April 9, 2008
Verbena cures a case of the same-old.
by John G. Haddad
Verbena the plant is grown to attract butterflies and bees and is said to have divine powers. Verbena the restaurant is conceived to attract serious gourmands with its striking creative powers.Credit owner David Bess for the concept, as well as for chef Todd Richardson, who laid a foundation for culinary inspiration with experiences at None Such Place and Dogwood Grille. He’s broken new ground with a menu that includes rabbit, wild boar and foie gras BLTs. Based on the crowds the nights I visited, he’s beginning to hit his stride with Richmond diners looking for something new.
On a Thursday — ’Tini Night — my wife, Susannah, and I sat upstairs in the V Lounge. The trancey techno-beat was the only loungey part. Small two- and four-tops and a few pub tables complement the bar, where TVs cast a hollow light in an otherwise lovely space. Dark wood, brushed copper and exposed brick are tastefully illuminated. The martini menu was at least 10 deep and I enjoyed a tart pomegranate laced with hints of grapefruit; Susannah indulged in a chocolate espresso variation. In addition to an extensive drink list, the lounge serves a few entrees and a dozen or so small plates ($3-$9) that range from deviled eggs to lamb-chop mint julep.
Except for a hint of onion, nothing about the deviled egg stood out, but my next choices made up for it: The vegetable-quiche bites nicely combine fresh herbs, eggs and cream; the crab and tomato tart is a dreamy combination of crab in a slightly sweet tomato sauce. The ravioli of the day, tender dough stuffed with nutmeg-spiked pumpkin and topped with truffle sauce, was terrific. The pot-roast potato was homey and nostalgic, but a bit dry. In all, though, most of the small plates delivered. But there was still room to indulge. The lemon verbena cheesecake was out, so I went for the molten chocolate cake — adequately rich but very average. The peanut-butter-and-jelly tart reminded me of Linzer torte and gave me a taste of childhood.
On a visit with a larger group on a busy Saturday night, we were seated immediately in the inviting dining room. Our waiter was a recognizable face from a certain brasserie and is one of the best in town. He knew the menu well and made great recommendations.I started with the foie gras of the day, a stunning stacked crostini with truffle mayonnaise, smoked applewood bacon, sliced ripe tomato and seared foie gras. The skilled juxtaposition of tastes and textures put this dish head and shoulders above most dishes I’ve had in Richmond. Another fine starter was the Bibb lettuce salad, lightly dressed in black olive vinaigrette. Bread, baked daily in-house, is served warm with butter.The major misstep of the night didn’t stem from what was brought out of the kitchen. It was what wasn’t — our entrees, for more than an hour. I’ll forgive and forget, partly because I know that kinks need to be worked out in a fairly new restaurant on a busy Saturday, but mostly because of the quality of what followed. I was lured by the Mexican rabbit prepared three ways. Mole roasted-leg empanadas encased in a light, crispy crust were enhanced by the traditional chocolate-chili sauce. The liver pâté was creamy and dense with a slight hint of tequila in the glaze. My favorite of the trio was the juicy seared loin, topped with a chimichurri sauce. My wife opted for a trio of raviolis stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and pumpkin, all in a creamy truffle sauce. I was impressed by the freshness of several of the fish dishes that I sampled and by the variety of sauces and sides that came with the entrees. The menu will keep me coming back.For the second time, I came up empty when I tried to order the lemon verbena cheesecake. I settled for a strawberry shortcake and its unusual pairing with a balsamic reduction — a nice tart to the strawberry’s sweet.
Verbena has a lot going for it — a hip new space, an inventive menu and a visionary attitude among the partners. While the execution and delivery lag ever so slightly behind its creative potential, given time, Verbena will prove its worth.
2526 Floyd Ave.
Dinner: Wednesday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Brunch: Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
No smoking in dining room.