Editor’s note: Because of COVID-19, in lieu of starred reviews, Times-Dispatch restaurant critic Justin Lo in his new column, “First Bite,” will be previewing some of the newer restaurants that have opened in and around Richmond.
For a while, it seemed as if chef Adam Hall was hanging up his toque and — like some culinary John Wayne — triumphantly riding off into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again. By the end of last year, both Hall and his wife, Sara Kerfoot, had departed from Saison. He relinquished his title as chef-owner of the acclaimed Jackson Ward restaurant, and Kerfoot, her title as Saison’s general manager.
Soon after, they decamped to Goochland County to open up The Feed Store, a quaint little trading post of a barbecue restaurant on a dusty stretch of country road off Route 250. This, to some Richmonders, might as well be hundreds of miles away.
Don’t worry, though: Hall and Kerfoot haven’t “gone” anywhere. If recent meals at The Feed Store are any indication, they are still very much intent on making their presence known back here in Richmond, with food that’s just as amazing as ever. Hall’s flair for cooking has merely found itself a new medium of expression — in country barbecue.
The couple confess they made this major life change mainly to escape the hustle and bustle of a professional fine-dining kitchen. “We needed to make a change,” Kerfoot says. The intensity of working in a traditional restaurant and the long hours had made it more and more difficult for them to raise their two young children.
The two have since embraced what Hall calls “a more rudimentary kind of slower-paced living.” Their new restaurant is far less flashy than the digs they once had at Saison. The squat, boxy, white-shingled structure that The Feed Store now occupies used to be an actual livestock feed and supply store Kerfoot remembers from growing up, just down the road from where her parents still live. With only a service counter, a few shelves stocked with wine and beer, and several taxidermic deer heads mounted on the wall, the interior is somewhat bare.
Minimalism seems to be an overarching theme at The Feed Store. These days, most of Hall’s cooking is done on a couple of secondhand smokers he’s got set up out back. There’s no team of chefs, just him. There are no burners, just a wood fire he builds daily from an assortment of white and red oak and cherry. There’s no obsessive tweezing or saucing of dishes as he did at Saison, just a lot of time spent tinkering with heat, obsessing over the color of the smoke, and minding the weather.
Hall takes a back-to-the-basics approach to the menu as well, featuring no more than a handful of barbecue essentials one would expect from a roadside barbecue joint. But as pared-down as The Feed Store menu may appear, there’s an abundance of thought and intentionality and craft to it — and so much more than meets the eye.
“I love barbecue,” Hall says. “I love the simplicity, but complexity of it as well.” In some ways, Kerfoot adds, barbecue is harder to perfect than other forms of cooking precisely because of its simplicity: “There’s nowhere to hide if you screw up.”
Leaning into the simplicity of barbecue, with the sensibilities of a fine-dining chef, is the thing that sets Hall apart.
At first glance, and as Hall acknowledges, the spicy pork sausage ($5.50) is nothing more than a basic sausage riddled with cayenne pepper. And yet, in the execution of it, it becomes extraordinary. Right before the sausages get served, Hall toasts them until their casings are crisp and shiny and bulging from the inside out. You can see clear through these snow globes of pork, down to all the microscopic globules of milky-white fat and black peppery specks embedded within. The first bite is treacherous, spritzing like a water gun loaded with piping hot juice. That bite, as well as every one thereafter, manages to convey a remarkably consistent measure of meatiness and fattiness.
While I’ve never thought to ask what would happen if dive-bar nachos body snatched a sausage, I’m glad that Hall has volunteered an answer. His other sausage offering, an amalgam of beef and pork, has jalapeño-laced cheese coursing through its veins ($6). Once you break through the surface, gushes of melted cheddar, mildly sharp in flavor, come oozing forth slowly from the barrel of the sausage. Biting into one of these cheesy smoked links triggers the same cortex of my brain as finding the gooey caramel center to a chocolate truffle — which is to say, it unlocks an unexpectedly visceral pleasure.
And, of course, where would any good barbecue place be without a decent version of ribs and pulled pork? Hall’s versions are better than decent; they’re excellent. His pulled pork, sold by the pound ($16) or on a sandwich ($6), is some of the best I’ve ever had. The tufts of pork shoulder are damp with eastern Carolina vinegar that, together with the smoke, saturates the meat as thoroughly as some red wine and cigar ash flung onto a shag carpet.
Hall lightly brushes his rib racks ($17/half rack) with a sweet and tangy juxtaposition of sauces. Apart from rotating the racks every so often, he leaves them to smoke until they turn out gleaming like candy-red, bituminated xylophones of pork. They’re sticky on your fingers the way that melted sugar is, but not what I’d call saucy. The meat itself, of varying hues of pink, glides off the bone in smooth, glossy, luscious bands.
Unlike others in the barbecue world, Hall hasn’t spent his entire cooking career honing his skills in the pit — which makes the miracles he works on something as seemingly unremarkable as a whole chicken all the more impressive. Brined, simply seasoned birds ($8/half) metamorphosize in the pit, drawing to the fore a rich, smoky, salty fusion of flavor. Crisped to order, their skins turn a lovely shade of chestnut and crackle lightly like well-aged sheets of parchment.
Diners should note that, for now, the restaurant isn’t doing dine-in service. On both visits, however, I unofficially found a place to picnic on a secluded porch around the side of the building. Apart from the occasional car whizzing down the road, I couldn’t help but appreciate the stillness of my surroundings and the ease of knowing — for the next hour or so — it was just going to be me, my dogs and some really delicious barbecue. I guess you could say the simple life looks good on all of us.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for The Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.