I'm a Casanova with a conscience when it comes to dining out. I want to fall in love with every meal I tuck into, but the reviewer in me knows I can't. Because writing that you've discovered something special doesn't happen in every review. If you say it, you have to mean it.
Reviewers don't go in search of small slights and disappointing dishes — they're happy to be out and to be getting paid for their opinions. Considerate reviewers know how expensive, time-consuming and soul-sucking it can be to open and run a restaurant. Owners get more complaints than thank-yous from customers. In the era of Yelp, TripAdvisor and Instagram, food gets reviewed from the moment the doors are unlocked. It isn't fair, but that's the way it stands.
Going to a restaurant is a luxury. For many folks, it's an infrequent one. When a menu puts itself in the special-occasion category — that's more than $23 for a main course for me, but different diners have different numbers — then my expectations for food and service are higher than for a less expensive place.
Recently, Patina Grill in Short Pump was sold and relaunched as a farm-to-table place called simply Patina. It features farm ingredients from local purveyors, a pricier endeavor than bulk buying. The interior of the restaurant has stayed mostly the same but is a bit brighter. There are the timeless copper-topped tables, the comfortable wooden banquettes with pillows and the long bar and lounge with a view of the kitchen. It's a little fancy, but not so dressy that you'd feel uncomfortable dining there in blue jeans. More good news is that food quality is high, yet Patina's prices have shrunk. The bad news is that the portion sizes have too.
Ordered medium rare, my hanger steak arrives cooked to a perfect, cold-red-center rare. A few tablespoons of puréed potato are spread across the dinner plate, which isn't warmed, so they cool fast. After a couple of minutes, my food is like a puppy's nose — cold, wet and livery. The great flavors from the aerated horseradish and bordelaise sauce don't make up for the chilly presentation of undercooked meat and tiny sides. If I'm spending $27 for roughly 6 ounces of hanger steak, then I want perfection on the plate, not the urge to hit a drive-through after dinner.
The open kitchen is a fun distraction from the copper- and jewel-toned dining room. It's lively and professional, and we enjoy watching chef Kyle Cox shaving pecorino cheese over my date's chicken confit fettuccine ($25). The bowl of homemade noodles is warm and the flavors really pop in this dish, except that it needs a little salt and we have none. By the time the otherwise attentive waiter checks in, we've eaten all the escargot out of the pasta and noticed the unruly rack of industrial-sized spices and an unappealing wall above the battered hot water heater in back. Somewhere in that kitchen we know there's salt.
Chef Cox, formerly of the Blue Goat, another farm-to-table joint, sends out the best pork belly dish ($11), I've ever had. In the Bacon Age, this is saying something. Biting into the glassy top of the starter is like tearing through the paper banner of a finish line without running the race — exhilarating and deeply satisfying. Pickled veggies and a sherry gastrique cut through the crisped fat. Just awesome. Another don't-miss starter is the Rappahannock River littleneck clams ($10) served in an herby broth with brioche from D'lish bakery in Chester.
If dessert is the punctuation at the end of the dinner, at Patina it's an exclamation point. The chocolate cake ($8) is worth ordering for its presentation alone. Joan Miro-like squiggles of chocolate, vanilla and salted caramel ice cream and crunchy meringue top an architectural metamorphosis. This dessert works us over like a hustler in Times Square. It's so good I feel for my wallet.
Most nights, Patina's bar is sparsely populated. Are Short Pumpers going to the city for craft cocktails instead of hitting up Patina? They shouldn't. Moscow mules are mixed with house-made ginger ale and Manhattans are made with Buffalo Trace bourbon and smoked bitters. A fun happy-hour menu features appetizers paired appropriately with interesting wines, such as an Oregon pinot gris. Word of warning: On cold nights take a wrap. When the front door is opened, a tundra is unleashed on the bar.
It may be early to grade Patina. Do you recall those teacher phrases left on your report cards? There was "has ability in this field" and "needs improvement," two closely related observations. After reading this review, think of the first comment. All of the components are there for an exceptional restaurant — high-quality ingredients, professional staff and an interesting menu and bar program — things just need a little tweaking to be more lovable. S
3416 Lauderdale Drive
Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.