In a city where it seems there's a new restaurant to try every week, how do you compete, especially if you're off the beaten path — not to mention cozied up next to a place like Mamma 'Zu, which is, in many ways, synonymous with Richmond dining? You come up with a unique concept, branding yourself in a way that's so completely different, the masses can't help but notice.
This seems to be the idea behind L'Opossom sur la Colline de l'Oregon Hill, previously Eat by Pescados China Street, and before that, just plain Pescados. L'O, as it's written on the door, is neither French nor marsupial-focused, and the aesthetic inside the dark-brown brick building at Pine and China streets smacks of the youngest kid in the room dressed in a kooky get-up while jumping up and down yelling: "Look at me! Look at me!"
Character seems to work for Oregon Hill, and the kitschy-baroque décor includes — but isn't limited to — deep-red walls lined with "Star Wars"-themed decorative plates and a gallery of thrift-store art, shaggy latch-hook pillows, bejeweled pendant lighting and a clown bathroom you must experience for yourself. There's tension between all this stuff, and while it seems that it shouldn't work together, it kind of does.
Part of the menu works this mishmash theme, and you can tell that chef David Shannon had a grand old time coming up with his eclectic spread, plates and spirits. You'll need help figuring out what some of the long-winded items are, such as the Chapel Creek oysters rock in a green fairy fog of absinthe mist ($10). This isn't a ding. Let it be known that I love all wordplay, and it was a blast to read and decipher the menu — with assistance from the staff. It's a wonderful bunch, pros who swoop in greeting, welcoming, directing and guiding.
But with so many promises in those words, this is where expectations get in the way of reality. Despite the colorful name, the heavy layer of creamed spinach on the oysters rock flattens the delicate flavor, texture and associated fairy fog — a creative exploration indeed, but overkill. The Fabergé egg bedazzled with caviar and vodka-laced accoutrements et les jigglès de la champagne rosé ($11) has the most fun-sounding name (go on, say it aloud), but turns up as overdressed deviled eggs with nowhere to go. L'Opossom seems unaware that it doesn't need all the extras here. Ditch the accoutrements, keep the caviar and re-brand it as les petits oeufs sur le grand oeuf.
The other small plates we sample are better, but still seem to promise more in name than taste. The dandelion vichyssoise ($7) is two creams shy of fancy french onion dip, and two bites are plenty. As someone who brakes for tacos, I have high expectations for the El Dorado low rider, a lobster taco boldly priced at $11. Another $6 buys you the chef's surprise. The surprise (spoiler alert) is a lump of out-of-place foie gras that doesn't work alone or with the taco. On the upside, large lumps of lobster are plentiful — and when does that ever happen?
Speaking of upsides, the menu gets a whole lot better with the mains. Aside from one miss, soggy fried chicken and waffles I'm convinced are an anomaly, L'Opossom's entrées are a hit, singing three-part harmonies of flavor, texture and presentation. They also elicit muffled moans at least twice: once for the grouper, which sidles up to layers of succotash and Surry sausage ($27), hitting all the sweet and salty notes, and the other for the rack of lamb ($27), arriving pink in a shallow pool of velvety, lavender bordelaise that deserves its own bowl and spoon.
The roasted chicken breast ($18) normally would function as a safety-menu item, but not so here. Tender meat and crispy skin wade in blackberry pan juices, making it a standout. And the earthy, cider-braised rabbit (leg and loin) is served with gingersnap spaetzle ($24), tasting of fall comfort.
Dessert, like the appetizers, looks just a wee bit better in print than in real life — except for the lavender-limoncello crème brûlée ($8). The custard achieves the appropriate juxtaposition of light and firm, with subtle hints of perfume and citrus. La petite mort, a flaming chocolate bar ($8), is dense and rich, and comes to the table actually on fire.
There's a lot to love about L'Opossom: It's creative, it's fun, and it's a welcome respite from newer, design-oriented restaurants that often feel too precious. It has a strong, bold base from which to work. And if the French-style adage of less is more were applied here and there, it could achieve that magical balance of tastiness and consistency. It could be a contender as the other Oregon Hill destination. S
Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.
626 China St.