With the opening of Balliceaux in 2009, a new era for Richmond restaurants was ushered in — one that included the importance of green building practices and that emphasized local ingredients.
Six years later, the space still qualifies as one of the most stylish in town, and music man and Style calendar editor Chris Bopst has created a top-tier performance venue in the back room. But once the chef who created its first menu, Russell Cook, left to teach at Culinard, Balliceaux’s food lost its way. While scores of people packed the place for live music, storytelling and dance parties, few of us — me included — chose to eat there first.
Wisely, management decided to reboot this summer by closing and reopening with minor renovations, a new name for the kitchen, Kampot, and a fresh approach to the cuisine of French-influenced Southeast Asia, while changing nary a hair on Balliceaux’s metaphorical trendy head.
One of the original trailblazers when true mixology finally arrived in the city, the bar menu is creatively solid with cocktails. Try the LSD and Motorbikes containing classic Bols Genever, a sweeter form of gin made from a recipe dating to 1820.
Be sure to read all the way to the bottom of the menu, though, because the three house-made sodas ($5) exemplify an impressive attention to detail. There’s a purity to the kick of the ginger beer that you’ll feel dancing on your tongue, while the L3, a blend of lavender, litchi and lemonade, comes across as feminine beauty in drinkable form. In the starring-soda role is root beer, complete with a mustache-making creamy head. It bears no resemblance to anything you’ve likely been served from a can, bottle or fountain.
On a menu divided into garden, land, sea, Siam-wich, and rice and noodles, diners will find abundant gluten-free and vegan temptations, including a chocolate avocado pie ($7), so good that omnivores won’t miss the dairy. Praise goes to Kampot for making two sizes available for most dishes, a practice I’d like to see in more restaurants. To order, pencils are provided to mark up the menu, sushi-style.
Get the party started with shishito peppers sprinkled with sea salt ($6/$12). While the East Asian variety is typically sweet, there’s always the chance you’ll hit that one random spicy pepper and things will get unexpectedly lively. Another dish that marries Asia to Virginia is a multitextured salad of green papaya, grape tomatoes and local peanuts ($5/$10). Eating vegetables is a pleasure when they’re seared mushrooms and crispy shallots that get a kick from toasted chili ($7/$14).
Heat heads, take note: The grilled, marinated pork shoulder ($9/$18) arrives with the yin and yang of sassy jaew dipping sauce, a Thai standard of red pepper flakes, soy and fish sauces and accompanied by iced yu choy leaves to tamp out the fire in your mouth. Rosy pink, seared hangar steak ($9/$18) all but melts in my mouth, and while tarted up with tamarind sauce, it’s so flavorful, it shines even without it. Pickled cabbage adds piquancy to caramelized, boneless chicken thighs ($8/$16), making for a quintessential winter meal.
On my third visit, our server rhapsodizes so long about the slow-poached octopus ($9/$18) that it seems foolish to ignore the advice of experience. Tender as a scallop and swimming in a pool of toasted chili oil and lime, it deserves to be one of Kampot’s signature dishes. Fragrant, red curry gives steamed cod in banana leaf ($11) some serious personality while the leaf ensures that the fish is delightfully moist. The only sea creatures that disappoint are steamed clams with chorizo ($8/$16), a surprisingly bland dish that rates wallflower status at this dinner dance. Try cabbage three ways ($6/$12) — Thai basil, chili and Virginia peanuts — for a beautifully balanced plate of crunch and flavor to complement the many protein offerings.
One of the brightest flavor combinations is a distant cousin of the New England classic, a lobster Siam-wich ($13) dressed up with Kampot’s lemon vinaigrette and local greens. Closer to home, Carolina sea salt tops fried chicken skins ($6/$12), a drier version than classic Southern preparations, but no less difficult to stop eating.
Sufficient longtime Balliceaux staffers carry over to ensure mostly smooth service while patience helps in dealing with a novice who hovers. Rare is the restaurant that boasts a sleek room, moody lighting and a kitchen turning out food as enjoyable as what we’re listening and dancing to in the back room. S
Kampot at Balliceaux
Mondays-Thursdays 6-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 6-10:30 p.m.; Sundays 6-9 p.m.
203 N. Lombardy St.