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Food Review: Coda has mastered the art of space — and its menu isn’t far behind.

click to enlarge Coda’s expertly prepared rockfish is grilled and served over cilantro rice.

Scott Elmquist

Coda’s expertly prepared rockfish is grilled and served over cilantro rice.

Much like many Richmond restaurants that used to be something else, the hope for Coda is that a renovated space, new menu and fresh vibe will sustain what its predecessor couldn’t.

Opened in the fall, Coda took over the spot of the late Gibson’s Grill. But other than a cross-marketing plan with the National next door, new owners Dave Peterson, of the band Fighting Gravity, and partners Doug Brown and Daniel Delgado have wiped away any trace of the old.

What they’ve created is a beautiful space with layers of elemental texture — wood, stone and glass. And on looks alone, Coda is one of my new favorites. Seriously, people, it’s gorgeous inside, especially at night when the masterful lighting scheme gives everyone a washy, dreamy glow.

It’s a great space, but I have questions when it comes to some of the food. In the five months Coda’s been open, the menu has changed a few times along with the chef and kitchen staff. Management says it's still figuring out what people want.

Most of what I try sits within the spectrum of fine to good. But because the owners have set such a high visual bar with the design — and prices to match — the menu could stand another edit and more attention to overall flavor to get it up to great.

The appetizers are generally solid and swerve, as they should, from basic to interesting. The butter lettuce salad ($7) and Brussels sprouts ($9) are simple people pleasers. So is the chicken liver pâté ($10), which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Coda’s version seems like chicken liver pâté light — only slightly minerally and more like chicken mousse. Still lovely.

The accompaniments do all the work for the smoked fish ($10). Whipped lardo, grilled sourdough squares and egg are delicious on their own, and I skip over the tuna, which tastes like it’s out of a can.

The fried chicken entrée ($18) is bombastic and demands all eyes. Hunks of thick, golden crusty skin beckon to be ripped away and consumed without a shred of the tender juicy meat. But there isn’t much seasoning to speak of, and the overall flavor can be described simply as fried. I’m thankful for the healthy scoop of creamy mac ’n’ cheese, and the sweet house-made pickles are a treat.

The rockfish ($24) is expertly prepared: charred on the outside and tender all the way through. Green-tinted cilantro rice also is bright in flavor, but the bottom schmear of harissa is too smoky and comes off as dead weight.

There’s a bit of a rationing crisis for the accompaniments around the skirt steak ($23), which is sliced thin and is slightly tough, as this cut often is. My complaint is with the roasted potatoes and parsnips. They’re tasty, but there are so very few of them. I’m all for normal-sized portions, but this is skimpy.

Even skimpier is the scarlet runner bean entrée ($16). We actually stifle giggles at the lack of food on the plate. These beans are larger than most — but still, they’re beans, and there are less than a dozen mingling with even fewer root vegetables. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the staff, and our server swoops in minutes later with a heaping bowl of more beans, and the manager follows with an apology. Much appreciated. There’s still the problem of a mound of dense, starchy beans served with starchy roots. Not much nuance.

At lunch during daylight hours, there’s less of the magical glow, and the menu is a casual affair that’s heavy on sandwiches. The tacos carnitas appetizer ($7) is a nice alternative and a great deal. Two tacos are piled with shredded pork, creamy refried beans, queso fresco and plenty of cilantro.

The best part of the fried rockfish sandwich ($12) is the side salad. I hope for crunchy golden breading (with seasoning), but this is pan-fried with no breading, and the paprika aioli isn’t bold enough to carry the show.

So no, not everything at Coda is perfect. And some prices seem high for the problems. (And ahem, $3 seltzer from the soda gun?) That said, it’s worth going for a cocktail just to bask in the glow and to check out the glittery speak-easy bar downstairs, which could become the coolest in Richmond. The upside is that Coda seems intent to keep trying, and once the folks figure out what they do really well, it will be the gem it’s dressed to be. S

700 E. Broad St.
Mondays 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; Tuesdays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-midnight; Fridays 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturdays 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays during shows at the National.


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