A voice mail shares how to get on the list for the by-invite-only happy hour on select Thursdays (all of them). An online campaign suggests a password (though I have yet to use one) to get into the speak-easy on weekend nights. Intrigue abounds. How very cloak and dagger.
But it's on a regular Wednesday night, after finding a parking space on Second Street, that we make our way to Mansion Five26, the restaurant that sits within these spy-worthy confines. A regal white exterior greets us, but a bouncer directs us down an alley to a covert side door. Really? Are we in Richmond?
A smartly dressed hostess greets us cheerfully. Once we're seated and given menus, a waitress appears. Competently bounding through wine selections — a chardonnay here, a meritage there — she gives us the specials, takes our selections and moves languidly to other tables.
Keeping trendy, the beginning of the menu is all small plates, aka tasty plates. Luckily, the bigger plates are tasty as well. Drop biscuits named Mrs. Crown, with smoked ham and Dijon ($5), are just playful enough to stay out of the same old ham-biscuit territory. Aged pickled beets ($5), surprisingly served warm, are addicting with a ciderlike fragrance. Three sliders ($9) — crab cake, meatloaf and pork, sitting on an ample nest of mesclun — have nondescript rolls redeemed by what's inside. The crab cake is crab-full and sweetly dressed with sriracha mayo. The meatloaf, more of a meatball, is crispy to the point of toughness but has hearty flavor. Among the three, the pulled pork shines, tender and roasty. Devil-lish eggs ($6), a wannabe rendition of the Italian egg with tuna sauce, fall only because of an easily rectified stumble: a poorly hard-boiled egg.
The larger plates stay within the advertised Southeastern theme but run the gamut in execution. A sausage plate is large enough for two or more but arrives overcooked, with tough and chewy links. The risotto-style jasmine rice tastes bizarrely like grape jam. The side of beans is spicy enough for a warning. But the chicken and waffle dish ($16) is virtuous. Boneless and barely breaded but crispy, the salty chicken sits over a closer-to-savory sweet waffle. Maple syrup is welcome and not overwhelming. Served with the same fire-wielding beans and macaroni and cheese that's light, easy on the cheese and crisp, the dish is a highlight and substantial enough to eat for breakfast the next morning.
The dessert menu is brief and all house-made. The cheesecake ($6) must be spectacular — it isn't available on any of my stops. A flourless chocolate cake is satisfying except for the detracting cheap chocolate syrup.
Décor stays in the 007 realm. Swoopy and sophisticated bench-style seating frames some walls and adds intimacy. Hardwood and where-do-they-go staircases add mystery. It's private dining room upstairs, seating 16. Attention to a few details, such as removing dead flowers, finishing paint touches and addressing the exposed speak-easy ceiling, would round out the otherwise expensive and exclusive look.
The password is no surprise: shaken not stirred. S
526 N. Second St.
Lunch Wednesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner Wednesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.