Postcard From Tom: When dining in Richmond, head to Acacia and Mezzanine

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

The best way to launch an eating tour of Richmond is with drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the buzzy Can Can Brasserie in the suitably bohemian neighborhood of Carytown. That was among the lessons I gleaned during a 48-hour, six-meal taste test of Virginia's capital earlier this month. The local food mafia refers to the French dining room as Richmond's answer to New York's always-packed Balthazar, and it's easy to see why.

Though it opened in 2005, the space appears to be stained (nicotine) yellow by decades of Gauloises smokers. Floors inlaid with tiny tiles, breezy waiters in long butcher aprons and a zinc-paved bar further the illusion that you're toasting friends somewhere in Paris. From the menu, warm gougeres, chilled oysters and a zippy steak tartare, slathered on toasted baguette slices, provided the perfect segue from the two-hour drive from Washington. Meanwhile, sommelier Bob Talcott can pinpoint just the right French wine to drink with the snacks, perhaps dipping into a yet-to-be-unveiled stash to do so and describing the wine so vividly that you can taste it in your mind before it ever hits your glass. Had I had more time, I would have enjoyed returning for a fuller exploration of the hot spot, located at 3120 W. Cary St.

The surprise disappointments of my trip involved two of the area's best-known places to eat.

Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue, at 200 W. Marshall St., dresses for down-home success with its chili-print covers draping picnic tables, cinder blocks painted in catsup and mustard colors and amusing signage. ("This is not fast food," reads a placard above the kitchen counter. "It takes time to create a masterpiece . . . you little piggies.") The scent of wood smoke in the air hints that there's good chow in your future. In reality, the sides outperform the signature meats, all tepid when I sampled them. The best of an otherwise middling Saturday lunch were the crisp sweet potato fries, the shredded pork and the chance to chase the food back with a shot of tequila or bourbon.

As for Millie's Diner, a whimsical refueling station for two decades at 2603 E. Main St., the cooking (at brunch at least) takes a rear seat to the good cheer dispensed in one of two retro dining rooms in Church Hill. My Sunday morning got off to a rousing start, with the theme from the "Sopranos" blasting away as two strapping short-order cooks juggled cracking eggs, slicing hot beef and adding a squiggle of hot chili sauce to every plate just inside the entry. Watching the big guys deftly flip, chop, scoop and stir within inches of one another in a closet-size open kitchen, and from the vantage point of a red stool at Millie's small counter, was a lot more fun than eating the results. "Castro's Mess," a frittata heaped with bland shredded pork, black beans and ice-cold salsa spoke more to size than flavor, while "Eggs Ben Gurion" slapped together smoked salmon, poached eggs and industrial bagels, everything drenched in a hollandaise that tasted only of butter. Considering a satisfying lunch I had at Millie's several years ago, the meal was a letdown.

My dinners, on the other hand, left far more favorable impressions of the city as a dining destination. If you only have time for two restaurants, make them these standard-bearers:

Much of what you need to know about Acacia you discover when you order a cocktail there. The rum punch swirls together two kinds of rum and two kinds of citrus with a house-made syrup shot through with allspice: "Happy holidays!" every sip seems to trumpet. "Spanish Rogue," on the other hand, is as mischievous as its billing implies, dark and smoky with whisky, sherry and a "laphroaig rinse" -- a reference to the intense Scotch whisky whose aroma could pass for a lit cigar. Even the ice cubes have cachet. Thick and solid, they melt oh-so-slowly, steadfastly refusing to dilute your drink.

Details, details. Richmond's best restaurant brims with them. Acacia is 11 years old, but it still feels fresh, in part because of a move last year that saw it go from Carytown to roomier digs in the Fan district. Chef Dale Reitzer, who owns the 100-plus-seat restaurant with his wife, Aline, could easily rest on his significant laurels, which hark back a decade to when the chef, then 32, was anointed one of the 10 best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine. Like a lot of confident cooks, he wants the basic flavor of his food to star on the plate. At the same time, his challenge, he says, is "trying to do that in a fun way."

