Close for Comfort 

How the intimate quarters at Tastebuds serve a neighborhood well.

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Running late from work on a recent Friday, I called up Tastebuds and ordered a pizza marguerite — a midsized pie of handmade dough, fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and fontina cheese — and an appetizer of goat cheese whipped with chives and served over greens with slivers of mango and thinly sliced country ham.

The proportions of this meal — not just its modest size, but also its even and fresh flavors — may make this my regular takeout jones. And I won't be alone. Considering it has only four tables and 12 seats inside its warmly painted dining room, Tastebuds is a neighborhood café where almost everyone gets takeout.

Tastebuds, in the Bellevue neighborhood, has been known for about five years as one of the top caterers in Richmond, handling events large and small. Two years ago, it got into the takeout business, offering fresh meals for folks on the fly. Last year it began offering table service, but as recent visits attest, it's clear that next to catering, takeout is the heartbeat of this micro-restaurant.

The lunch menu features a lineup of crisp salads (mixed greens and veggies, niçoise) and fresh sandwiches (ham with sliced apple and cheddar; turkey and brie with cranberry mayonnaise). A standout is the grilled cheese with fresh mozzarella, Swiss, cheddar and tomato on challah bread. The soup changes weekly, and on a recent visit the sweet potato bisque was perfectly prepared with mellow seasonings and a smooth finish.

The dinner menu features staples such as pizza, a ribeye-steak sandwich and seasonal pastas. A line of meat, fish and vegetarian features changes weekly.

Since Tastebuds doesn't take reservations, we rolled the dice and arrived at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, finding the restaurant completely empty. We helped ourselves to one of the two four-tops, but by the time we left at 8:30, half an hour after the listed closing time, the hostess had just seated her third table and there had been a steady stream of regulars placing and picking up orders to go.

For dinner we settled on a dish of chicken baked with farfalle, sun-dried tomatoes and rapini (aka broccoli rabe or broccolini) topped with Parmesan cheese — sort of a chicken cacciatore casserole — and a lightly smoked pork tenderloin. While the chicken dish was hearty and very fresh (and held up well as a leftover lunch two days later) and the tenderloin perfectly done, the sides to the pork dish were more memorable.

What is described flatly as potato salad turns out to be a room temperature dish of boiled new potatoes bathed in olive oil and seasoned with scallions and cilantro — a magnificent item. Similarly understated, the carrot and apple slaw includes jicama, the presence of which is absolutely essential to giving depth, dimension and spice to the otherwise monochromatic flavor of carrot and apple.

With homemade food it's inevitable that there will be near misses. The basil-spiked tomato and zucchini soup is fresh but flat, and the niçoise salad is marred by the raspberry vinaigrette, a poor match for tuna and olives. But these are only near misses, not utter failures.

For Tastebuds, the progression into the restaurant business seems like an afterthought — only last month, a year into it, its owners obtained an ABC license, and they have yet to adjust their credit-card machine to include a line for the tip.

But in the cozy, right-sized scale of Bellevue's modest, well-tended bungalows, Tastebuds' self-effacing approach to well-prepared meals made with fresh ingredients seems right at home. S

Tastebuds ($$)
4023 MacArthur Ave.

Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 4-8 p.m.; Friday 4-9 p.m. Closed Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. NS

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