1 of 5
The James cocktail, comprising Old Forester bourbon, rosemary cordial, fresh lime juice and mole bitters, garnished with salted caramel and a torched rosemary sprig (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
2 of 5
Beet terrine (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
3 of 5
Belle & James' onyx bar (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
4 of 5
Amish chicken served with pomme purée, haricots verts and pan jus (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
5 of 5
Sautéed P.E.I. mussles in a beer and tomato broth (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
Good day, ladies and gentlemen of the #RVAdine jury. My name is Genevelyn Steele, chief dining critic for Richmond magazine. You’re reading because you want to know about hot new restaurants: what they serve, their décor, the level of formality you’ll encounter. You want to know how the staff will treat you and what the beverage program entails. Most importantly, the question you want answered is: “Should I go?”
This month, as both prosecutor and defender, it’s my intent to acquaint you with Belle & James, fronted by D.C. restaurateur Kunal Shah, and to persuade you that though it has a few crimps to straighten, it’s worthy of your visit.
I open with Exhibit A, the experience: Chef Andrew Arbaiza’s classic techniques abut full flavor and portions. Drink listings are strong, the service above-average. Though the Brigitte Bardot mural and runway-sized onyx bar look set for RuPaul rather than “Romper Room,” your child will be catered to — mine certainly was — and your money well-spent. But wait, there’s more: Belle & James comes connected to Kabana Rooftop, a 20th-floor barroom with international street snacks and a view of downtown any wolf of Main Street would eat up.
There’s been a chef change since Belle & James opened in October 2015: Michael Crowley left his post, making room for Arbaiza, former sous chef of Trattoria Lisina in Driftwood, Texas.
The dinner menu was in flux on my visits, mostly due to time of year, but also because Arbaiza is moving the restaurant from a French-American bistro to one that encompasses southern France, the American South, and central Italy, where he worked in a butcher shop in Orvieto. Changes are afoot, such as hand-cut pasta and house-made country-French pâté.
I loved the double-cut lamb chops served with meaty succotash, though the meat was undercooked from my guest’s requested medium. I’ll miss them once the dish has been shelved for lamb ragout and gnocchi. Previewed as a dinner special, the ragout sold out quickly, the wintry smell of cinnamon, wine and stewed tomatoes a comfort. Seared duck breast with raspberry-port sauce, a holdover from the opening menu, came with gluey, clumpy polenta. That polenta will soon be replaced by Byrd’s Mill stoneground grits — and my fingers are crossed for a creamier porridge to catch the umami-rich drippings. Another change is the removal of the farm-raised salmon, the Soylent Green of seafood. Mine arrived perfectly cooked, yet the salmon melted in my mouth without exciting it. (Note to self: Stop ordering farmed salmon.)
Exhibit B, beverage, holds its own with devices such as a Coravin system, which preserves bottle leftovers with argon and guarantees that the next glass of Saint-Émilion wine is as fresh as the first. Don’t let other facts — that riesling is misspelled on the wine list or that some vintages lack listed growing regions — dissuade you, even though you’re dying to know from which land “Slo Down Sexual Chocolate cuvee” hails. My guess: Down Under.
Exhibit C, the appetizers: mussels with andouille sausage in a chunky tomato broth is a tasty repeat defender, while Brussels sprouts, frizzled black at their tips and tossed with blueberry syrup, are funky, barely sweet. In the time it took to learn what was in the syrup, they’d disappeared. The French onion soup had the aromatic rush of caramelization, rosemary and sage, but the broth was cool, just above room temperature; in general, hot foods need to arrive hotter here, though the melty cheese was spot-on.
I’m ruling in favor of Belle & James, though I must mention that its staff broke the fourth wall several times. Our service began attentively, then petered out. We had to flag down our waitress for the check. Serving requires stamina and a bit of method acting. You shouldn’t see staff, as we did, hunched over a communal bowl of food or studying at the host stand during prime time.
In closing, this restaurant deserves to be busier with diners, not just drinkers, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is what I’m asking you to do tonight. Let’s adjourn — go eat!
3 out of 4 forks
700 E. Main St. 643-0366
Hours: Monday to Saturday: 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: $6-$28, handicapped accessible