Selba's Roasted Vegetable Wellington. Photo by Mike Shield
There are times when it's hard not to decide in advance that you really want to like a place. Take Selba, a newly remodeled space on West Cary Street that breaks the mold of the typical cramped Fan eatery. With a menu that utilizes the growing abundance of local food vendors but draws on Central America for flavor profiles, it promises to use familiar foods in unfamiliar ways. A decade ago, I even worked in the same restaurant as Selba head chef Abram Jackson, then a sous chef, and I had a good impression of his skill set and training. So, did it live up to my preconceived expectations? In a word, almost.
Let's start with brunch, which was uneven and a bit disorganized. The wife ordered the chicken and waffles, and we both declared the buttermilk fried chicken excellent — but the waffles weren't as good. A maker of waffles at home, she said it was almost like they left an ingredient out — perhaps vanilla, or maybe the batter didn't have enough salt. I couldn't disagree; they were pretty unremarkable.
I tried the Selba Benedict. Replacing the English muffin with a Salvadoran pupusa (a thick tortilla, almost like a pancake, made with maize flour) intrigued me, but because the entire dish, including the poached eggs, was served tepid, it was very hard to eat. The pupusa was dry and mealy, and the whole thing stuck in my throat. The entrées had come out separately, with some dishes hot and others, well, not so much. A side of house-made bacon delivered on the taste, but being served in a congealed pile detracted from its appeal.
Service was scattered. Leaving bottles of ice-cold water on the table is nice for those who drink a lot of water, but it's pretty pointless to leave the bottle if the server empties it into the glasses at the table. Coffee service was equally odd. Only artificial sweetener was offered. On one visit, a couple of packets of Sugar In The Raw were found after being requested, but, a couple of weeks later, there seemed to be no real sugar in the whole restaurant for the coffee until, after an unreasonably long wait, a couple of spoonfuls were procured from the kitchen and unceremoniously served in a small metal ramekin.
Dinner fared considerably better. Service was much tighter, with a knowledgeable waiter who was on top of his game — except for the recurring sugar problem. To start with, the Wild Mushroom Tart was tasteless and bland with a soggy, flat puff pastry, but the mussels steamed in white wine blew us away. Cooked perfectly, they were tender and creamy with a buttery sauce of fresh garlic and parsley that was perfect for dipping the crispy baguette in — expert execution on a dish that is so easy to serve tough and rubbery. My son, Finn, declared the mussels to be the best in town. I agreed.
On the list of entrées, the Cowboy Pie caught my attention. A reimagined shepherd's pie, it was made with ground bison, shaved yucca and cactus, then topped with a mashed sweet potato crust. The result is a little drier, with a much more earthy flavor than the traditional version. The fibers from the yucca were a little off-putting, but not enough to be unpleasant. It was a really well-done, unique dish. Also of note is the braised brisket. Fork tender and richly glazed with tamarind, the dish was preceded by tantalizing smells, and the slow-cooked flavors did not disappoint.
Selba also manages to pull together some of the best local vendors to create dishes that showcase what is great about the Richmond area. Combining fettuccine from Bombolini Pasta in the Fan, Dave & Dee's shiitake mushrooms, a dash of cream from Homestead Creamery and pork belly sausage courtesy of the team at Sausage Craft makes for a special that exemplifies the best of Central Virginia. You can even close out the meal with a taste of Virginia. Selba's house-made ice cream, again using dairy products from Homestead Creamery, is excellent. The flavors vary, but we were lucky enough to be there when salted caramel was on offer. The salty-sweet combination enlivened our taste buds at the end of the meal and got a double thumbs-up from Finn.
From its space to chef Jackson's leverage of some of the best local purveyors of fine foods, Selba has the tools to be a great Richmond restaurant. It's not quite there yet, with just a couple too many rough spots. It is, however, worth keeping an eye on to see if it gets the little additional push that it needs.
2416 W. Cary St., 358-2229
Prices: Appetizers, small plates, soups and salads $6 to $12; dinner entrées $17 to $21; brunch entrées $7 to $13; desserts $4 to $6.
Hours: Happy hour is from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; dinner is served from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, followed by a late-night bar menu until 2 a.m.; Sunday brunch is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.