Intentional Indulgence 

Chef Kevin La Civita satisfies the sophisticated diner at Pomegranate.

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We pass Fountain Bookstore, where a local poet has drawn a boisterous crowd. We pass the fountain. Then, just before the hill crests, we turn through an open doorway and into the brick and tile coolness of Pomegranate Euro Bistro.

Gazing from our table out onto the spring street, I think: This could almost be Paris. And then the food arrives, and dish after dish from the menu of chef/owner Kevin La Civita bolsters the fantasy.

Asparagus ice cream? Chocolate soup? Those aren't typos: One is a traditional French dish; one is an accidental creation; and both are evidence of La Civita's professional philosophy — which he tells me after my unannounced visit in a follow-up interview. It's this, he says: "Knowing the basics — textures, flavors — and throwing things together to see what works."

From house-made lobster ravioli with lavender brown butter to pomegranate- marinated pork tenderloin with roasted pears and a pear mustard, the entrées on Pomegranate's menu, which range from $19 to $24, reflect La Civita's classical training and his vivid imagination.

I was so impressed with my experience at Pomegranate that I had to speak to the chef in person afterward, which is out-of-the-ordinary for a critic. But I just love talking to other chefs — especially ones who are having so much fun with their successes.

"When I left Richmond in '87, it was all meat and potatoes," La Civita said. "Every place was serving up the same thing, and that was what customers wanted." Nearly two decades later, the Culinary Institute of America graduate revels in the change he's seen in this city. "Public knowledge of food has increased so dramatically," he says. "People are ordering interesting fish and expecting good sauces."

At Pomegranate they'll find both. Take, for example, the whole roasted bronzino atop mascarpone polenta cake with sautéed spinach. The branzino, our server explained, is a Mediterranean saltwater fish similar to a trout. On that night the fish was lightly seasoned, seared and finished in the oven in the same pan to retain all the natural juices. We were even instructed in which directions to pull the fork tines to remove the meat from the bones. These sorts of tableside explanations were commonplace, and the staff seemed at ease educating customers without any sense of condescension. "The more people are educated," La Civita said, "the more adventurous the cuisine can be. It's a real win-win."

Pomegranate's customers can expect an experiential education in the real French sense of proportion and interplay between all elements on the plate. The idea is that flavors complement each other. "Not any one thing is perfect," La Civita said. Instead, the flavors are meant to combine. Take the pork tenderloin: The caramelization of the roasted pears and the sweet and pungent pear mustard matched perfectly when combined with the pork's natural juices. Beneath this strong harmony of flavors, the simple potato rosti and sautéed broccoli rabe provided a balanced foundation.

This principle carried over even when the chef was presenting meat and potatoes. A New York strip was adorned with strikingly flavorful gray sea salt, and white truffle oil was whipped into the potatoes to provide that little something to make the ordinary memorable.

A new summer menu should begin its run near the end of June, and La Civita is already thinking and tasting and placing phone calls. Even though he's serving to just 49 seats in the dining room, he uses upward of six purveyors to ensure the best quality produce, fish and meat. When putting together specials, he'll let the marketplace help him. And when he's standing in a kitchen surrounded by the freshest ingredients, he'll begin to play.

There's a twinkle in his eye when he discusses the accidental creation of chocolate soup (it started out as a chocolate pate). And there's a candid seriousness when he talks about the concept of Pomegranate: intimate, sophisticated.

As "La Vie en Rose" resonated off old brick walls, two sets of old friends happened through the open door, and by dessert our server confided that it was his last shift before flying off to Paris to propose. As I relaxed over coffee, I thought of Persephone and the pomegranate, how just one taste trapped her forever. I brought the last of the Chantilly crème from the chocolate soup to my lips, and I realized just how sweet and decadent is surrender. S

Pomegranate ($$$)
1209 E. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-10:00 p.m.

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