If you were as confused as I was by the sudden departure of Pomegranate Euro Bistro, Kevin La Civita's French favorite that up and vanished from Shockoe Slip last year, you'll be gratified by its replacement.
The husband and wife owners of Bouchon, Francis Devilliers and Wendy Kalif, have transformed the loud, crowded intimacy of Parisian atmosphere into a sleek, modern space whose minimalism is echoed in the nouvelle portion sizes and Aÿ la carte menu. The effect focuses your attention on the experience: The plate is the primary canvas, and even there you find restraint. Rather than a bread basket, the house-baked loaves are served a slice at a time from silver tongs by the formal, though warm, staff.
Chef Devilliers focuses on traditional bistro cuisine, the oldest codified form of farm-to-table seasonality. I find what I expect — but better. The simplicity of pheasant roasted with Mirepoix, made of finely chopped carrots, celery and onions, warms a cold night with caramelized root vegetables, country ham, and the thought of hunting fowl in the Virginia countryside. I'm not in the least surprised to find a rustic rabbit stew on special. A fillet of rainbow trout offers lightness and subtle complexity, properly complimented with capers as well as lemon, butter and almonds. Everything we sample is delectable. I'm disappointed when I clean a plate, and it's easy to do so. The portions are geared toward multiple courses, though the meatier options such as the leg of lamb are a bit heftier.
The cheese platter is nearly as good as Andy Howell's rendition at Rustica. Artisanal offerings paired with figs, niAoise olives, cornichons and the like, set off interesting flavor combinations. The truffled cheese ravioli are rich enough to balance the diminutive offering.
If it seems that I'm placing too much emphasis on portion size, let me put it in context of prices. There are entrees that range in the $20s, but you'll often have to add Aÿ la carte sides at $4 a pop. I'm not sure I'd go out of my way for the $29 pepper-crusted filet mignon that comes with a choice of only one side. What I'll go out of my way for is pheasant, rabbit and venison prepared this well. Then, on my third visit, our charming and capable server announces the three-course prix fixe menu served from 5-6 p.m. for $20 a person.
The friendliness of the owners, hosts and checking after tables mitigates the formality and makes the space seem warmer, as do the frequent events that Bouchon holds, including a Tuesday date night. This is a restaurant that has all the ingredients of success and is working hard to demonstrate its value to this city. That work is evident, and evinces a restaurant struggling to claim its space in a particularly difficult market. As such, Bouchon seems to be keeping its doors open (often literally) to Richmonders seeking a top-shelf dining destination, for travelers lodging nearby, or for urban dwellers seeking the newest drop-in option.
If Bouchon can work out the financial aspects of high-end dining in this sluggish economy, it will be a testament to the owners' ability to read the market and adapt accordingly. The high-quality product is ripe and ready. But the same forces that led to the abrupt departure of Pomegranate linger right around the corner for any new establishment opening its doors, especially in the high-rent Shockoe Slip.
1209 E. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday: 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday: 5-10 p.m.
Prix fixe three-course dinner: 5-6 p.m.