As in: Beef short ribs tucked into an empanada, a $5 nosh at Acacia, made more clever with a filling that also makes room for foie gras. In another "small plate," tongue is cut into nearly paper-thin slices, garnished with pickled beets and speckled with grated horseradish. The snack goes down like fine roast beef with a firecracker chaser. Grilled squid is stuffed with a house-made pork sausage tweaked with freshly toasted and ground spices, coffee beans included. In this kitchen, chickory slips into a divine chocolate toffee cake and parsnips make an appearance in an elegant spice cake served with fromage blanc ice cream, Reitzer's innovative twist on the more common carrot cake.

Bridging the appetizers and desserts are some dynamite main courses. Diced pears sweetened with cinnamon and butter make a fine filling for bacon-bundled roast duck breast, which is sliced in rounds to reveal the edible mosaic inside. Polenta, haunting with smoked gouda, completes the picture. "I love being in and around the water," says Reitzer, who says that cooking fish is his passion. Simply grilled North Carolina grouper comes with sweet potatoes spiced with ginger and molasses, accents that evoke the Caribbean.

The savvy service and cool vibe (club music played throughout my visit) suggest San Francisco or SoHo. The dining room is sleek, spare and dim, which draws diners' eyes to an open window in the back that frames Acacia's bright kitchen and bustling crew. (He might be the boss, but Reitzer's there five out of six evenings.) Next to the front bar is a glass-walled wine room, further evidence of the restaurant's interest in liquid matters. And running down one wall is a panel that brings to mind rippled sand but is actually foam sprayed with cement "paint," says Reitzer. The art is a subtle way to absorb noise in the long and carpetless dining room. It also lets the chef, a former Navy brat who grew up in Virginia Beach, pretend he's elsewhere, if even for a moment. "I miss going to the beach!" he says with a laugh.

2601 W. Cary St. 804-562-0138. Entrees $17-$31.

No one gets a menu when they sit down for dinner at one of Richmond's newest dining attractions. Instead, patrons are asked to look up at, or walk over to, one of two large chalkboards that dominate the walls at the trim two-story Mezzanine. Not every customer is crazy about not having a piece of paper in his hands. "Menu on the chalkboard?" inquired a poster on Urbanspoon. "I felt bad for the couple sitting beneath it while my entire table stood near them and squinted for a few minutes." Even so, the chef and co-owner of the place thinks the chalkboards create a dialogue that wouldn't otherwise exist between friends and strangers alike. On a date, for instance, "a menu lets people hide." says Todd Johnson. "We make you talk to each other."

Launched over Labor Day weekend last year, Mezzanine is perhaps the city's most talked-about place to eat right now, having been honored in the spring as restaurant of the year by Richmond's Style Weekly. The setting is spare, with wood floors giving way to painted brick, although an antique chandelier and the work of local artists add warmth. Like many contemporary American restaurants, this one touts a farm-to-table philosophy.

So why am I finding shrimp-and-pineapple fried rice beneath a slab of rockfish sauced with ginger-sake butter (very good, by the way)? Johnson's background helps explain the entree's presence. The chef's training began with Marcel Desaulniers at The Trellis in Williamsburg, continued in Germany and culminated with two years at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., during which time he interned at an Asian tapas restaurant in La Jolla, Calif. Before coming to Richmond two years ago, he was also the sous chef at Wolfgang Puck's Spago Maui.

Johnson's work with Asian ingredients left an impression on him. "I like clean, simple cooking," says the 34-year-old chef. He also likes to "take things people are familiar with" and position them anew. Short ribs riding local stone-ground grits are tried and true, but Johnson personalizes the combination by braising the beef with hoisin to which he has added lemon grass, ginger, lime leaf and garlic. Zestier still: quail stuffed with chorizo and perched over jambalaya bulked up with crawfish and lobster.

A diner shouldn't fall in like with a favorite dish, however. The menu changes every week, and it takes Bill Daniels, a bartender and waiter at the restaurant, six hours or so to post what's new in his arty script on the two boards, one of which is seven feet tall. Needless to say, says his boss, he gets hand massages afterward.

3433 W. Cary St. 804-353-2186. Entrees $18-$29.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company