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Prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella with sun-dried tomatoes, baby arugula and golden beets with balsamic black caraway and red wine gastrique. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Accanto's chic bar is embellished with metallic accents. Photo by Ash Daniel
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A chocolate martini Photo by Ash Daniel
One of Richmond's most beloved chefs once told me that he was done creating complicated dishes. He was just trying to make the perfect roast chicken.
Experience and age had led to restraint. But where's the fun in that? Reading the menu at Accanto is like riding a culinary roller coaster. Who would stuff a deviled egg with blue cheese, wrap it in bacon and then fry it? Only youth can prompt that type of wild abandon (and total disregard for cholesterol). The words on the menu conjure flavors, creating a virtual sensory overload. I knew little previously of chef Ryan Baldwin (age 29), but after two recent visits to Accanto, I think we have a star in our midst.
Accanto translates roughly to "next door" in Italian, and it is, literally, in the space that adjoins its parent restaurant, the venerable Little Venice. Owned and operated by brothers Alberto and Peppino Mastromano, this elegant restaurant has been serving classic Italian dishes with impeccable service for 10 years. The food and experience are consistently outstanding. With this level of support, Accanto was sure to be a winner. When I read that designer Laura Knight had created a sleek atmosphere to match the vibrancy of the food, I couldn't wait to go.
In addition to the bar menu with all items priced at $6, options are thoughtfully arranged into small, midsize and entrée-size plates, with the costs following suit. And with 22 wines by the glass and several weekly drink specials, Accanto is poised to be more than a special-occasion restaurant.
The bar itself boasts seating for 20 on sleek and comfy, ultra-modern black leather bar stools with backs. However, three rather large flat-screen TVs nearly ruin an atmosphere that belies its strip-mall exterior. Upscale black leather lounge seating is juxtaposed with dark brown hardwood floors, cast-concrete tabletops swirled with copper and a stunning wall treatment of soothing pale aqua and additional burnished metallic accents. The effect is hip without being cold. Service, too, is warm, yet professional, though the timing from kitchen to table needs a little work. On my first visit on a very busy weekend, I expected a delay, but on my second midweek trip, it took approximately 45 minutes for food to arrive. Thankfully, it was worth it.
An appetizer of delectable coconut fried oysters with a Thai mango, lemon grass and curry sauce served with a cooling cucumber salad was fabulous. Even better were the rich but heavenly duck confit tacos with a pleasantly crunchy radish, pear and jicama slaw and queso fresco. Both were generously portioned and reasonably priced at roughly $10 each.
Two midsize plates seemed huge to my boyfriend, Russ, and me, with the sticky, sweet, fall-off-the-bone baby-back ribs accompanied by grilled bok choy and shiitake-mushroom-studded wild rice the clear favorite. We found the fried chicken breast slightly dry, but it was rescued by an accompanying buttermilk-and-white-cheddar cornmeal pudding that could have doubled as dessert. Delicious. The green tomato and Vidalia onion marmalade continued the Southern theme, adding to the overall success of the dish.
On our first visit, an entrée of rockfish with a seasonal ragout of Brussels sprouts, turnips, sweet corn and braised fennel served with house-made pumpkin gnocchi could not have been better. Like all of Baldwin's creations, there was a lot going on, but it was a harmonious and delicious mélange that was surprisingly light. When we came back a week later with our friend Doug, we were underwhelmed with the bone-in rib-eye steak, mainly because the accompanying lavender butter was too weirdly perfumy for the hunk of red meat.
Desserts, which were just as cutting-edge, received " oohs " and ahhs " for presentation but mixed reviews for taste. The combinations were a little too adventuresome for Russ, though I was up for pushing the boundaries of my sweet tooth. Of the three sampled, we enjoyed the rum crème brûlée with caramelized bananas on top the most, though it could have made me tipsy, it was so potent.
Thursday night turns out to be Bubbly Night, which meant glasses of Prosecco for $4. Doug, Russ and I toasted to adventures and to artists, and to the enthusiasm that Baldwin's food embodies. Not only is he playing with a dizzying variety of ingredients combined in unexpected and dazzling ways, the good news — the very, very good news — is, he's nailing it, at least most of the time. Accanto might just be the most exciting restaurant to open in the Far West End since Patina's debut in the late 1990s.
10478 Ridgefield Parkway, 741-1218
Prices: Bar menu and small plates $6 to $12, midsize plates $16 to $18, entrées $24 to $27, desserts $8 to $10.
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.