Friday, March 06, 2009

Foodie Fail

One of the things I've enjoyed about living in Richmond is the number of excellent restaurants around town. With recent entries like Stronghill Dining Company and Café Rustica and excellent standbys like Can Can, Edo's Squid, Millie's, and many others, we don't lack for good dining options. My only quibble is that many of these places tend to run on the expensive side. While that neighborhood joint in NYC might have entrees hovering in the mid- to upper-teens, most entrees at these restaurants push the mid-twenties to thirty range. Thankfully, a number of restaurants have introduced small plates on their menus, meaning you can pull together a little more variety in a meal for the same tab as two entrees and a shared salad. The other recent development is the impact of the locavore movement on restaurants, with far more places pushing the farm-to-table model.

It was in this spirit, that we went to Mezzanine last night. Mezzanine is one of the latest entries in the RVA dining scene. The owners took over a space that had been cursed in the past and opened it up to create a pleasant, open space. They also took the local sourcing mission to heart and promised to focus the menu around locally-available ingredients and seasonal preparations. With a reasonably-priced wine list to boot, the place should be a winner.

Should be.

We were given our choice of tables upstairs. Though the space was warm and cozy, the noise levels seemed higher than they should.

Initial quirks aside, we dug into the wine list. It had a nice variety of bottles from $19 to $45+. We asked the waiter about a couple of bottles, and we went with his suggestion of the 2007 Marquee Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend. It was a nice blend with flavors of all the grapes coming through — or rather that was the waiter's rather vague description of it. It was well-rounded and had enough fruit and dryness to balance much of our meal.

When it came to ordering, the waiter explained that they'd recently turned over the menu so he couldn't describe many of the items. This became a theme in our ordering. The menu offered some standard openers — the requisite beet salad, the house green salad with local greens — and a wider array of small plates and entree choices than I would have expected given their goal of sourcing locally.

There was only one strict vegetarian item on the menu — a quinoa in curry with Dave & Dee's oyster mushrooms and grilled bok choi — but L decided to go with the small plate of crab cakes instead. We opted to split the beet salad because beets, microgreens, goat cheese, and blue cheese always seem wonderful. I opted for the butternut squash and lobster bisque and then asked the waiter's recommendation between a small plate of a 5 oz. grass-fed NY Strip with a grilled onion and ginger topping and a stuffed quail over seafood jambalaya. Our waiter's response was to tell me that he hadn't had either but that he had heard more people compliment the steak than the quail. I went with the prevailing "opinion."

The food arrived with amazing speed. While I appreciate this in a lunch joint where I'm getting out for under ten bucks, I worry when the meal will quickly push a hundred bucks if my lobster bisque arrives in literally minutes of ordering. Moreover, shouldn't a bisque in a purportedly high-end restaurant come with a more imaginative side than a package of Premium Saltines? That's the kind of thing I expect from Denny's. But how was the soup? It was okay. L is not a fan of heavy cream, but she agreed it had good flavor. It had the sherry flavor you'd expect from a bisque, but the lobster and butternut squash blended together so as to become indistinguishable. Midway through the bowl, I was also left wondering where the lobster was. Even a few chunks of meat would have been enough to bring the soup from passable to good.

Minutes after the soup arrived, the beet salad arrived. The cold beet salad. So cold, in fact, that it had clearly just come out of the refrigerator. So cold, in fact, that there was almost no flavor to the beets or the goat cheese. When I mentioned it to the waiter, he said that they had assembled it ahead of time and plated it when it was ordered. As for the presentation, the beets were thick with a thin layer of goat cheese between them, a very light helping of microgreens and just a few crumbles of very pedestrian blue cheese mixed with the candied walnuts on the plate.

At this point, I was hoping for redemption. I'd heard so much about the place and still had hope that things would improve.

When my steak arrived, my first thought was that it looked like a small ribeye rather than a NY strip. On top of that, it had the curious grid pattern that some chain restaurants apply to steak to make it appear grilled. The flavor of the meat was good, but the cut was tougher than it should have been. And while it was nicely done inside, the steak itself was not hot at all. It had either been grilled ahead or sat out for a while. At this point, I was hungry enough and had seen enough of the service in the place that I didn't feel like asking them to redo the plate.

L's crab cakes were small, but nicely turned out. The waiter recommended using another plate to eat them since the serving dish didn't provide enough space for cutting without mashing them into the sauce they each sat in. The crab cakes were mostly lump crab meat with very little filler. The sauce balanced the crab flavor nicely, but still at $18 I would have expected more than three very small crab cakes.

In the end, the bill with tip came to $98.14. The meal came to a huge disappointment. I could see all the potential in the dishes and in the other menu items I saw coming out, but there were far too many missteps. All in all, Mezzanine struck me as a restaurant cutting corners and doing the minimum rather than really pushing the envelope. Perhaps it was an off night. Perhaps the nights my friends have been there, the menu was in better shape or the kitchen staff was more attentive to what they were serving. Either way, my next hundred-dollar meal is likely to be some place I am certain will make the meal worth experiencing again.