Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Sharp Tongue

Is dissonance with dinner a good thing? Possibly.

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It's an intimate place, 60 seats including an active bar (the only place where smoking is permitted) and a number of two-top booths, with larger ones along a wall that features local art and sculpture, votive candles in metal vines and racks of wine.

Any romantic mood, however, is jarred by the casually dressed wait staff — jeans, T-shirts, bare midriffs and microminis — who would make you feel at home keeping your trucker's hat on.

Howell is a big, hulking friendly-enough guy, but his menu reads like the "new rules" posted by Bill Maher on his popular HBO show: no children, no cell phones, no separate checks, no talking with your mouth full.

Well, it's not quite that bad, but let Howell's words speak for themselves:

"Screaming babies will be apprehended and sold for scientific experiment."

"Cell phones off, dammit. We're not kidding."

"If you are mathematically challenged and MUST have separate checks, tell your server before ordering," and "no more than two credit cards per table."

"Don't run with scissors. Don't speak with your mouth full."

And he's not kidding. Asked if the restaurant has highchairs, he said, "We don't encourage people to bring children," which for a neighborhood spot must cut down on potential business.

If this were a quiet, high-end place with top-notch cuisine, some of the rules might be reasonable, although a really classy place wouldn't need to post them.

All of which is a shame, because the food can be pretty darned good.

About half of the menu is devoted to weekly specials. The permanent offerings are built around pastas, with a choice of five different noodles and sauces, served with or without chicken. Another option is veal scaloppine prepared four ways.

The pasta dishes range from $10 to $17, while the specials are in the upper teens and lower 20s.

Regular starters include a platter of Prince Edward Island mussels with red or white sauce, and a combo of griddled shrimp, scallops and crab cakes.

There also is "soup of the moment," which recently was Manhattan-style clam chowder with a mild red sauce.

The specials, which lean heavily to seafood, show off Howell's talent in the kitchen, which in earlier incarnations was on display at Zeus Gallery Cafe and Portabella, which is greatly missed in Old Town Petersburg.

A first-rate oyster stew is cooked to order and the wait is worthwhile: six large Chincoteague oysters in a rich cream sauce punctuated with bites of bacon and kale.

A winter caprese salad contains healthy chunks of fresh mozzarella in a balsamic reduction with pasta, mixed greens and smartly substituted fire-roasted red peppers for tomatoes.

There is usually a salmon dish. One with black beans, potatoes, onions and broccoli was a bit overcooked, but not so much as to impair its flavor.

Sautéed sea scallops are another standby. An interesting version came with spicy andouille sausage and shallots, all tossed with penne in a fontina cheese sauce. For lunch, a curried chicken salad sandwich, seated on a long slice of grilled bread, was lifted out of the ordinary with a topping of Granny Smith apple slices, although the accompanying clump of potato salad was commonplace.

Another standout luncheon special combined baked scallops and country ham in a breaded crust.

Desserts made on the premises include Key lime pie, bread pudding, chocolate pté pie and chocolate lava cake.

Howell is getting ready to open a second venue, to be called Café Rustica, in Shockoe Slip on Main between Fourth and Fifth streets. Let's hope he brings along his culinary skills but leaves the attitude behind. S



Avenue 805
($$$)
805 N. Davis Ave.
353-2505
Lunch: Tuesday- Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30-11 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

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