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Art and the freshly painted walls won't be the only vibrant spots in Flora. The team behind the new restaurant is leaning on citrus and bright salsas throughout the menu. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Chef de cuisine Sergio Gomez's family sent chapulines, or grasshoppers, all the way from Oaxaca. Find the bar snacks fried with citrus and chile powder when Flora opens. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Partners Jay Bayer, Michele Jones and Jason Alley team up for the first of at least two concepts from this trio. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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A sampling of Flora's cocktails, clockwise from back-left: The Netflix & Chill, made with Clément Rhum Vieux Agricole, El Dorado 5-Year Rum, salted-and-buttered popcorn syrup, and bitters; The Maize is Not For You, made of Pacífico, pineapple, lime, mezcal, maraschino, and tiki bitters; the A Measure of Gold, a mix of pisco, Plymouth Gin, lemon, spiced carrot-ginger syrup and egg white; the Flora Cocktail, of manzanilla sherry, Dolin dry vermouth, Pineau des Charentes, peach bitters and lime peel. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Alley and Gomez dress up a fried, whole red snapper with escabeche, and a salsa borracha made from capers, anchovies, herbs, habaneros, lime, beer and tequila. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
[UPDATE, March 21, 2017: Flora opens on Friday, March 24, at 5 p.m. with dinner and beverage service. Catch the restaurant and music venue's first live show this Saturday night, when Los Ramónes — a Spanish-language Ramones cover band featuring Flora chef and co-owner Jason Alley — plays at 10 p.m.]
Toward the southern edge of Mexico, with extensive beaches along the Pacific Ocean, lush jungles and sprawling mountainous terrain, sits the inspiration for the Fan's newest restaurant and music venue: Flora, an ode to Oaxacan cuisine, opened by a powerhouse of Richmond restaurateurs. The vibrant food of the coastal state, rife with fresh seafood, bright salsas, local mezcal and rich mole, is precisely what you'll find at the new venture from Jay Bayer of Saison, and Jason Alley and Michele Jones of Pasture and Comfort. Forget the sombreros, forget the taco salad; this concept, set to open the week of March 21 in the former Balliceaux space, is all about Oaxaca and a few of its seaside neighbors: Veracruz, Yucatàn, Campeche, Quintana Roo.
"When people sit down, it should be like, 'holy sh—, I didn't realize this is what Mexican food could taste like,' but at the same time, we want people to feel some sort of connection and nostalgia," says Alley, who'll serve as partner and executive chef. "It's not just beans cooked in lard and white cheese. There's a huge array of different foods."
To accomplish this, the team will rely heavily on the expertise and talents of chef de cuisine Sergio Gomez, a native Oaxacan, and an employee of Alley and Jones for nearly 14 years. Together, Gomez and Alley have developed a menu that comprises snacks, small plates, tacos, entrées and desserts, offering everything from shark tacos to chicken in a yellow mole sauce. Expect bar snacks like the traditional fried peanuts with salsa Valentina ($4), dinners primarily in the upper teens to low-$20 range, small plates between $7 and $12, and desserts such as flan de mamey, and a chocolate soup with toasted marshmallow and pumpkin seed brittle. Think smoked and charred seafood, vegetables and meat offset by citrus, house-made salsas and herbed sauces. Also think late-night.
The dinner-only restaurant isn't counting out lunch and brunch entirely, but the focus, at least toward the beginning of operation, will be evenings — including late evenings, which is when Flora will serve a taco and snack menu until midnight on weekdays and until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, providing fare for those attending one of the concept's live-music or DJ sets.
"A lot of [these dishes] are things Sergio grew up with that we know and love," says Alley, who's sourced grasshoppers, a traditional bar snack, straight from Oaxaca — specifically by mail, courtesy Sergio's mom. "We've also been doing research on Yucatan food we may not be as familiar with, or like with Veracruz — like, 'Here's a fish covered in tomatoes and sliced green olives' — we want it to be something that's a bit more unique than that. So for the dishes that we're doing that aren't super traditional, we're trying to use the ingredients and ideas that are authentic."
"On the beverage side," says Bayer, "it's just so much more amoebic." The Saison co-owner teamed up with Scott Sliauzis, formerly of Balliceaux, to create a cocktail program focused on agave and cane spirits, such as mezcal and agricole rum, and one that pulls inspiration not only from specific regions but specific tropical experiences. Don't think tiki. "It's more like if you were drinking on the beaches in Oaxaca, if you were drinking in the beaches in Riviera Maya, if you happen to find yourself in the Caribbean," says Bayer. "We're trying to represent that area but also bring some playfulness and modernity to it all."
Given the dual seating areas of the space and the concerts they'll offer, the bar team is trying to consider speed and integrity. This means an expedited cocktail program — that involves frozen drink machines in the front and back — big news for fans of Saison Market's frozen-cocktail game — as well as bottled carbonated cocktails, and tequila and tonic both on draft. Both the front and back bars will by and large house different draft beer, though you can expect Pacífico, one of Bayer's favorites, at both. You can also expect shot-and-beer combos such as IPAs with tequila, goses with mezcal, and saisons with rum.
"We're trying to bring intentionality to everything we do, without it being heavy-handed," adds Bayer. "It's supposed to be fun."
As to the space itself, the Balliceaux bones will still be recognizable, albeit far more colorful. In the next week or two, you'll see big pops of bright hues thanks to a few painted walls and art pieces, including a mural out front. There will be seating changes, as well as new lighting. In the back room near the stage, two new movable communal tables — rustic high-tops — will seat eight apiece, bumping the restaurant's seating to around 85, plus 16 between both bars. "[It's] less the idea of what a Mexican restaurant looks like in America, more like what a restaurant looks like in Mexico," Jones says. "Not kitschy, but fun."
Flora marks the first restaurant partnership with Alley, Jones and Bayer, but if all goes according to plan, it won't be the last: The trio hope to open a bar-arcade concept within the next year or two. Alley and Jones are also in the process of launching Sur Taco, a new Southern-American taco restaurant within Champion Brewing Co.'s new downtown brewery. For now, the three will bounce between their other restaurants, while still focusing on Flora's launch: Alley with the food, Bayer with the beverages, Jones with the management and redesign. "What's great about it is that we all have specific things we excel at, but we've all done everything," says Alley. "We're all involved with all of it, but we're just focusing on each other's strong suits."
UPDATE: The Flora staff has determined its hours will be Tuesday to Sunday, and not Monday to Saturday, as previously reported. This post has been updated to reflect this.