Subtlety as Virtue 

Mezzanine hits close to home.

click to enlarge food47_mezzanine_200.jpg

Mezzanine doesn't have a Web site. What it has is a Web page, a single page. It's a straightforward photo essay representing an evening at the restaurant. There's no menu link. There's no place to leave comments. The text is minimal, but the message is clear: Mezzanine is not virtual. It occurs in the real world.

 Food isn't about ideas. It's about farms and farmers, plants and animals, harvests and shipping, knives and fire, love and comfort. At least, that's what food can be. And at Mezzanine, with each plate served, partners Randy O'Dell, Patrick Stamper and Todd Johnson say, “Yes, we can.”

In addition to promising good food, these proprietors pledge a focus on sustainability. The generic meaning is taking without using up. The meaning at Mezzanine is, whenever possible, to choose ingredients raised here in Virginia. The results include less pollution from transportation, the preservation of farmland nearby, and delicious food fresh from our own rivers, our bay, our shores and our fields.

There's plenty from which to choose. Despite more than 400 years of sprawl, agriculture remains Virginia's No. 1 economic activity.

While today's organic farmers are re-evaluating their grandparents' prechemical fertilizer-gardening techniques, Mezzanine's small-world approach to cooking recalls some of Virginia's longest food rituals. After all, it's hardly innovative to serve she-crab bisque with parsnips in the commonwealth, or to offer venison to a hungry guest on a cold night. But Mezzanine revitalizes this tradition with a skill and sincerity that reclaims the concept of comfort food.

One of its biggest-selling dishes, the free-range chicken, is moist, tender, seasoned and otherwise left alone. The green beans are crisp and touched with butter and salt, and though a number of restaurants around town have mastered this often-undervalued and overcooked accompaniment, knowing that Mezzanine's produce is raised in Virginia soil adds to each bean's snap.

My venison is served in a shepherd's pie whose salsify-whipped potato crust is subtle in both texture and flavor, and though such a dish hints at a chef who wants to make use of leftover stock, the execution demonstrates how cutting waste can be a joy.

Though traditional cooking can prove limiting, the chefs in this, the city's tiniest kitchen, manage to demonstrate full appreciation for the freedom of the post-globalization sustainability trend: Buy locally, cook globally. Case in point, the union of Virginia pork and Virginia shrimp with Asian spices on a lemon-grass skewer.
 
Mezzanine's locavore focus has some obvious holes. For example, winters may be getting warmer, but bananas still aren't a Virginia crop. Purists might ask why this tropical fruit ended up in a position of honor in the fried wonton dessert. Wouldn't apples or pears have paired with the pastry and chocolate and whipped cream as well? But my daughter is not a purist, and she savors every rich and crispy bite.

Second only to a creative chef, the jewel of any establishment is a talented wait staff, and Mezzanine is twice-blessed to have its dishes explained and delivered by a team that seems to understand that the art of good service exists on a separate plane from training and job skills.

Our server's British accent reveals that he was not locally grown, but he demonstrates the rare talent of quickly and pleasantly delivering on our every request without making a pest of himself. Full and cozy in an upstairs booth, my wife and I linger over coffee and, thanks in part to a distinct and intriguing collection of contemporary (local?) art, we never once fall into the Richmond restaurant post-meal coma quandary: Which historic Fan-building-turned-brick-and-brass-grill are we in?

Mezzanine is an upscale establishment opening at the onset of one of the worst economic recessions our nation has seen. That must weigh on the minds of O'Dell, Stamper and Johnson. But the restaurant's arrival marks other historic moments of import. Think back two presidential administrations and you may remember that George Bush Sr. never once mentioned the environment during a state of the union address. Today's president-elect touts green businesses as a critical component of the nation's economic revival and healthy future. Mezzanine is riding that wave.

“We are in an era where sustainable living is not only a fad, but a necessity,” Mezzanine's Web page states. When that commitment is served up with flavor and style (i.e. when doing the right thing stops requiring sacrifice), then we seem to have reached a turning point. If it feels better, why not go green? S

Mezzanine Restaurant
3433 W. Cary St.
353-2186
Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations encouraged
Nonsmoking
Handicapped Accessible
www.mezzanine3433.com

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