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Paysanne gives a French twist to the American diner tradition, with delicious results.

Comfort Restyled

Paysanne, the newest eatery in Shockoe Slip, cooks with a slight French accent (as the name suggests), but it has strong roots in the old American neighborhood diner tradition.

Jim O'Toole — who grew up in his family's popular eatery, O'Toole's, in Richmond's Forest Hill — and his partners at Carytown's esteemed Acacia, Aline and Dale Reitzer, are pursuing an often-neglected niche between fast and fine food. It's a casual bistro with familiar food (but with a difference) and reasonable prices.

The trio worked at The Frog and the Redneck that once occupied this space. The interior has been reworked into a more introverted space with lots of nooks and crannies, fabric screens, and high wooden booths. It's darker, cozier and more intimate.

Reitzer has had an obvious hand in the menu, as those who frequent Acacia will recognize, but Bill Foster, the chef de cuisine who worked at the Frog and Acacia before Paysanne, executes with a deft hand, as does the pastry chef, Caroline Winslow. The wine list shows sensitivity to the menu and offers a good variety in wines and prices. And the wait staff, led by O'Toole himself, is professional and accommodating.

You could fashion an interesting meal from the starters, salads and sandwiches ($4 - $14), which include the seemingly prosaic tomato soup with grilled cheese to the more exotic mahi-mahi Reuben or luxurious foie gras with onion marmalade. In between are French classics such as escargots and pate and American choices such as corn-clam chowder or fried shrimp. Among the salads, the Gorgonzola-walnut salad with pears and Virginia ham is a symphony of flavors. An unusual variation on a Caesar is made with peppery arugula and topped with fried oysters, an interesting play of tastes and textures.

The menu features a daily entree special (from liver and onions to grilled swordfish) as well as a range of choices among fish, poultry and meat ($12 - $25). Comfort food is writ large in a dish with chicken and macaroni-and-cheese or braised short ribs. The prime rib Saturday night special ($19) is one heck of a piece of meat, and with Parmesan mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus, is about as good as it gets for a meat-and-potatoes guy.

Sauteed mahi-mahi atop a lush mushroom-shrimp risotto takes fish and rice about as far as they ever need to go (and I'd go back to have that combo again). A simple grilled pork chop, a meaty Porterhouse cut, is cooked perfectly au point, painted with an orange glaze and a touch of cumin. The accompanying cakes made with cheddar cheese and grits can change a mind about that oft-maligned grain.

It's refreshing to have a new song when it comes time for dessert. Although not exactly among the good-dollar values, the Basque custard torte ($8) is simple and delicious. A lemon tart with raspberry garnishes is also very satisfying.

In troubled times, what is familiar is often of comfort. Paysanne reflects our new culinary sophistication by offering the familiar, but with some interesting twists and turns. That's perhaps fitting for a neighborhood place in a downtown neighborhood without boundaries.

Paysanne Restaurant
1421 E. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday - Friday, 11:30 - 2
Dinner: Monday - Thursday, 5 - 10; Friday - Saturday, 5 - 11

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