Thursday, September 24, 2009

The epidemic of OK.

I've been pondering the conundrum of restaurants around Richmond for a while now. L's description of her lunch yesterday at Balliceaux, the new hotspot, put a fine point on it. It was just "Okay." The falafel was overdone. The flatbread store quality. The ahi tuna on the salad cooked rather than seared. And her companion's rice/beans/pork plate piled as though it came from a cafeteria. All this from a restaurant that opened to stellar reviews just a month ago. It would be one thing if this was not the second "down" experience with the place.

On our first visit, we enjoyed a few small plates and a bottle of wine. It seemed a little pricey at $50 + tip, but not that much more than other places in town. (This is part of the problem, and I'll get back to it.) Still the crab cakes and cheese plate were excellent, and the service was good at the bar so we were willing to roll with it. Fast forward, however, a couple of weeks to our next visit. We sat at the bar again and skipped the bottle of wine, opting instead for a couple glasses apiece and entrees to follow our cheese plate. My pork belly was superb, but L's mussels were undistinguished at best. We got dessert for a friend for her birthday — a mini red velvet cake. With tax and tip, we had spent just north of $120.

Mind you, I don't intend to tear down Balliceaux. I like what they're trying to do, but it needs to be consistent from lunch to dinner. It also shouldn't feel like we're being gouged. No item on our orders was more than $17, and yet we walked away having severely nicked the month's eating-out budget. The problem is that this sort of thing — food that veers from great to just decent to downright bad and prices that jump rapidly — has become the norm in Richmond restaurants.

One of my favorite things about living in New York years ago was the abundance of little neighborhood restaurants. Often barely noticed by Zagat and other reviewers, these were the sorts of places where you could get a good meal and a bottle of wine and walk out for fifty bucks. You could spend a little more if you headed into the few higher-priced items on the menus, but still it was possible to eat well and inexpensively.

Richmond has only a few places like this. Sticking to the pastas and no appetizer, you can get out of Mamma Zu's or Edo's for that kind of money. Sharing a paella and a salad, you can almost get out of Kuba Kuba for that kind of money. A carafe and a couple of small plates at Can Can and you're still okay. And you'll eat well in any of these places. Try getting out of most other restaurants in that tier for a decent price, and it's almost impossible — unless you want to order a burger or pizza. Worse yet is the obsessive duplication of menu items around town. Worst is the fact that it's okay to be just okay. Our choices veer from glorified bar food (and, yes, there is a specific group of restaurants I'm thinking of here) to uninspired retreads of the same idea (another group of restaurants). Simply put, there's a surplus of places where you can eat middling food and get fair service and very few places where you can get great food and great service — without breaking the bank. (If price is no object and you're not looking for someplace kid-friendly, the options are wide open.)

What really bothers me, however, is that people seem to have accepted this as the norm. Richmond diners seem to have become so accustomed to fair food and Richmond restauranteurs so willing to oblige that there is little incentive for places to become better and/or introduce more reasonably priced menus.

A while back, I started to take two approaches to eating out. The first was to try things on the menu that should be consistent and good — a well-cooked steak, for instance, or crab cakes. The second approach was to order things that I would not — for whatever reason — cook for myself. If the results were good in either case, a return trip was merited. Unfortunately, I have been so often disappointed — and spent a great deal to be disappointed — that I've practically given up on the whole endeavor. After all, why spend the money if I can do better for less in my own kitchen?

It's sad, though, because I enjoy eating out. I enjoy breaking bread and being part of the community. I enjoy being given a meal that is prepared with care. Now if only we could have a few more little neighborhood joints with great and reasonably-priced food (that is not straight out of a Sysco truck), I'd be happy to put this screed aside. Food should be always be more than just okay.