One of the nation's first cities, Williamsburg, VA, has been in a perpetual state of torpor since its earliest days. One anonymous 19th Century pundit summed it up when referring to the local Eastern State Hospital (the lunatic asylum), the town's main source of income and employment for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries, as "500 lazy [living] off 500 crazy."
Today, the town lives substantially off the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit annually the privately run Colonial Williamsburg and the state run settlements of Jamestown and Yorktown down road. In the summer they clog the roads, the oldest among them coming in for a little benign, behind-their- backs abuse from the townspeople, who refer to them as "creepy crawlers" for the speed with which they move (or rather don't move). Still, the townspeople know better than to bite the hands that feed them, and whether they mean it or not, they are friendly and helpful in the stores, on the streets and in the pro shops of the area's fine golf courses.
Many of those tourists come back to Williamsburg eventually to live. An estimated 60% of the residents of Kingsmill, which we visited yesterday, first encountered Williamsburg on a vacation. Most of the rest of the residents are current and former members of all branches of the armed services, as Williamsburg is within an hour of Norfolk and two hours of D.C.
Kingsmill is a resort community, but the residential areas are well separated from the modest sized resort, which comprises just 100 of the community's 3,000 acres. Kingsmill has no hotel. Every day, one of the resort's three excellent golf courses is designated for member play only, a very smart move on the part of the courses' owners, Anheuser Busch, whose brewery and famed Busch Gardens are at the edge of the property but well out of site. The nine-hole par 3 course, squeezed in below and beyond the resort's pool, is an amazing sight, sitting on some of the best real estate in Kingsmill. The two-mile wide James River is in view from every hole, making this possibly the most scenic pitch and putt course in America (and it is in pristine shape as well).
Kingsmill is quite laid back despite the resort traffic but consistent with Williamsburg's own demeanor. Sleepiness is part of a great tradition in the town. An editorial from a 1912 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch put it best: "Tuesday was election day in Williamsburg but nobody remembered it. The clerk forgot to wake the electoral board, the electoral board could not arouse itself long enough to have the ballots printed, the candidates forgot they were running, the voters forgot they were alive." Now that's sleepy.
Someone forgot to tell Tom Powers that he is supposed to take it easy. Powers is the creative chef at the always busy Fat Canary restaurant off Merchant Square in downtown Williamsburg. My meal there last night more than made up for a mediocre one the night before (see the review on 4/15) and showed some big city inventiveness.
As a single diner, I feel as obvious as a fat canary when I sit at a table in a crowded restaurant, and so I opt for the bar. On this Monday night, the Fat Canary was crowded, a good sign insofar as Monday is typically slow. (Most savvy patrons are nervous that they might be served the weekend's "leftovers.") But Fat Canary is a full-steam-ahead, seven-day a week operation, dinner only, so there really aren't any weekends per se.
I would have been content ordering off the five-appetizer, seven-entrée menu, but I was hell bent on having seafood after a few days of steaks and barbecue in North Carolina. So when the friendly barkeep mentioned the appetizer of seared tuna, served rare on a bed of Japanese ponzu-broth- infused diced vegetables ($14.95), the healthy part of my heart skipped a beat. It turned out to be everything I had hoped for, the tuna rare as promised, and sparkling fresh, with only a light searing, and the crisp nuggets of vegetables perfumed by the fragrant sauce (sorry for the purple prose, but it really was good).
For the entrée, I stuck with my resolve for seafood, forgoing the special of halibut on a bed of lobster risotto at the pricey $38.95, and opting for the roasted monkfish with curried Virginia clams & oysters, chorizo sausage, charred tomato, basil and chive couscous at a relatively reasonable $25.95.
I'm glad I did. Talk about fusion, this dish melded wonderfully the tastes of Asia (the curry flavor was somewhere between India and Thailand, pungent but not at all overpowering), the couscous a delicate version of the usually taken-for-granted Moroccan grain, and the chorizo (which was both sweet and a little spicy) representing the northern Mediterranean. The last fluffy little pile of couscous soaked up the last droplets of curry sauce; I thought the perfect timing was pretty cool.
When I first read the menu item, I thought, "Who cares where the clams and oysters are from?" but I realized later that I had missed the point. The point was that "Virginia" clams and oysters meant fresh, and were they ever, tiny little things that were easy to pluck from their shells and were bristling with briny flavor. Oh yes, the monkfish itself had a really nice char on the outside and managed to be both flaky and almost creamy beneath. What a great dish!
I will say, though, that my entrée last night took as long to deliver as it did the night before, almost a half hour after I had finished my appetizer. It must be that lazy Williamsburg thing.
The Fat Canary, whose name is from a poem by John Lyly, a Colonial era poet ("Oh for a bowl of fat Canary, rich Palermo, sparkling sherry...") does not maintain a web site since, according to the bartender, "the owners are 80 years old." And why bother?
We'll have more to say about Kingsmill and a few of the other area golfing communities in an upcoming issue of HomeOnTheCourse. Look for a special announcement about the newsletter coming in the next few weeks.