceiling. Inner Richmond locals and other hungry souls soak up the down-home hospitality and casual, unpretentious vibe. Grape cluster Christmas lights dangled over our booth and, as an added bonus, the wall next to us bore a handful of magnetized letters, providing Leah with a much-needed opportunity for self-expression. Her first attempt produced this: "dum fux are goosi." I had no idea what that meant. Was she bitter about something? Probably. Was she losing it? Perhaps. Did she need a drink? Well, duh.

Thus, we turned to the liQuids portion of the menu: 32 wines by the bottle ($18-45), 10 each by the half-bottle and the glass, six beers on tap, a light, piquant sangria, and a blessedly huge mimosa with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Actual selection of foodstuffs proved a bit vexing, with choices ranging from appetizers, salads, sides, entrees, and specials to the do-it-yourself Journey Grill, in which three main courses (chicken, portobello mushroom, or salmon) can be combined with one of six sauces and four sides. Pretty much everything looked promising, and, since nothing was priced higher than $12, we decided to just go for it, and ordered what had to be the largest meal for two (a dozen courses) in the history of Q.

As stated above, the cuisine is eclectic, but luckily it stops well short of bizarre. We found no miso-glazed jicama or cinnamon-dusted sashimi, but rather huge, juicy mussels steamed in a chipotle-pilsener broth that combined pleasant, beery bitterness with an undertone of shimmering fire. Simpler dishes such as massive, tender, deep-fried calamari were served with a zesty chile-lime aioli. If I were to gripe about anything, it would be the occasional overuse of seasonings: Our grilled salmon salad, for example, suffered from a bit too much pepper-Dijon vinaigrette. Still, the salmon was crisp and fresh, and the salad itself proved a hearty mix of roasted beets, roma tomatoes, and crunchy, lightly marinated slices of cucumber.

One of our absolute favorites -- and there were a few, now that I think about it -- was the baked Sonoma goat cheese over mixed greens, a marvelous blend of airy, cloudlike chevre, roasted garlic, and sweet, roasted bell peppers. Throw in the accompanying hunk of lightly grilled, herb-flecked focaccia, and you're looking at a complete meal priced in the mid-single digits. The fish tacos showed a delicate touch, and, according to our waitress, are a staff favorite: crisp, lightly battered fish with a drizzle of sour cream and a fruity papaya salsa. Meanwhile, our grilled corn on the cob left us with a problem -- namely, how to share a cob. It seemed like a potentially messy endeavor, so wise Leah de-cobbed the kernels with a knife, forcing those luscious bits of maize to take a dip in creamy-sweet dabs of jalapeño-lime butter -- another undeniable highlight.

If appetizers and salads at Q are sometimes large enough to be considered meals, many entrees could yield a light meal for two. The offerings range from rich macaroni and cheese served with crisp, deep-fried tater tots to clever takes on American classics such as the highly recommendable Southern fried chicken. Here, juicy, lightly battered chicken and a mountain of mashed potatoes met a country gravy that just plain rocked our universe, a smoky, savory, perhaps kielbasa- (or even bacon-) rich ambrosia that took some getting used to, but proved quite addictive.

If you're in one of those animal-free moods, check out the ultimate vegan grill: grilled squashes, grilled yams, grilled slices of portobello, grilled carrots, grilled corn on the cob, marinated beets, and black beans served over what seemed like an acre of wild rice pilaf. We could have fed a whole commune with that one. While I did have one gripe -- the lack of any hauntingly delicious jalapeño-lime butter for the corn -- that addition wouldn't have been vegan, so I probably shouldn't complain. At first, I was going to bitch ferociously about our final entree -- cumin-allspice-crusted ahi served with spongy griddled polenta and crisp, juicy wax beans -- which proved a bit too cosmic for my tastes. But since we didn't finish even half of what we ordered, I took the tuna home, tried it again later, and kind of liked it the second time around. The cumin and allspice coalesced into a unique, lingering flavor that might best be described as ... I suppose "cosmic" is still the right word, but it worked.

Desserts were huge, cheap, and quite good. We ordered two: a slab of light, wholesome New York-style cheesecake with a rich graham cracker crust and topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce, and a savory grilled banana with fresh whipped cream and warm, crunchy, caramelized walnuts. Though Leah had been complaining for some time about how full she was, she somehow managed to regain her appetite, combine the two desserts to admirable effect, and consume them down to the last crumb.

As a final treat, a handful of Jolly Rancher candies accompanied the bill, at which point I noticed that Leah had changed her message on the wall to the following: "hot dum fux are goy ... jews rok." Well, as a proud member of the goyish race, I was deeply offended (I think) and considered siccing the Anti-Defamation League -- or whoever handles these things -- on her ass. But then I figured Leah has enough to worry about as it is, and what's more I owed her big time for turning me on to Q -- the kind of place that, in my opinion, this city needs more of, although how Q could ever be replicated I don't know.

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Greg Hugunin

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