Evaluating a new restaurant is a tricky business. People want to know about the latest place, but often not all the bugs are worked out, making it difficult to discern a fundamental flaw from a temporary kink.
Society American Bistro received positive buzz after its soft opening in August. People were talking about such dishes as the bacon crème brûlée ($6) with excitement about a new player on the scene. Alas, dining there in late October, the same dish was poorly executed. The crust was cold and gooey, and not crisp and glasslike, a sign it may have been prepared too far in advance. While beautifully plated, the foie gras ($12) seemed to have been quickly steamed, not seared, and was stringy instead of silken. After a couple of bites the rest was left on the plate. Maybe Society just wasn't ready to be put under the spotlight.
So in January we return to check out the new winter menu and look for improvements. Fundamentally, not much has changed. A wild mushroom risotto ($12), overcooked with blown rice, is overpowered by smoked chilies, rendering the subtle mushrooms pointless.
The chickpea falafel ($14) possesses just the right underlying heat and texture, and is quite good except that one of the two patties is burned. Similarly, the braised short rib ravioli ($22) is tasty but served tepid, a recurring issue on multiple visits. There is creative and photo-quality plating at Society. But one plate always seems to languish while the rest are being staged.
As a nightclub, however, Society shines. The music is good, the bass will run through you, but you can speak without screaming. The décor seems less gaudy at night, almost complementary to the laser-light show and billowing smoke machines.
A nightclub is about the crowd, and Society has managed to attract the right crowd. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more diverse audience of young, hip and urban. There seem to be no cliques or segregated groups while people ebb and flow the night I'm there. They are all happy and having fun in a way that I rarely see in a club. Yes, there is twerking.
The staff lacks the surliness of some other nightspots in the Bottom. Both bars have plenty of staff on hand, so even with a crowd there's no need to frantically flag down a bartender — they see you coming and greet you with a smile. The women, squeezed into very stiff corsets, are enthusiastic.
The Commonwealth of Virginia doesn't make it easy to run a nightclub in Virginia. Full liquor licenses are granted only to restaurants and, to ensure compliance, at least 45 percent of sales must be nonalcoholic. Ignoring those requirements or trying to skirt them can be perilous, as the delicensed and defunct Have a Nice Day Café found out, specifically dinged for not serving anything resembling an entree.
After the first lunch at Society, I start going through all the clubs that have gone upscale before it — many had to pull back after all the expensive glassware broke. You could watch the subtle changes and shortcuts creeping in. Some survived for years, others never pulled out of the death spiral. Which way will Society go? I don't know. Unless they get butts in the seats during food-service hours, they'll have to rethink the menu. You can't keep spending all that money on fairly expensive ingredients if they're just going to waste.
The people and staff at Society know how to put on a party. Perhaps with less complex and more consistent food, they could fill those tables and worry less about their alcohol-to-food ratio. Then they can keep that late-night party hopping. S
Society American Bistro
1421 E. Cary St.
Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.