Is $10 too much to charge for a cocktail? Well, if it's house gin and tonic from a soda gun, then yes, it is. On the other hand, if it's a re-imagined Manhattan, made with small-batch New Amsterdam Gin, house-made blood-orange bitters and sweet vermouth and called an East Ender, then no.
The Belvidere at Broad has caught the wave of old-fashioned cocktail making and brought it to Richmond. Instead of dressing up pre-made factory mixes with pretty glasses or umbrellas, these come off very plain in appearance, but they'll wow you with fresh and vibrant combinations. Small-batch liquors paired with house-made ingredients such as essence of Earl Grey tea or an orange-ginger simple syrup will excite your taste buds and drive you to eschew more pedestrian fare.
Which brings us to our next question: Is this a bar that happens to serve food or a restaurant that takes alcohol seriously? The beer talk at the bar was way over my head, involving obscure micro-brews and rare ingredients. (You can find out about the latest tapped keg by following them on Twitter — @thebelvidererva — or looking them up on Facebook.) The menu is a mix of sandwiches and higher-end entrées — leaving one confused as to what the restaurant is supposed to be.
The appetizers are definitely not your typical bar food. applewood-smoked salmon (smoked in-house, slightly sweet) and tenderloin canapés (marinated beef and sweet caramelized onions on crostini with horseradish) go over quite well. My son Finn was partial to the crab cakes (there were three 2- to 3-ounce crab cakes with no filler and very little binder topped with siracha aïoli), while I became a fan of the soup. If the daily selection happens to be red pepper with lump crab, get it. It's a fine balance, since the heat of the peppers does not overpower the crabmeat; they managed it well, much to my enjoyment.
On the sandwich side, I can recommend an excellent grilled ahi tuna with siracha aïoli, or the grilled tenderloin with sautéed onions and mushrooms. But the standout is their "All Natural Beef Burger." I have mixed feelings about the ciabatta bun, but they did manage to hit the right thickness of meat so that when you bite down on the tough bread, the burger doesn't come squirting out the sides. Topped with sweet, caramelized onions and shaved Parmesan (for an extra $1), it was one of the better burgers I have had in quite a while.
So, they do drinks, apps and sandwiches well. For me, the key to a good meal is knowing a restaurant's strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. Would I find those in the entrées? Maybe not. Three words: Tequila Grilled Shrimp. The shrimp, marinated in tequila and perfectly grilled, were outstanding, especially with a delicate citrus beurre blanc to round out the flavors. They even do quite a nice job with a common piece of chicken. The marinated free-range chicken comes out evenly cooked and moist, with a mouth-pleasing array of tastes from the sauce espagnole (Spanish-style sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes). Cooking meats properly, without drying them out, can be a challenge. The chefs at Belvidere manage this all well, even on their sake-ginger-glazed grilled salmon — although the salmon was a tad sweet for my taste.
Hitting on all cylinders continues through to brunch on Sunday. Along with the usual array of egg and Benedict dishes (my wife truly enjoyed the mushroom, spinach and tomato omelet), there is an updated version of the Southern classic, shrimp and grits. At Belvidere, it is grilled shrimp with herbed polenta, the perfect mix of creamy polenta with grilled shrimp and a spicy chasseur sauce to bring it all together. I had the Eggs Chesapeake (poached eggs with lump crab and hollandaise) and got saddled with the ciabatta again. Soft ingredients and tough bread are a bad combination. It didn't help that it wasn't hot.
There it is, the one main problem at Belvidere. People talk of the restaurant being slow; it's even acknowledged on the menu. When there is a show at any of the nearby theaters, the dining room gets packed. That tends to slow down service and should be expected. The problem we had was that one dish was almost always cold. Usually it was mine. Considering that the other dishes were all piping hot leads me to believe there is a timing issue in the kitchen instead of a problem with the wait staff. Is it a fatal flaw? No, but it can be annoying if you are with kids or on your way to a show. Still, should this happen to you, speak up and get it fixed. The food is good enough to wait for to it to be right.
Of course, if you do have to wait, ask for the house cocktail list and order something interesting. It'll make the wait much more pleasant.
506 W. Broad St., 344-0644
Prices: Appetizers $7 to $14; sandwiches $10 to $14; entrées $15 to $32; brunch $8 to $15.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 5 p.m. to close; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.