We all have that friend: cool without trying, the perfect mix of geeky, hip, sexy and mature. This same friend is lovable for faults and gifts because each trait seems somehow purposeful. The Richmond dining scene has a new restaurant of this very ilk. Saison, a tiny place on Marshall Street, effortlessly slides into the role with swagger.
Your menu is placed inside a hardcover library book — an atlas, or a childhood story or a history of the Soviet Union — and becomes an automatic conversation starter. Then it's a local brew from Hardywood or a well-chosen pick from certified beer cicerone Chris Elford. It could be the music, a touch too loud, making the bartender and server discuss a delectable nightly special more vocally than normal.
It is definitely the food, with credit to co-owner and chef Adam Hall and co-owner Jay Bayer. Visually reminiscent of Kellogg's Corn Pops, an appetizer of fried corn ($4) takes crunchy to an 11. Spiced with gusano salt, Mexican worm powder — yep, ground agave worms — these smoky nuggets are perfect as a palate warm-up. Cacahuetes, or chili-spiced peanuts ($5), are habit-forming. Each handful brims with surprise — a piece of fried garlic, a nice jolt of chili or a bit of salt. Pulled oxtail ($9) is piled on small, springy, corn-dough patties for bite-size snacking. Almost too cute to be called sopes, these little appetizers are elevated with a tingly lime crema, pickled onion and delicate curtido, a cabbage relish. Browned french fries ($9) are covered with distinctly smoky trotter gravy and oxagueno, a Mexican string cheese. Your new modish buddy pulls no punches — stay, snack and sip for a while.
Poultry and waffles, old hat for Richmond, are gussied up as tender fried duck and dense pastry laced with sweet potato ($19). The dish, sweet and sticky with sorghum, has brunch written all over it. Ordering the chicken entree at a restaurant often seems a cop-out, a staid choice. But Saison brings the bird ($17) back to the yard with a low-key pepper rub and picturesque vinegary red chard. Lavender cassoulet ($11), more a Brazilian feijoada, is hearty with chunks of slow-cooked pork shoulder and tender black beans.
Vegetarians will rejoice at an oyster mushroom, chard and grit cake entree ($11). Individual components are overt in flavor, the mushroom heady with salt, the chard bracingly acidic and the grit cake crunchy. Combined, the dish is arresting in its liveliness.
The candy bar ($5) is reminiscent of a Snickers bar with peanut butter. Add the stealthy support of lime juice and gusano salt — more worms — and it's a highlight in Saison's above-average dessert repertoire.
The style elements also make this pal smoother than most. The bathroom floor is an homage to art while the walls are love letters to the staff, personal and inviting. Vinyl night on Tuesday ratchets up the cool factor. Service, though laid back, is anticipatory. Smart suggestions for alcohol pairings and seamless meal timing roll right off Saison's sleeve easily and affably. It's all like a comfortable relationship — edgy yet familiar, thoughtful but surprising and appropriately mixed. S
23 W. Marshall St.
Tuesday-Sunday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.