Esperanto Makeover 

Bonvenu gets new juices flowing in Carytown.

click to enlarge food12_bonvenu_200.jpg

Fans of venerable Carytown favorite the Track will be surprised by its transformation into Bonvenu. The classic dark wood and brass of the former establishment have given way to gentler curves and a lighter atmosphere. Bright splashes of contemporary art adorn the walls, and blown-glass lamps hang at various intervals throughout the cozy dining room.

That warmth is echoed in the demeanor of the stellar staff, at once welcoming and serious, knowledgeable about ingredients and preparations and how to put diners at ease.

The cuisine is an extension of the ideals of Esperanto, a language fusion that in theory makes enough sense that from whichever vantage point you approach, you'll find the familiar and the unexpected.

On our first visit, we note the changes to the dAccor and study the menu with eager anticipation. Everything sounds good — whole prawns, beggar's purses of crab and tasso ham, various chops, rack of lamb, rainbow trout — but will the execution live up to the promise? 

The appetizers arrive quickly after a basket of homemade rolls and honey butter hits the table. The beggar's purses are the instant favorite and forks collide, scooping up the phyllo-encased goodness with dollops of lemon-herb crA"me fraArche. The prawns are intimidating to some in our party — with heads and tails attached they pose a bit of a challenge — and when we dig in we're disappointed. The meat is strangely limp and flavorless, a far cry from the experience I had at a restaurant in France a few years back. Instead of tasting of the ocean, these taste more of the freezer, which might explain the odd consistency. When we return a couple of weeks later the prawns have disappeared, thankfully, but sadly so have the Peppadew peppers and mesclun greens dressed with a snappy vinaigrette.

The entrees are huge in proportion and nicely executed. An inch-thick veal chop is nicely grilled, tender and full of flavor. The crab cakes are some of the best I've had lately, mostly lump meat with little filler and complimented with delicate lemon-chive butter and a too-sweet remoulade. I prefer mine a bit tangier. The vegetarian risotto leaves something to be desired in the creativity department, simply topped with a variety of grilled veggies, and feels a bit like an afterthought.

Where I think things fall short is in rounding out the plate. The wilted spinach seems to be sautAced in too much olive oil, rather than actually wilted. The spicy broccoli raab is over- seasoned and the mascarpone mashed potatoes, which should be a subtle foil to the plethora of vibrant sauces, are overwhelmed by far too much garlic.

But we're quite satisfied and discuss our approval of the new incarnation of the space over coffee and desserts. A delicious mocha crA"me brA¯lAce disappears quickly, but the chocolate cake with espresso icing is dry and unremarkable.

On our return trip we sample the calamari appetizer, which is better than average, but the remoulade is again cloyingly sweet and the marinara is somewhat lifeless. The gigantic pork chop stuffed with tasso ham and caramelized onions tastes like a steamy night in Havana, in a good way, with accents of cumin and citrus. This is a dish to return for. The mushroom ravioli promises a light cream sauce, but is that ever true? It's good anyway, with a wild mushroom ragout and crA"me fraArche giving it plenty of complexity, and we take half of it with us, happily.

The vibe here is quite different from the Track and the kinks in the menu are steadily working themselves out. With the new owners on premises throughout service, the necessary adjustments that will make this a top-notch establishment are being implemented. And that's what it takes to succeed in the toughest business on earth: You can't kid yourself into thinking things work just because you want them to, you have to survey the dining room, read the scene, and be open to letting the clientele show you what's working and what's not. That's why I'm confident that by summer this place will be entirely on point. S

Bonvenu ($$-$$$)
342-1003
2915 W. Cary St.
Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday: 5-10 p.m.
Lunch: Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
bonvenu.com
Handicapped accessible

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