Eclectic Bistro 

Let's Eat: 2001 Critic's Choice

2053 W. Broad St.
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m.
Dinner entrees $16-$24
Reservations accepted

Fresh raw ingredients skillfully combined for a reasonable price, delivered by professional servers in a well-managed dining room where the atmosphere is engaging, romantic and clubby, and sufficiently limited in its own attitude to accommodate yours. It's a recipe for success, and it's probably the reason Cabo's Corner Bistro has become so popular.

Cabo's is a dimly lighted, live-music lounge known for its regular lineup of jazzy contemporary musicians. It's a fun place and it hops on the weekends with a real cross-town mix of well-dressed folks. On the other side of the wall, Cabo's newest chef, Doug Haver, offers a reliable menu of American cuisine in a smartly attired room run by pro servers.

Searing and grilling are the hallmarks of Haver's cooking — duck, grouper, salmon, veal, pork tenderloin, lamb, chicken. He takes this American genre and blends it with world-influenced sauces and sides (there's nary a jus or reduction in sight) designed to complement and juxtapose rather than deepen and extend. Some examples: grilled chicken breast with charred onions and mango-red chili salsa ($16); pan-seared scallops with smoked tomato sauce and prosciutto ($20); calamari with lemon-wasabi mayonnaise ($6, appetizer); filet mignon wrapped with applewood-smoked bacon over roasted-shallot mashed potatoes with red wine sauce ($28).

Haver has taken the extra step of suggesting wines from the well-edited list with each entrée. The staff has the knowledge and grace also to help you make a different choice if you let them. And you should. Had I listened more carefully, I might have better enjoyed my quail with the suggested Pinot Grigio than with the Merlot.

Cabo's menu changes regularly, and the summer menu was set to begin as this issue went to deadline. But the theme will remain the same: fresh ingredients, minimally prepared with savory accompaniments in a roomy uptown atmosphere. Bam! Success. — N.P.

2527 W. Main St.,
Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Average Entrée Price:
Reservations accepted

From Main Street, Helen's doesn't look like much to get excited about, but take a peek at the menu posted on its glass front, and it's a different story. If sampling the work of an educated and serious kitchen is high on your list of priorities, Helen's ought to be on your list of restaurants to visit.

Helen's falls squarely in the ranks of the now-familiar diner-turned-high-end-bistro genre. Its dynamic menu offers intelligent and highly creative food prepared without formality and pretense. Each dish aspires to be a composition of minidishes that complement each other in terms of taste, color and texture to form a single artistic plate sometimes adorned with fanciful garnishes.

Look for innovative treatments and high-end ingredients that build off traditional cuisine, such as smoked duck cannelloni, white asparagus with persimmon vinaigrette, or tuna carpaccio with roasted garlic aioli. Some of the innovations at Helen's lean toward the wild side, but they almost always work. Take the flaming Fudgsicle, a rich square of fudgelike chocolate sauced with crŠme anglaise, splashed with liqueur and set on fire.

Inside, Helen's retains some of the feel of a small Fan diner — a characteristic that makes for an uncommonly laid-back environment in which to sample some of Richmond's most cutting-edge culinary art. Service here is good but casual, maybe even a little disinterested at times. Dinner at Helen's is a must for foodies, but don't be fooled by its pedestrian appearance — your wallet can take a pretty hard hit.

B. Ifan Rhys

2603 E. Main St.
Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday5:30-10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Brunch: Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrees $15-$21
Accepts early reservations for parties of six or more

Deftness is an attribute valued more highly than all others in the kitchen. To say a chef has "skill" is a compliment, but the description is limiting in a way. To say she has "talent" suggests further growth ahead. To say she is "deft," however, presumes skill and suggests accomplishment as well as a host of other good things like flexibility, a cool head and an ability to focus intensely at a subconscious level.

John Elliott, Holly Winston, Chris Bak and Russell Cook — the deft chef quartet behind Millie's Diner — divide responsibility for the menu between imaginative appetizers and luxury entrees. This deftness gives Millie's the ability to change its menu every three weeks, and to plate creative concoctions with convincing facility: lavender mashed potatoes; chocolate-beet drizzle; goat-cheese and melon quesadilla with avocado crŠme fraiche; smoked frog legs with alligator étouffée and sweet corn beignets.

They get away with these fanciful flights because they also turn out a line of standard entrees with authority: braised lamb shank with white beans and shiitake ragout; ravioli with brown-butter tomato sauce; pepper-encrusted New York strip with roasted-shallot demi glacé.

The food is white-linen tablecloth to the chrome-and-Formica image conjured by the word "diner," and the atmosphere is a glitzy, glossy, kinetically charged mix of diner adolescence with downtown urban hip. But the result is a delicious American paradox. - N.P.

3416 Lauderdale Dr.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.; Sunday 5-9:30 p.m.
Average dinner entree $15-$24
Reservations accepted

Patina Grill has been doing interesting things since opening in mid-1998 in the Wellesley area. Chef and co-owner Brian Munford graced the kitchens of several illustrious Richmond eateries — Millie's, Zeus Gallery, Havana '59 — before opening his own place. He also spent a decade of good culinary time on the coast of northern California, which has been a hotbed of innovative cooking for at least a couple of decades.

Munford is a master of culinary diplomacy, bringing together elements that many would see as warring factions. An Indian-style rack of lamb, for instance, not only has Indian accompaniments — mango chutney, raita (a cucumber-yogurt condiment), black lentils, and pappadoms — but also Middle Eastern hummus, tabouli and grilled eggplant. The main ingredients are staples in both cuisines, and the flavors coalesce peacefully for a harmonious medley.

The space that Patina occupies, home to at least two previous restaurants, has been simplified so that textures and materials are the main decoration. The copper tabletops and candle-lanterns add interesting warmth, as mirrors add a sense of space. The result is simple and unobtrusively sophisticated, as is much of the food.

Fusion has been a hot culinary fashion for the last several years. Munford's offerings seem to stem from instinct and intuition rather than a desire to create something different. Even if you're a basic-food person, you may find that what seems strange at first is really rather nice. — D.M.

201 N. Belmont Ave.
Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.; Brunch Saturday-Sunday
9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner entrees $13.95-$23.95
No reservations accepted

Zeus Gallery is a charming, sophisticated little eatery tucked in a side street in the western edge of the Fan. Because of its diminutive size and well-deserved popularity, a longish wait is the norm here. But don't be alarmed, waiting at Zeus Gallery can be an enjoyable experience. The extremely pleasant and professional staff will keep you supplied with drinks while you feast your eyes on whatever local art is featured on the walls. Or, if performance art is your pleasure, take in the rhythmic and deliberate dance of the chef as he plies his well-practiced trade behind the bar.

Zeus Gallery's frequently changing menu emphasizes fresh seasonal ingredients. It is cleverly displayed on portable chalkboards that are temporarily propped up in front of booths for viewing convenience. What details the chalkboards leave out, the servers are happy to supply. Entrees range from creative vegetarian preparations to hearty steaks, duck, crab cakes and fish. This kitchen proves that flattop grills aren't just for fried eggs and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Here that ubiquitous piece of diner equipment is put to good use to create, among other things, Zeus Gallery's signature white truffle potato cakes, a puck-size disc of mashed potatoes grilled to crunchy golden brown and paired with various specials.

Zeus Gallery is somewhat famous for its dessert menu which makes this place a good candidate for a late-night coffee and dessert visit. I'm told the melting Belgian-chocolate cake has a fan base that far exceeds the Richmond metropolitan area. — B.I.R.


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