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Everything at Musselduck's works together to create a subtle symphony of taste and experience.

Four-Course Harmony

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If you've ever drawn a blank when trying to come up with dinner plans, get a piece of paper, write this name down and post it on your refrigerator: Musselduck's.

Musselduck's is the kind of place that's easy to overlook. The name isn't particularly catchy. It's out of sight on the second floor of a side-street building over a sub shop. And the signage doesn't grab you. All of which is too bad, because Musselduck's has achieved something rare in the Richmond culinary scene that should put it near the top of the play-list: harmony.

Harmony is a difficult characteristic to quantify, but here's what it means at Musselduck's: It's intimate without being coy; reserved without being cold; attentive without being intrusive. Everything at Musselduck's — lighting, service, music, furnishings — works together and bespeaks subtlety, including the food which harmonizes in a different way.

Described as "new American cuisine," Musselduck's borrows its gastronomic melody mostly from New Orleans and Thailand. The menu changes periodically but features include spicy Thai shrimp ($21), and Thai barbecue-grilled pork tenderloin ($18); grilled Creole-seasoned duck breast ($19), and duck and mussel gumbo ($5), which is billed as an appetizer but which could easily satisfy for dinner.

The harmony is found in the unique combinations of spices and sauces. For example, the ordinary-sounding crispy fried won-ton appetizer ($6) stuffed with pork tenderloin gains complexity through the velvety soy and coconut milk sauce infused with the woody flavor of shiitake mushrooms piqued by cilantro, mint and chili peppers. Likewise, the gumbo, which is more savory than spicy, is transported from the Louisiana low country by way of the exotic perfume of its jasmine rice bed.

[image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comJasmine rice is featured in several dishes, including the black sesame encrusted salmon ($19) which was my main course. A giant of a meal (the portions at Musselduck's are some of the most generous I've seen) the nuance here is the layer of seared spinach between the salmon and the rice. My companion's entrée, eggplant Creole, was quite rich, combining mozzarella and asiago cheeses with a complex sauce that had simmered all day blending layers of spices and flavors into a cohesive single taste.

Another example of Musselduck's harmony in action is the fact that they have taken the time to pair by-the-glass wines with each main course. We followed the restaurant's recommendations to great satisfaction. As impressive as the quality of the food is, however, equally as impressive is the fact that the eight main courses exhibit unique characteristics and there is no significant repetition: The duck breast comes with an apple-fennel relish, the salmon a red curry sauce, the pork a red-onion chutney. We even found something completely new to try among the appetizers: Cajun barbecued frog legs ($9), a tasty cross between chicken and rabbit, sautéed in olive oil, butter and garlic.

We found Musselduck's also to be a good value based on price, quality of ingredients and portions. With a need to get around the menu as much as possible, we ordered a Herculean amount of food: three appetizers (out of five choices), one entrée each, and a single dessert built for two. Plus two glasses of champagne as aperitif and a glass of wine each with dinner. Total bill before tip: about $97. We each walked out with significant leftovers. A more reasonable diner could easily cap the evening at under $70.

Throughout our meal, however, we couldn't help but notice how much we didn't notice things, like the other diners or the jazz duo that played softly in the background. It was as if Musselduck's has figured out a way to create private dining in an open dining room. And perhaps therein lies the secret of harmony: You almost don't notice

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