I had a little Sex and the City moment on a recent Saturday night in Carytown. Perched at the bar of Mezzanine with one of my best girlfriends, my pointy Jimmy Choos had been carefully chosen to go with my designer jeans and my hours-old Anthropologie sweater. The night included gossip and people-watching, along with much swooning over a couple of dreamy dishes. Mostly, it was just fun to be out on the town, realizing this "restaurant du jour" has the potential to become a favorite.
Mezzanine's focus on local, seasonal and organic isn't just trendy; it's smart and, judging by the gathered throng, embraced by Richmonders pondering the intriguing (and oh-so-large) chalkboard menu that changes almost daily. On both of my visits, the bistro was packed. Upstairs, there is more intimate seating, with some booths and space to accommodate a large group.
On my first trip, my friend Debi and I opted for upstairs and appreciated the opportunity to catch up in a quieter setting. She enjoyed the roast chicken with perfectly crispy skin under which goat cheese and rosemary had been tucked. It was a relatively simple dish accompanied by green beans and slightly underdone butternut squash, but I respected Chef Todd Johnson's focus on the ingredients. It takes maturity in the kitchen to leave things alone. Johnson, who is new to the local culinary scene and once worked with Wolfgang Puck, has an impressive background. His travels are reflected in the menu's diversity, and his training shines through.
When the waitress suggested cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew, on this wintry eve, I ordered it and was disappointed only that the serving wasn't larger. The shrimp and scallops were tender and sweet, the base was flavorful and hearty, and the crostini provided a welcome excuse to dunk, but I could have eaten more. Similarly, our appetizer of ground pork and shrimp "balls" on lemongrass skewers with a sweet-and-sour tamarind dipping sauce was fabulous, but there were only three, so splitting the dish resulted in barely more than a mouthful each.
I won't complain too much about the portion size, though. Most restaurants feel compelled to serve disgusting amounts of food, and often the price reflects this extravagance. Besides, you get what you pay for, and organic ingredients ain't cheap. Know that the portions are not huge and the prices are reasonable for what you get, and order accordingly.
Service was professional and attentive. The décor is attractive, with dark wood, a fabulous curlicue chandelier in the entryway, soothing ice-blue walls, local art and flattering lighting creating an atmosphere that would be special on a date without being intimidating, but was just as inviting for a Girls' Night Out. Which brings me back to my great shoes and a menu that lends itself to sampling. On my second visit Sue and I ordered the pan-seared sea scallops — three giant mollusks with julienned leeks in a creamy topping that was drizzled with a port reduction — and the shrimp and grits, which was our hands-down favorite. The scallops were tasty, don't get me wrong, and we were especially tickled by the white tri-lobed serving dish, which spawned a whole conversation about what comes first, the cool serving platter or the creation to show it off?
The grits, though not what I would call traditional, were out of this world. They had substance, nothing soupy about them, which they needed for the pool of Parmesan cream sauce that surrounded them. Five large, tender shrimp with a sprinkle of very crispy bacon made the dish extremely rich and filling. We could have ordered a salad to share and called it a day, but instead we proceeded to the Thai green curry with shredded chicken. Made with fresh green chilies, Mezzanine's excellent version managed to balance heat with subtlety. Even though my nose started to run, I could still taste the broccoli and Japanese eggplant, delight in the oyster mushrooms, and appreciate the fragrant jasmine rice.
We sampled two desserts, and they were both winners. The chocolate mousse in its conical glass dish and generous sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts was decadently delicious. The chocolate bourbon pecan pie was the grown-up equivalent of a candy bar but elevated itself with its buttery crust and generous drizzle of caramel sauce.
Mezzanine has gotten off to a great start and has many appealing aspects. With its commitment to farm-fresh ingredients, its personable staff, sophisticated yet approachable atmosphere and reasonable price point, owners Randy O'Dell and Patrick Stamper are doing everything right. Combine these elements with Chef Johnson's ever-changing menu, and there are untold reasons to try out Carytown's latest "it" restaurant.
3433 W. Cary St., 353-2186
Appetizers and small plates $5 to $14. Entrées $16 to $29. Desserts $5.
Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.