By Justin Lo Special Envoy
David Dunlap felt so defeated by the pandemic that he actually thought about giving up cooking and going to work in an Amazon warehouse as an electrician. The former Quirk Hotel executive chef has struggled to find a new gig after being fired two years ago. No one was in the executive chef market back then, not even one with a Michelin-starred resume like his.
It was Brittany, Chief Dunlap’s wife and girlfriend from college, who persuaded him to persist. She hatched a plan: find affordable housing in the suburbs. Dress it up in coastal-chic decor. Create a sophisticated website. And start spreading the word.
Their restaurant, Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen, launched in early 2021. What was once a casual barbecue spot is now a fine dining destination producing the highest and most inspiring cuisine this side of the Powhite promenade has ever seen .
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It is not the first time that Brittany has been the driving force behind her husband’s culinary career. In 2008, she allowed herself to send her CV to Alain Ducasse, the most decorated French chef in the world. The rest is history. Ducasse ended up hiring Dunlap and making him a sous chef. This opened the doors to other Michelin-starred kitchens, including the legendary Inn at Little Washington, where he quickly rose to the rank of deputy executive.
When it comes to food, Chef Dunlap has been around the block. And it shows in his kitchen.
At Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen, the man is adept at creating dishes that are remarkably polished while looking deliciously fancy. He moves across the plate with the finesse of a tennis champion, displaying extraordinary technique without being hampered by convention.
One of his greatest talents is doing totally unexpected things with common vegetables. Take the Beet Halo ($12) which Dunlap cold-smokes to such intensity that they taste like they were grown in fire and ash. Their smoke is a provocative line, weaving together more airy elements of citrus and fennel and playfully juxtaposed by a sweet little dreamy cloud of beet foam.
Dunlap also takes the opportunity, in what’s billed as a pork belly dish ($14), to tout the little-known virtues of broccoli. It contrasts various preparations of the humble brassica on the same plate – raw and shaved, tempura fried, creamed and grilled – and embellishes them with crumbled brown butter powder, made with maltodextrin, which gives off a deeply nutty aroma. . This cruciferous collage is so compelling, it’s hard not to think of the fried pork belly log, which is slightly overdone to begin with, as an afterthought.
Dunlap, whose versatility knows no bounds, doesn’t shy away from delicate flavors either. The salmon tartare ($13) gets a summer makeover, swirled in thin ribbons of cucumber for an extra-cool California-inspired vibe and streaked with a refreshing, herbaceous ramp dressing. Flowy-skirted wontons ($12) with declarative amounts of ginger float over pristine bonito-rich dashi, accented with delicately marinated shiitake mushrooms. As delicate as they are, there is as much balance and contrast in these dishes as there is anywhere else on Dunlap’s menu.
The food certainly gets heavier, more indulgent the further you go through the menu. Dunlap is, after all, a chef trained in France.
Dunlap’s attempts to veer offhand meet with mixed results. His take on fish and chips ($28) — with Atlantic cod lightly breaded and plated like soggy shepherd’s pie — didn’t quite work.
But I enjoyed the barbecued pork ribs ($25), a spectacularly fun dish served on a large slab of wood with a zesty German potato salad that he shapes into coin-sized rounds. crab cake and fries. Remarkably light and fluffy, the potato salad “cakes” are a creative counterpoint to the glazed, pecan-encrusted thick ribs.
Where Dunlap shines the most are dishes that combine a new American perspective with classic French sensibilities.
The locally caught, crispy copper-skinned rockfish ($28) is resplendent. But it’s the lobster soup, trickling around the plate, that tastes like pure gold. All the succulence and sweetness of the lobsters — 10 shells to the gallon, Dunlap reveals — are clarified in the sauce, which is a fuller, deeper expression of flavor than the shellfish themselves. Like biting into a poached day-boat lobster, only better. As a fish vehicle, it’s basically a Rolls-Royce.
The pinnacle of decadence is a velvety buttery filet mignon ($42). The beef medallion arrives on a beautiful tableau of butter-glazed vegetables, orbited by dots of parsnip puree. The instant it hits your table, the butter-activated musk of grey-veined fresh summer truffles leaps off the plate and hits you straight in the schnoz. Neither photos nor descriptions can do the experience justice.
It could be Chef Dunlap’s kitchen brilliantly displayed at the Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen. But if any thank you cards are in order, address them to Brittany Dunlap.
“She’s the only reason we opened,” says the chef. “I get a lot of credit just because of my resume. But she does all the real work.
Editor’s note: The Times-Dispatch has resumed publishing restaurant reviews. Due to the pandemic, restaurants will not be star rated.
Justin Lo is the Times-Dispatch’s food critic. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.