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Bonvenu's rack of lamb
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the mushroom ravioli dish scored big with our reviewer
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grilled hearts of romaine salad with lemon and roasted-garlic vinaigrette
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Bonvenu is the word for welcome in Esperanto, a language created in the late 1800s in an effort to promote harmony among people of different countries. Bonvenu restaurant in Carytown lives up to its name. From the minute you walk in, you feel welcomed. You're treated warmly but not casually.
Long gone is the dark atmosphere of The Track, a well-respected restaurant that occupied this space across from the Byrd Theatre for more than three decades. Bonvenu is all warm blond wood, with a curving bar at the back of the space and brick-red and pale-avocado walls dotted with original works by local artists (yes, the art is for sale). It feels light and easy, a place where you want to linger over your meal.
The menu is sophisticated but familiar — American with influences from other cuisines. One outstanding example from my visit was the Virginia fried oysters with a creamy wasabi dipping sauce. The plate was bountiful, with at least 12 plump oysters blanketed in a crisp, crunchy coating. The bite from the wasabi was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the oysters. (One friend, an aficionado of fried oysters, declares these to be the best in Richmond.)
My friends and I also enjoyed the escargot with a flavorful lemon-garlic butter — the kind you want to sop up with a nice chunk of bread. The snails were served in a puff pastry, which added interest to the dish, but it became a bit soggy sitting in the butter sauce. The wild mushrooms over smoked-Gouda grits is also worth a try. The dish was very rich, yet it wasn't heavy. Less successful was the Thai basil-garlic shrimp with watermelon and mint honey. The shrimp were large but overcooked, and I didn't taste any heat, which I expected from the Thai descriptor.
I now have a new favorite salad: the grilled romaine with cherry tomatoes and red onion. A quarter of a head of romaine was lightly charred on the grill, so the exterior was soft and warm while the interior retained the crisp coolness of the lettuce. And it came with a thin Parmesan-cheese crisp. I also tried the mixed-greens salad with thin slivers of fennel, orange segments and cashews, served with a delicate strawberry vinaigrette. In both cases, a light hand was used with the dressing, so the salad ingredients were able to shine.
Bonvenu has a nice selection of entrées, including several that will satisfy vegetarians. If you like mushrooms, by all means try the mushroom ravioli. Big pillows of pasta were stuffed with finely chopped mushrooms cooked in cream until they'd almost formed a paste. These were topped with a ragoût of wild mushrooms and crème fraîche, making a delicious and hearty meal. All of the portions were generous, perhaps none more so than the rack of lamb. Three huge, double lamb chops topped a mound of green lentils, pearl onions and carrots. Cooked as ordered (rare), the meat was beautifully pink and extremely tender and juicy.
Like many restaurants, Bonvenu offers nightly specials. My interest was piqued when our waiter described the salmon fillet served over curried rice with cashews and broccoli. Sadly, it was disappointing. I sent back the first plate because the salmon was overcooked. Round two brought me flaky, moist salmon, but the rice was a little on the mushy side and the curry flavor a bit weak. Other side dishes need finesse, too. The new potatoes and haricots verts that came with the filet mignon were overly salted. The filet itself, wrapped in bacon, was cooked as ordered and enhanced with a small pat of blue-cheese butter.
While I enjoyed the sautéed shrimp with a tasty sauce of tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta served over angel-hair pasta, it paled in comparison to the lamb chops and the mushroom ravioli. I'm happy to report that the large shrimp in this dish were just cooked through.
I recommend saving room for dessert. Each of the three I sampled was a cut above the usual. The vanilla-bean crème brûlée was less custardy and therefore lighter than most crème brûlées and deeply flavored with vanilla. The chocolate bread pudding with walnuts would have been a better choice for a crisp fall night, but we still gobbled it up. Big pieces of walnuts were nestled in the rich, chocolaty bread and then covered with a light crème-anglaise sauce. More suited to the summer evening was the key-lime pie. The graham-cracker crust was crunchy, providing a nice counterpoint to the silkiness of the citrus filling. Topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, the pie quickly disappeared.
With its good service, excellent food and pleasant ambiance, Bonvenu seems destined to have as loyal a following as The Track did for so many years. It's definitely a place I will revisit in the near future.
2915 W. Cary St., 342-1003
Prices: Appetizers $8 to $10; soups and salads $4 to $8; entrées $17 to $29.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (the bar stays open later).