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  • THe full-blooded Wagyu filet at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Chicken and rice soup at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The Cesar salad with confited duck at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Seafood gumbo at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The main dining room at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Mini Wellingtons at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Wagyu tartar at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The bar at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The open kitchen at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The Signature Seafood Cocktail at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The cranberry-raisin bread at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke was a real highlight.

  • French onion soup at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Chicken coq au vin at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • Wagyu and Mangalista bolognese at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

  • The Mangalista pork at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.

Saturday, February 11, 2017 10:01 pm

Farm-raised meats still preserve reputation

Ryan DuVall Restaurant critic

Its reputation often puts Joseph Decuis in an unfair position.

The highly reputed farm-to-table restaurant in Roanoke is held to a very high standard because of its numerous accolades. And given it is a place most people only get to visit on very special occasions – or, in some cases, maybe once in their lifetime – one expects brilliance.

So when its longtime chef left last year to open his own place and most of the staff followed him, it caused a stir. Who would take over? Where would the Eshelman family find their next leader?

It was a bit of a surprise that there was no exhaustive search. The reins were simply handed to Adam House, who had been overseeing the restaurant’s lunchtime, more low-brow eatery, the Emporium. It was a decision that showed the Eshelmans’ confidence not only in House, but in their highly established eatery.

When I journeyed back to Roanoke, my expectations were still high. And in the end, when it came to the food, there were still touches of brilliance. But as a whole, Joseph Decuis did not live up to its billing.

Most of the brilliance came from the restaurant’s farm.

The Mangalista pork chops were exquisite. This Hungarian breed of pig is known for its fatty, well-marbled meat, and it was the ring of fat around the outside of my chops that were the highlight. To say it was like candy is not an understatement. It was crispy and nicely rendered, the sweet sauce covering it did not take away from its natural flavor. It was a dish that will bring you back to Joseph Decuis.

The farm-raised wagyu beef tartar was also worth having again. Perfectly diced and deftly seasoned with a little coarse salt and a runny local quail egg yolk on top, it was simple but sublime. The only flaw was in service as I had to flag my server down after he left the table to request some cracked pepper. It was a theme during all of my visits as the pepper mill was not offered with any of the salads or soups.

The soups were grand disappointments. The solidly executed chicken and rice was enjoyable, but the French onion and du jour seafood gumbo failed.

The French onion was a salt bomb that I could not stomach after just a few spoonfuls. The standard chicken and sausage gumbo has been a staple at Joseph Decuis for good reason, but the seafood version lacked for, well, seafood.

Mine had one lone shrimp. There were no chunks of crab. There were tiny hair-like slivers throughout the dark base, but I expected some lumps. Those slivers also did nothing to add seafood flavor and I am not sure even more seafood would have helped given the soup’s spice overkill.

The Caesar salad was a much better choice. This frisee-heavy mix of greens was topped with confited duck that was so tender and fatty it was like butter on the palate. It was also lightly dressed so the duck, brioche croûtons and shaved Parmesan could all be enjoyed.

I also must note that the cranberry-golden raisin focaccia bread from Ontario’s ACE Bakery that was served along with standard crusty bread was as good as it gets.

The JD Signature Seafood Cocktail is not something I would boast as being my signature starter. It consisted of two shrimp, one scallop, one small piece of lobster and a tiny crab claw and was served with wasabi cocktail sauce and garlic aioli. All of the ingredients were fine in terms of quality, but it seemed skimpy.

It was the kind of dish that validates people who think Joseph Decuis is not worth the price.

The veal sweetbreads were more of a disappointment because I was so excited they were offered. The pan-seared thymus glands were joined by peas, mushrooms, asparagus, a golf ball-sized arancini and a veal reduction. The mushrooms and dark, rich sauce was too much umami and didn’t allow the decadent sweetbreads to shine. The dish needed editing and it didn’t help that the sweetbreads were overcooked and a tad rubbery.

I settled for Wagyu Wellingtons after being told the restaurant was out of bone marrow and oysters on a night in the middle of the week when everything should have been in supply, especially marrow bones given the restaurant produces its own beef. I should have just passed because the puff pastry encapsulating the Wellingtons was undercooked and doughy on the inside.

My Wagyu filet was thankfully cooked to perfection. It was a full-blood cut of Wagyu – the restaurant’s steak cuts vary between full and cross-bred depending on availability. This tender, fatty, delicious steak, like the Mangalista, will bring you back to Joseph Decuis. A warning, however, it was a costly indulgence at $85 for a 5- to 6-ounce piece.

I was able to enjoy the wagyu and Mangalista together in a bolognese over perfectly made potato gnocchi. The bits of beef and pork were nestled in a light brown, heavy sauce with a subtle sweetness that really worked.

My Hawkins Farm Poulet Rouge stood up well next to the Wagyu and Mangalista. Prepared coq au vin with onions, mushrooms and crispy fried potato cake, the wine sauce was well balanced between sweet and hearty. I simply could not stop taking bite after bite of this chicken.

None of the desserts had the same effect, but all were more than acceptable with the apple streusel cake being my favorite.

There is no questioning the atmosphere at this gorgeous restaurant. From the dazzling Timothy Johnson paintings to the old bank vault wine cellar to the hand-forged knives, the place inspires.

But looking back, there was something lacking in terms of service. They weren’t glaring missteps, just tiny details that were overlooked.

There was a significant wait near the end of one meal for desserts and the bill. And there was an overzealous party carrying on too loudly that was never reined in. And then there was the amuse-bouche that a neighboring table was served. It was a wagyu slider, which was probably tasty but is way too rudimentary to be what a place like Joseph Decuis uses as its opening statement.

Which brings me to my second issue. I can only assume those burgers were tasty because I was never offered the complimentary course.

Restaurant: Joseph Decuis

Address: 191 N. Main St., Roanoke

Phone: 260-672-1715

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: No

Menu: Sweetbreads ($15), seafood cocktail ($18), Wellingtons ($17), tartar ($18), gumbo ($9), soup ($8), Cesar ($10), chicken ($28), bolognese ($28), pork ($38), apple cake ($8)

Rating breakdown: Food: ☛☛ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ☛ (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.