Favorite

Foraging for Green 

At Ipanema Café, stellar vegetables rise from underground.

click to enlarge food20.ipanema.148.jpg

Of course, there's more to vegetarianism than vegetables, and although the dairyless, eggless branch of veganism is well-represented here, there's also plenty of cheese and even a few meat-based dishes, such as the turkey-bacon BLT at lunch and the changing fish special at night. Nonetheless, vegetables are on stage here, and in owner Kendra Feather's hands, they make a splashy showing. Prices are moderate ($9-$15 for dinner entrées), portions are large, and the small but well-chosen wine list offers both wines by the bottle and by the glass. In addition, each week there's a different red and white wine on special, making you imagine, if you squint just a little, that you've stumbled into a wine bar — or, at least, a wine bar as defined in Richmond.

Although the hipster vibe is mostly mellow, the service is quick, thoughtful and attentive. Lunch, however, can be agonizingly slow. But it's the speed — or lack of it — in the kitchen to blame. The tattooed and black-booted servers are right there when the food finally comes out, and dinner, thankfully, has none of the pacing problems seen at lunchtime.

Lunch can be the standard Portobello-mushroom sandwich made interesting with a dollop of intense pesto on Ipanema's crumbly and addictive focaccia. The accompanying side salads of mixed greens with a curious tongue-coating tofu-based cilantro dressing and balsamic-based pasta salad are less than memorable, as is the vegan Caesar salad. Grilled tofu overwhelmed with blackening spices tops romaine, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes glistening with another odd tofu dressing that bears little resemblance to the sharp, garlicky original most people would expect. The soup of the day, broccoli, seemed too reliant on a salty vegetable broth, and though it was creamy despite a lack of dairy, it missed a distinctive punch.

At night, the same focaccia is accompanied by little dishes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as an outstanding garlicky marinara. As a hearty starter, this dish can stand in for dinner for those in a hurry. The fontina fondue, with apples, grapes and pieces of good, chewy baguette, was delicious (and, by rights, really more of a cheese dip given its lack of a flame) but had an unfortunate tendency to separate into gloppy clumps of cheese solids topped with a creamy emulsion.

But you don't want to ruin your dinner anyway, do you? You need to save room for the open-faced ravioli, a paper-thin sheet of homemade egg pasta gently hugging a pile of soft ricotta topped with such spring vegetables as sautéed fennel, pretty strips of thinly sliced sugar snap peas, bright green spinach and ribbons of vivid carrot, surrounded by a paler pool of sweet pea cream.

Vegetable dumplings turn out to be more like empanadas: Three crispy flour envelopes, edged with a bracing red pepper and garlic sauce, are stuffed with summer squash, zucchini, red and green peppers and mushrooms and piled high with even more peppers — this time, red and orange — as well as fennel and more of that gorgeous spinach.

Both dishes are too large to finish, as is the decent black bean, rice and squash burrito, faintly spiked with cumin and doused judiciously with a low-heat, high-flavor fresh tomato salsa.

The lone meat-based entrée is a moist rainbow trout, redolent of fresh sage, topping a pile of somewhat bland mushroom risotto and flanked by a slightly spicy mixture of sautéed vegetables.

Dessert at Ipanema absolves all. Warm, gooey brownies screaming with chocolate are flanked by two generous scoops of vanilla ice cream, and the fruit pie is revelatory. Large chunks of tangy rhubarb are sweetened with fragrant strawberries, then encased in a crust almost like shortbread that shatters with each bite. It's finished with a contrasting soft crumb topping. Push back your plate, and you are now ready to stumble out of the comfortable dusk of the Ipanema basement, stuffed full of food, wallet relatively intact, and suffused with satisfaction. S



Ipanema Café ($$)
917 W. Grace St.
213-0170
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Sunday, 5:30-11 p.m.



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