Blow Toad, Richmond's first and only coal fired pizza place. This is the new restaurant of two-time nominee for the James Beard Award and lauded local restauranteur Jimmy Sneed.
Sneed has had his hands in several well-known and award-winning restaurants including Richmond's The Frog and the Redneck (now closed) and Chicago's SugarToad. He also is co-owner of the acclaimed veg-friendly restaurant and pizzeria Fresca on Addison with his daughter. The chef de cuisine is Nikoli Creatore, a veteran of Balliceaux which has always had an exceptionally creative and delicious menu.
Naturally with all these accolades I was expecting some awesome pizza but what we got fell far short of my expectations.
At this very generous, FREE preview the team at BlowToad were dishing up pizza, samples of entrees and appetizers and dessert. The waitress came to take our order for two pies and three ap/entree samples and drinks (non-alcololic)! She told us a little about the menu and the coal oven and took our order on an iPad. She also warned us that we were attending a test run and that if we "think the food was terrible it will only get better and if [we] think the food was great it will only get better."
Edwards Ham and another with smoked sausage and goats cheese. The waitress brought two smoked chicken pizzas. One had no onions. Drink orders were also fulfilled incorrectly. So, I guess the staff needs a better waitron app for the iPads. I wonder what pizza grease does to a touch screen.
The pizzas came out quickly but also before any of the appetizers did. The chicken on the pizza was barely describable as "smoky" and the salt from way too much ham overpowered both pies. As for the crust, I am disappointed to say that it was truly lackluster, totally soft and lacking any of the outer crispiness you might expect from a coal oven. Coal ovens provide a truly unique twist to pizza. This oven has a ways to go before it is seasoned enough to really add anything other than the taste of coal.
I would have a really difficult time believing that the pizza was cooked in an oven hotter than maybe 600 degrees despite a house manager's instance that their oven can be fired to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. She asked not to be identified. I was also disappointed to hear her say that when the restaurant was not busy the oven would be fired at a lower temperature. There is just nothing like a pizza fresh from a REALLY hot oven. an oven fired to 1,000 can cook a pie in about a minute and a half.
Just after the pizzas arrived the appetizers came out. We ordered the Southern fried chicken and macaroni and cheese-- something that seemed totally out of place on the test menu. Maybe Sneed is trying to reject the notion that this might be an Italian restaurant. It was good, not great and the mac and cheese was nothing to write home about.
We also ordered the calamari which, I have to say, was totally awesome. It was fried to perfection. It was tender, crispy and fresh not rubbery or soggy. It isn't just my love of cephalopods, the calamari was really the highlight of the meal. It is a good thing that it was good on its own with just a little lemon because they are serving it with a cup of honey-mustard. Yuck.
The third entree we sampled was prime rib with french fries. Again it was good not great. The fries were rustic with the skin still on and done very well. My compliments again to whoever is working the fry station. Finally we had dessert. The waitress brought what she described as "the chef's version of a Tiramisu." It had a great flavor but the mouth-feel was all wrong. It was honestly the texture of unbaked chocolate-chip cookie dough. The coffee flavored filling was laden with big cold, raw chocolate chips. I don't know... it wasn't for me.
The rest of the test menu included things like wings and of course sugar toads. The house manager told us pies will start at $8 (for a 12") and they are slated to have up to 24 beers on tap and another 40 or so in bottles. They will also have a wide assortment of whiskeys. The house will also feature beer tasting classes. This seems to make the focus of the place on booze and not food. That is definitely where the most money is to be made.
Even if you get drunk elsewhere BlowToad plans to have a pizza pick-up window open until 4am. Which might explain why there are numerous, visible security cameras all over the outside of the building but not why there are so many inside. Police state pizza much?
Let's talk coal and coal ovens. The house manager informed me, adamantly, that they only use "clean coal," called anthracite, to fire their new oven. This behemoth oven was built by Nabil Attie who also built the wood-fired oven at Fresca. I will definitely check back after their hard opening, but as of now it seems like maybe they are wasting their oven. They have an incredible tool there that is totally unique in Virginia. They should fire it hot and hard and make as many pies as possible in there. It is like a cast-iron pan. It needs to be seasoned!
I'm not dumb enough to believe that there is such a thing as "clean coal," and frankly I'm surprised that no one objected to a constant coal fire burning in Carytown (a posh shopping district in Richmond, VA). It definitely makes the area smell like a coal fire and I'm sure it has to do with the oven being open and accessible to anyone in the parking lot. I hope there are plans to enclose this opening somehow because it seems like an accident waiting to happen. In any case like all coal it is dangerous and hazardous to health. Just ask anyone who (no longer) lives in Centralia, Pensylvania where an anthracite fire has been burning underground since 1962. Maybe this is true for all power sources and maybe good pizza is worth the risk. Perhaps I'll open the first pizza place in the world with a nuclear oven!!!
All in all this place has their ups and downs and I hope that the waitress is right. I hope it will only get better. Kudos to them for a novel idea and good luck with better execution.
Photos by Neils A.