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Popularity Contest

Bacchus captures a solid following, but we're not always sure why.

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Make sure you have a reservation when you decide to go to Bacchus, because every table is taken, all the time, even on nights early in the week.

Well-dressed Richmonders in high heels and jeans flock to this little corner restaurant with its stucco walls, dark landscapes in heavy gilt frames and moody Tuscan interior. The noise level grows as the evening progresses, and soon, if you stop in for a drink at the long bar on a Saturday night, you'll find it hard to wedge yourself through the door.

All of this popularity takes its toll on the service, and although the waitstaff remains cheerful and polite for the most part, alacrity isn't its strong suit. Perhaps an extra server and bartender on the weekends would alleviate some of the lag time. However, drinks are generous, the booths are comfortable and appetizers come out of the kitchen at a good clip.

Starters, in fact, outshine the rest of the food on the menu. The polenta arrives in a thick yet improbably light cake, topped with Gorgonzola and surrounded by a bright pool of pungent marinara. The briny shad roe, crusted with cornmeal and lightly fried, is infused with both the grilled-onion nest cradling it and the thick, smoky bacon on top. The clean-tasting, house-cured gravlax faintly hints at dill and comes thinly sliced in olive oil and bedecked with red onion and capers, regrettably redolent of the refrigerator.

Although the brilliantly green spinach still retains the curl of its leaves after a quick sauté, poor prep and the inevitable grit make it difficult to eat (and it is truly delicious) despite the generous splash of olive oil and lavish scatter of pine nuts. Salads are less exciting, even predictable, but are well-executed with an admirable ratio of oil to vinegar.

Chef and owner Chris DiLauro seeks out regional purveyors who can get the goods to him fast and fresh, and it shows in a dish like the rockfish in lobster cream. The rockfish is perfectly cooked and tender, resting on a dollop of smooth sauce reminiscent of a slightly thick bisque, next to garlic mashed potatoes that are accompanied by exemplary roasted vegetables holding their own against their splashier, main-dish neighbor.

Pasta can be a little dicey, and in a putative Italian restaurant, this slip is difficult to overlook. The capellini comes mushy and overcooked, drowning in a carbonara sauce with thin slivers of pancetta unable to come to its aid. The rigatoni is better, with a snappy Bolognese sauce that, despite its wateriness, still bangs out the traditional amore with a generous sprinkle of spiky Parmesan.

Rolls taste homemade, and thankfully there's olive oil for dipping, instead of butter. Even the cheeseburger comes on a homemade roll thickly sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and the hamburger itself is Australian Wagyu beef, a Kobe-style beef that is compact, juicy and popping with meaty flavor. Paper-thin slices of dill pickle, truly ripe tomatoes and crisp lettuce on the side are full of forthright freshness and attention to detail. The dry, tasteless potato salad is best ignored.

Decent desserts can be had at Bacchus along with "dessert cocktails," such as chocolate or espresso martinis. The crème brûlée is traditional, and that's a good thing, but the apple crisp is long on oats and short on actual crisp. Like most things on the menu, desserts offer few real surprises and are unevenly executed. After nearly seven years in business, this is a shame. Risk-taking isn't mandatory, but the menu has changed very little over the years, and each dish (like the pasta, for example) should roll out of the kitchen with a practiced precision. A good meal still can be had at Bacchus, if you can get a table, but for culinary consistency and innovation, you might want to turn your eyes down the street to some of Bacchus' more creative neighbors. S

Bacchus ($$$)
2 N. Meadow St.
355-9919
www.bacchusonmain.com
Dinner nightly from 5 p.m.

View the Menu online.

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