Like its namesake, Richmond's Zeus Gallery Café is not perfect. Take its décor. Though the newly expanded dining room is attractive and comfortable, the ceramic-cow sugar holders and mismatched coffee mugs disqualify it from the realm of historic elegance and self-conscious style found elsewhere in town.
But who cares? This Museum District favorite offers food that is, in a word, divine.
The bistro-style chalkboard menu, which changes daily to reflect seasonal availability and taste, offers nearly everything but Greek cuisine. The owners describe their food as New American, which can mean anything from updates on standard dishes to eclectic and fusion. Confused? Think of an eclectic menu as dishes from around the globe sharing space on a single menu. When used properly, the word fusion means different ethnicities blending tastes or techniques on a single plate. Zeus' menu is best described as: a little from column A, a little from column B, with the common threads of innovation and deliciousness.
I offer as evidence three very different seafood appetizers. The fried oysters with sambal mayo blend the flavors of the American South and the Asian South with the eponymous Thai chili-garlic sauce infiltrating the typical remoulade (a super-tangy mayo-based sauce). Paired with the incredibly crisp breading (Do I discern the presence of corn flakes?) and plump, sweet oysters, this dish makes an engaging start to the meal, though the Olympic-size portion makes it nearly a meal in itself.
On another visit I discovered a truly tasty fusion and a twist on a classic in the shrimp- and goat-cheese-stuffed wontons and the seared sea scallops with prosciutto-wrapped figs. The wontons were a bit of deep-fried heaven with ample shrimp and goat cheese blending with the classic pair of Chinese sauces: hot mustard and plum, the latter made truly sublime with fresh plums and gently caramelized shallots.
The dozen sea scallops were beautifully seared and complimented by a balsamic reduction and high-quality, extra virgin olive oil. What lifted this dish from the realm of the ordinary, however, was the pairing with three prosciutto-wrapped figs; this made for a heavenly dining experience as I alternated bites of the two flavors and textures.
The entrees, which range from $19 for a jambalaya-inspired dish to $36 for Zeus' surf and turf (filet and crab cake) were variable in origin and execution, and singular in quality.
The filet of beef is by no means a mignon (small) cut. The portion that I was served must have exceeded 12 ounces. It was a bit charred for my liking, especially since I ordered it medium rare, but the quality of the beef made it enjoyable nonetheless, as did the demiglace I selected from a number of sauce choices. While the crab cake was good, the potato cake promised the flavor of truffles, but failed to fully deliver. Both the portion size and the overall quality made the entrée worth the ticket price, though I wish I'd ordered as wisely as my wife, who selected the orange-cilantro glazed, roasted duck.
Here was a truly vibrant dish. Infusing a classic a l'orange treatment with Thai accents sambal and cilantro and accompanied by rice noodles, julienne carrots and peapods, the flavor of this fusion bordered on celestial.
Full of faith in Zeus' kitchen, a later visit found me trying a spicier option at the lower end of the price scale. The adobo chicken with chorizo, corn and jalapenos over jasmine rice turned out to be a Mexican adaptation of jambalaya. In this instance, however, there wasn't a rich sauce to help meld the flavors. The dish was piquant and filling, but I wondered with every bite how it might have been improved.
Desserts at Zeus are ambrosia. The Melting Belgian Cake chocolate ganache oozing from chocolate cake under freshly whipped cream is worthy of paragraphs of praise. If this were a perfect review I would venerate each sinfully sweet item, and still have space for praising the excellent service. The ancient Greeks, with their emphasis on hospitality to strangers, would have been proud. Alas, I am a mere mortal, though at least I am a mortal who knows where to go to rub elbows with the gods. For Richmond food lovers, Zeus Gallery is hallowed ground. S
Zeus Gallery Café ($$$)
201 N. Belmont Ave.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Prix-fixe Lunch: Friday noon -2:30 p.m.