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Balliceaux’s pan-seared scallops with crayfish butter and wilted kale earned raves from our critic Beth Furgurson photos
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Tandoori fried cauliflower
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Hot house-made pastrami is another specialty
Balliceaux might be the sexiest restaurant in Richmond. From the earthy textures and tones to the modern aesthetic of wood and concrete to the perpetually hip wait staff, the Fan hot spot is like a new lover — exciting and beautiful, almost irresistible, but not without its quirks.
Culinary vicissitudes mark a courtship that began in the fall and has survived into spring. The kitchen works as a team, with Russell Cook acting as executive chef. His tenure at Millie's Diner is obvious, considering the vibrant and flirty menu that changes seasonally. After sampling 17 dishes during numerous visits, I concluded there is little middle ground. Balliceaux is either dazzling (and thankfully that is most of the time) or it is frustratingly off target.
Pan-seared scallops with crayfish butter and wilted kale were orgasmic on a recent visit. They were firm and fleshy with just the right amount of minerality from the local greens to counter the richness of this small plate. The salad with smoked duck breast and tea-poached pears was equally successful. A tad too much of the citron vinaigrette on the field greens almost overwhelmed the dish, but the brining of the duck added a delightful dimension to this succulent delicacy.
Porcini miso soup with tiny cubes of white yams could have been the food equivalent of Zen but missed the mark, ending up as a one-dimensional starter redeemed only by the fact that it was a $5 experiment. Panko-crusted local tofu, deep-fried to offset its creamy interior, offered potential but also disappointed. The tofu was served with house-made kimchee, a Korean side dish made mostly of cabbage that was bursting with fresh ginger and orange. The potent slaw should have paired nicely with the silky curd, but the combination fell short.
The cremini mushroom carbonara made with fat bucatini pasta was lackluster, with too much starch and not enough goodies. Though the menu got me all frisky for a sauce elevated by way of a farm-fresh egg, it simply didn't deliver. The harissa shrimp and plum leaf salad also was less than ideal. The African-spiced crustaceans were flavorful and tender, but the mound of greens and dressing was boring, with a skimpy sprinkling of edamame and a similar stinginess with the toasted sunflower seeds. However, a cup of seafood stew chock full of rockfish, oysters, bacon and fennel left me craving more. And a plate of hot sauce-lacquered tuna, cooked to perfection and served with succulent fried oysters and crispy sweet-potato fries, still has me weak-kneed.
Desserts can be better concepts than reality. The lemon layer cake with fresh berry compote I shared late night after a movie was decadently delish with luscious layers sandwiched together with buttery icing and a burst of raspberry coulis. The semolina cake, though, was a different story. The texture — moist, crumbly and crunchy all at the same time — and subtle flavors of almond and lemon were high notes, but the use of olive oil instead of butter gave it a strange heartiness that just didn't work for me.
On one visit, the place was so slammed that the wait for a booth or table was more than an hour. And service can be spotty. Eating at one of the two bars is an enjoyable backup plan, but getting to them on a busy night can be a challenge. The menu format also is somewhat baffling. It's kind of a hippie version of an Excel spreadsheet and you have to note the "field and forest" (vegetarian), "farm and pasture" (meat) and "waters" (seafood) section to decipher it properly.
All restaurants that make a lasting impression on the area's dining scene survive and thrive because of a few standout dishes. Despite the hiccups, Balliceaux definitely has these. The subtly spiced tandoori fried cauliflower (on the dinner menu as a small plate) that is served with an outstanding chickpea salad with just the right balance of garlic and lemon and a few slices of quick-pickled cucumbers will have me coming back time and again.
Balliceaux builds on the tradition of Bogart's, which had occupied the building for almost three decades before moving to West Cary Street, by occasionally offering live music. The communal table in the back room (very big-city, and conducive to large gatherings) creates a sense of drama and openness rarely experienced in the Fan. Add the fancy herb-infused cocktails, the in-house water-filtration system, the Sunday suppers and movie viewings as well as the sleek and modern décor and oh-so-flattering lighting, and there is much to like about this place. Richmonders are courting Balliceaux. After all, it is still new and full of thrilling possibilities.
203 N. Lombardy St., 355-3008
Prices: Soups and salads $3.50 to $9. Sandwiches and small plates $6 to $16. Entrées $15 to $27. Desserts $6.
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.