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Glimpses of Greatness

Balliceaux finds its footing in the Fan.

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Going into a new restaurant with sky-high expectations is never a good idea. The disappointment is that much more pronounced when it fails to deliver. But when a place manages to overcome a bad first impression, it's a rarity worth celebrating.

In the case of Balliceaux (pronounced balli-SOH), the transporting new hot spot named after an island in the Grenadines, getting from point A (royally bummed out) to point B (happy convert) is a worthwhile trip.

On a recent Saturday night, I know we're in trouble as soon as we arrive to find 10 parties ahead of us on the hostess list. We squeeze through the hordes to the front bar, where I'm cheered to discover a dark and stormy on the well-edited cocktail menu. The rum and ginger-beer concoction is too strong and has too little ice, but it gives me the will to wait out a barstool.

We finally wedge ourselves onto stools and order small plates of conch (whelk) fritters and homemade ricotta. The fritters are perfectly crispy with a meaty interior, but without the promised grilled coconut, and it's difficult to tell whether the watery salsa is supposed to be the grapefruit seviche. The sesame crackers and honey are an ideal foil to the tangy creaminess of the ricotta, but perfectly good cantaloupe is covered in salt and pepper.

After waiting an hour for a table with no end in sight, we decide to order entrees from our bar perch. What comes out of the kitchen is a letdown. The burger itself is juicy and medium rare, but the bun is not just a little charred, it's fully burned. The truffle fries are so salty they're inedible — and this is coming from a gal who loves her sodium. The meaty filling inside the duck confit crA¬¶pe is moist and tender, but the jicama slaw has no citrus or spicy zing to offset the duck's richness. The garlicky greens are tough stalks of broccoli rabe that should come with a steak knife. This kitchen is so in the weeds I want to grab an apron and go work the line. As we're getting up to leave, one hour and 40 minutes after arriving, the hostess calls our name for a table.

As disappointing as my first visit is, there are just enough glimpses of promise to inspire a return. And another.

Both lunch experiences are outstanding. Without the madding crowds in the way, I can appreciate the remarkable transformation this space has undergone since it was Bogart's. The stark island chic of the concrete walls, nubby sea-green booths, retro beach scenes peeking out of portholes, mod lighting and floor-to-ceiling glass front, complete with a construction zone on the sidewalk, all add up to the feel of entering a wormhole in downtown Manhattan. There's nothing else like it in Richmond.

The food, too, is wonderfully satisfying. The falafel wrap contains some of the best chickpea fritters around, well accented with roasted eggplant and garlicky tahini. The side salad is a step up from the usual mixed greens, with sprinkles of edamame and pine nuts. The butter lettuce salad is equally well-designed, with delicate shavings of brussel sprouts and plump figs to play off pickled shallots. Toss in some gorgonzola or tangy feta and you'd have my idea of salad perfection. The chicken-corn posole is comfort in a bowl with chunks of pulled chicken and chewy hominy in a rich broth. It could use a bit more heat, but the slice of lime brightens it up.

The entrees hit all the right notes the second and third time around. The mushroom carbonara is exactly what you want to eat on a chilly October afternoon: smoked tomatoes, creminis and bucatini in a silky eggy sauce, topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta and drizzled in basil oil. What was supposed to be the crispy halibut but comes out as rockfish may be my new favorite meal. Cabbage in crispy bacon, perfectly salted fries, and tender, briny fish add up to French bistro fare at its finest. Fellow diners rave about the English pea timbale and morta torta.

The desserts run the gamut from terrific to decent. Topping the list are the churros (long skinny doughnuts doused in cinnamon sugar) served with a warm coffee sauce that must be tasted to be believed. The filling in the pumpkin cheesecake is blissful, but the chewy crust and ill-advised sauces are a distraction. The berry compote served alongside the cheesecake and the coconut cake steals the show.

Balliceaux is still finding its sea legs when it comes to consistently delivering to the eager masses, but with a smart and timely menu, attentive service, moderate pricing and unparalleled digs, the future looks bright.  S

Balliceaux $$
203 N. Lombardy St.
355-3008
Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-WHEN?
Sunday supper, 5-9 p.m.
Handicapped accessible
Nonsmoking

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