Standing in the garden room on one soft opening night, the air seemed to feel different. It was impossible to fail to get excited about this new-concept place. Using such words as natural, local, organic and affordable, Selba, in the old Cliff’s Honda on Cary Street, stirred an immediate buzz. The website says the restaurant wants us to get to know the food that fuels our bodies and provides us pleasure and entertainment. Who isn’t down with that?
The space is gorgeous. Obvious care was taken with the renovations, though not without contradiction. A plant-laden garden room is breathtaking with Tiffany-like lamps, large retractable windows … and flat-screen televisions. Vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free people can grub down on organic fare right next to the meat eaters beside the smokers in an additional lavish smoking room. A piano player sits up front, working through dinner and brunch and bringing the feel of a hotel bar to the casual setting.
On one visit, the beginning of the meal is elegant. Service is erudite. Items are described flawlessly and wine pushed knowingly. The wine list has a taste of Virginia with Barboursville options; the beer list features the heavily hyped New Belgium 22-ounce ($8), Czech lager Staropramen ($5) and draft Franziskaner wheat beer ($6).
A salad of gala apples, mixed field greens and hearts of palm ($6) hits sweet and vinegary notes. The tri-tip steak salad ($9) is capery and loaded with meat but missing the menu-advertised steak sear and the Stilton. A bone-in pork chop special ($21) is overtly flavored with sweet, sour and ginger, but a timing misfire renders it undercooked and sloppily served. The accompanying baby bok choy and Israeli cous cous arrive swimming in sauce.
Baked pasta ($15) blends chickpea ditalini pasta, braised lamb, tomato ragout, mushrooms, feta and fresh mozzarella. The exterior is crisp but the interior is doughy and cold. An apologetic, gracious and all-knowing waitress more than makes up for the problems, and the night ends with soft, creamy milk stout and chocolate ice cream ($4) and a tart Virginia apple tatin ($5).
Three subsequent meals are the service antithesis of this experience. Buttery white-wine-soaked mussels (half a pound for $6) are plopped down without the necessary tools. The smell is inviting, but the wait for utensils takes its toll on the temperature. Specials aren’t given until prompted. A beautifully dressed plate of fish served to someone else never was mentioned. But the grilled culotte steak ($20) is flavorful and tender. Room-temperature potato salad, smoky and thick with dressing, overwhelms the delicate herbed butter topping the steak. Chopped and braised ruby chard, also served room temperature, is rich with garlic. Marble potatoes ($4), a side dish made curiously with long fingerling potatoes, lack seasoning. Parmesan quinoa ($6) is appealing but in need of never-to-be-found salt. Servers take too long to bring the checks, and mingling with friends seems far more important than a paying patron.
In its attempt to be everything to everyone, Selba sometimes falters when it comes to a key component of dining. The beautiful space and above-average food is begging to be the bar right now. And it could be. With some focus on server training, this attractive restaurant could, and should be, enchanting. S
Correction: This online version reflects a correction from the print edition, which erroneously said Selba was located in the former Honda House.Selba ($$) 2416 W. Cary St.