Is the increasing number of city blocks boasting three or more restaurants an indicator if impending oversaturation? Or is it proof that we’ve finally put on our big–boy pants announcing Richmond’s arrival as a legitimate food town and not just some magazine’s list of destinations.
I heard grumbling when word got out that a former insurance agency on Broad Street was being renovated as a restaurant, because the Savory Grain and the Pig & Pearl already occupied that block, with Emilio’s a crosswalk away on the next. As if proximity were a bad thing.
Level, billing itself as an Asian fusion sushi taphouse — say that three times fast — has created a multi-tiered space where once agents sold security. There’s a long bar that responds to touch with glowing pink light, booths in the front window and larger ones in the back, plus plenty of tables to fit together for larger groups upstairs and down. A television over the bar is soulless focal point of the room, unless you’re fortunate enough to face the sushi bar with its screen of ascending bubbles. Music tends to be low-key — chill wave and innocuous indie — although on one visit it jarringly goes to noisy static, which no one on staff notices until I say something 10 minutes later.
With a menu spanning edamame and New York strip, Level plays it safe. Japanese seafood soup ($6) isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, and the egg-white-based broth with celery, carrots, snow peas, chopped shrimp and imitation crab feels nourishing if unexciting, Maybe it’s the recent Chinese new year, but I find more to appreciate with gyoza ($5), pan-fried dumplings plump with seasoned pork and chicken. Not everyone will be as pleased as I when tuna tatki ($10) arrives with the promised ponzu sauce replaced with a wasabi-based one, the spiciness a worthy foil to the ruddy fish and accompanying spring mix salad. But realistically, the kitchen can’t expect everyone to roll with that change.
Stir-fried dan dan noodle with chicken ($12) with fat udon noodles, onions and slivers of green pepper is solid, but if you want the spice of classic dan dan, let your server know when you order. At lunch, we chose roll A ($11), a combination of any two classic maki rolls with miso soup or salad, finding both the spicy salmon and yellowtail scallion rolls rather mute, with the salmon’s promised heat missing.
For a burst of flavor, try a chicken wrap ($7), a savory mixture of mushrooms, water chestnuts and chicken with a stack of iceberg lettuce to contain the goodness. The sashimi starter ($10) is a testament to the quality of the fish that Level uses, and the six large pieces of white tuna, yellowtail and salmon sing with freshness. The winning flavors of a dynamite roll ($12) of spicy scallop, avocado, tuna and salmon with a crunchy top ensure some chopsticks battling for the last piece. A stir-fried entree of tropical shrimp ($17) transports me to warmer days with fresh mango, asparagus spears, onion, snow peas, carrots and zucchini in a delicately spicy, anything-but-cloying Thai sweet-and-sour sauce.
You’ll be reminded of Level’s taphouse moniker with 24 draft beers ($4-$7) and 20 bottles and cans including Sapporo, Tiger and Tsingtao. Grape lovers can choose from a list heavy on New World wines ($7-$12 a glass; $25-$38 a bottle), including Japan’s Fuki plum wine. Fully half the cocktail list ($8-$12) which includes sangria, is based on vodka. The sake menu ($5-$12) is short, which is fine, but lacks flavor profiles, which isn’t. The way to entice people to try something new would be with descriptions of beverages with which they are unfamiliar.
Service can be overly casual or knowledgeably attentive, and after three visits, I’ve experienced both. Cucumber slices on water glasses show forethought, but glasses waiting for refills don’t. Every question about a dish shouldn’t require a trip to the kitchen to ask. But when it’s good, you can expect smiling unobtrusive servers who bring fresh chopsticks for different courses and give you time to taste your food before asking how you like it.
With a generous, daily happy hour and live music Friday and Saturday nights at 10:30, Level makes a good case for a third restaurant on the block. S
2007 W. Broad St.
Lunch: 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday – Wednesday 4:30 – 11 p.m.; Thursday – Saturday 4:30 p.m. – 2 a.m., Sunday noon – 10 p.m.
Happy hour daily 4:30 – 7:30 p.m.