Posted by: wrmcnutt | November 20, 2009

Restaurant Review – Zeus Gallery Cafe – Richmond, VA

I’m reluctant to write this review, really.  The more people know about the Zeus Gallery Cafe, in Richmond Virginia, the less likely I will be to get a table the next time that I am there.  And I’m not sure I want to share this with you people.  If I were being paid to write these, it might be different.  Still, I’ve taken on a task, and I feel that I am, in some bizarre way, a journalist, and, unlike the New York Times (All that fits, they print), I view telling the truth is a sacred calling, and the truth is, I’ve found a gem.

The Zeus Gallery Cafe is at 201 N Belmont Ave – Richmond, VA, in the Carytown district.  Right around the corner from the Museum of Art, and neighbor to the local school of Art and Design, you’d think it would be in a bohemian neighborhood.  Since “bohemian” makes my teeth itch, it’s a good thing it’s not.  Belmont Avenue is a slightly dark street, and 201 is a few doors down from the well-traveled Grove Avenue.  The Zeus Gallery Cafe is located in an old storefront, probably an old millinery or fabric store.  There’s a large plate-glass window up front, partially blocked by one of the booths.  I was put off initially.  I wasn’t looking for a pub.  I wanted an elegant dining experience.  I’d just bought a boat, and I was out to celebrate.  The noisy, crowded, booth-filled old dry-goods store wasn’t at all what I had in mind.  But we were there, and I had no idea where else to go.

We were seated immediately – a good sign – by a friendly, smiling, and cute hostess.  Our server showed up before we could get the (cloth) napkins unfolded, and took our drink order.  Vodka gibson, extra onions.  The apparently small bar had a selection of five vodkas.  My companion had a Bombay Sapphire and tonic.  The mixologist had to have been the fastest shaker in the West, ’cause we had our drinks within five minutes, despite the crowd.  Really, except for the total lack of cigarette smoke, the atmosphere was like a local pub in south London.  If your local has a cellar of more than sixty vintages.  There are two chalkboards on the walls, above the booths: one for reds, and one for whites.  Each had thirty labels each.  Some of them were familiar, but there were many I’ve never seen before.  Prices ranged from $23/bottle up above $150.  (Ain’t NO spoiled grape juice worth $150 for five glasses.)  Okay – so, nice cellar, good bar, prompt courteous service.  Still sounds like a high school cafeteria in here.

Then there’s the kitchen.  It’s maybe ten feet wide and 18 feet long.  It’s visible behind the bar.  There’s barely enough room in there for three guys to move, let alone cook.  I was skeptical, say the least.

Then came the menu.

Oh, my.

It was complex.  A broad range of continentally-inspired dishes made with mostly local ingredients.  My companion started with the pate d’ fois gras, while I went with the roasted beet salad garnish with parmesan.  To quote my companion, “oh, uh, mmmm.  Oh, it was wonderful.  The accompaniments were perfect.  Flavorful.  The clover was almost peppery, and there was a vinegar reduction . . . .  Mmmmm.  It tasted like pate should.”  To hear her talk, you’d think that the Platonic Form of pate had been reached.  Point of fact, I sampled it.  Now, as we all know, liver is not what food is. I could have eaten more of this.  It was like meat pudding.  It had a very, very slightly caramelized outer skin that I hesitate to call a crust.  It had just a hint of sweetness, and inside it was all meaty goodness.  Completely absent was the heave-inducing flavor of, well, liver.  I don’t know what the chef d’ cuisine DID to that goose liver, but he should do it some more.

A word about the service.  The night before, at the Crown and Goose, Knoxville, TN, my companion had ordered the fois gras and scallops, and been disappointed.  It had turned out to be a perfectly good dish of scallops, garnished with fois gras.  But is was not fois gras and scallops.  We related this experience to the server, and five minutes later she showed up with a glass of sauternes (wine), to go with the fois gras, on the house, because my companion had recently had a bad fois gras experience. At another restaurant.  My companion is not known for her sweet tooth, but she like the sauternes so well that she ordered it as her after dinner wine.

My roasted beet salad was nothing short of amazing.  The beets were in quarter-inch cubes.  Were they pasta, I would have said they were just past al dente.  There was a good, solid beet flavor, without the dirt overtones that so often haunt root vegetables.  The vinaigrette was tart and complimented the field greens very well.  The parmesan added just enough fat and protein to take the edge off of my appetite without spoiling it for the entree.

For the entree, my companion had the roasted lamb, rolled in herbs.  The lamb was clearly very fresh, tender, and very, very good.  I got one bite.  The gaminess one expects from lamb was barely there, more of a memory than a flavor.  The herbs were clearly fresh and flavorful.  For myself, I tried my first beef wellington.  This is a dish that intimidates many cooks, because the beef is baked in a pastry shell, and to get the shell to finish properly, it’s easy to over cook the beef, leaving you with either an underdone pastry shell, or a beef roast suitable for boot leather.

Not my experience tonight.  The roast came out a tender, juicy medium, and the pastry was tender, flaky, and delicious.  The herb rub had what must have been three ounces of chopped black truffles in it.  It was all I could to do restrain myself and keep from licking the plate.

The dessert menu was interesting, and I tried ot order the cobbler, but I’d done too well with the wine, appetizer, and entree, and could not do justice to the dessert.  I think I disappointed the chef.  I couldn’t help myself. It’s pretentious as hell, but I asked for the chef d’ cuisine to come out, if he had time.  We’d been lingering over our meal, and the house was emptying out, so he came out and chatted with us.  He’s known the owner for over 20 years, and has been at Zeus for the last five or so.  He was very friendly, and willing to talk about ingredients, techniques, or his experiences as long as time permitted.

So – how good was dinner?  We were in Richmond for two nights, and tried to imagine where we might find better food.  We went back to Zeus Cafe for our second and last night in town. I wanted to try the veal meatballs I’d passed over, and my companion lusted after the Amber Jack, and carpacchio.  We were not disappointed.  Still didn’t make it through dessert, though.

Summing up is tough.  Because the food is clearly fine-dining.  But the atmosphere is a pub, and the service is below prime for a fine dining restaurant, but several cuts above a public house.  Here we go:

Five Pints for Cuisine.

Four and a Half Pints for service.

and Four Pints for Atmosphere.

That gives the Zeus Gallery Cafe a score of 4.5, and one of the highest scores I’ve ever given.  I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

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  1. we knew it was good when you texted Martin that you were ENJOYING a pate.

    congratulations. I’m now drooling.

    • I’d eat there twice a week until I had run through the menu. Then I’d eat there once a week.

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