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Patina Grill draws from diverse cultural elements to create a harmonious medley of flavors. 

Culinary Diplomacy

Patina Grill has been doing interesting things since it opened back in mid-1998 in the Wellesley area. Chef-owner Brian Munford graced the kitchens of several illustrious Richmond eateries — Millie's, Zeus Gallery, Havana '59 — before opening his own place. He also spent a decade of good culinary time on the coast of northern California, which has been a hotbed of innovative cooking for at least a couple of decades. It's perhaps not surprising that Chef Brian offers a very interesting menu.

I'd rather eat good food than read about it, but I must admit to a fascination with the history of food. I marvel at the variations that imaginative or desperate cooks make on what's available, if not always plentiful, and how migrations, trade routes and territorial invaders make their mark on what people eat. Daily bread and staples of the table are often oblivious to historical and current political divisions. Munford is a master of culinary diplomacy, bringing together elements that many would see as warring factions. My Indian-style rack of lamb, for instance, not only had Indian accompaniments — mango chutney, raita (a cucumber-yogurt condiment), black lentils and pappadoms — but also Middle Eastern hummus, tabouli and grilled eggplant. The main ingredients are staples in both cuisines, and the flavors coalesced peacefully for a harmonious medley.

Deciding how to start a meal at Patina presents a dilemma — the menu offers about 16 opportunities, including two soups ($6), a half-dozen interesting salads ($4-$8), and eight appetizers ($6-$10). Two small crabcakes, expected fare in these parts, are accompanied by a less-usual fried spinach wonton and a mustard basil sauce, setting up a contrast in texture and tastes. Empanadas, turnovers with South American origins, are here filled with three cheeses, rather than the usual meat. Mango puree and black bean sauce make interesting foils. Among the other appetizers are fried oysters, seared scallops, and an antipasto platter, to name a few.

[image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comAmong the 12 entrees ($16-$22) is the lamb, which was without the usual tandoori paste and was quite mildly seasoned. We learned that the fiery red squiggles around the plate can indeed add a bit of zest to the plate. A straight-forward plate of Cuban-style pork roast (pulled) with black beans and rice and a garlic-flavored condiment is simply done and quite good. Homey chicken pot pie is given an extravagant earthy nudge with white truffle oil. And of course, there is a steak, sautéed chicken, some fish and shellfish, and a couple of pasta dishes. Vegetarians will find exciting dishes among the starters and the entrees.

Patina offers a half-dozen desserts ($6-$7), including chocolate-hazelnut torte, apple tart, tiramisu, fresh pineapple sorbet, a mixed-berry napoleon, and ginger crŠme br–lée. We tried the latter which got its "br–lée" at the last minute, offering a nice temperature contrast between the cool custard and the warm sugar crust. The ginger adds an exotic finish. For those who drink dessert there are a number of spirit-infused coffees ($6.50 - $9).

The wine list is interesting and, like the menu, avoids clichés. Prices start at $24 a bottle and $6 a glass, and the oldest vintage is 1996.

The space that Patina occupies, home to at least two previous restaurants, has been simplified so that textures and materials are the main decoration. The copper tabletops and candle-lanterns add interesting warmth, and mirrors add a sense of space. The result is simple and unobtrusively sophisticated, as is much of the food.

I enjoy sampling innovative food. Munford clearly has a good understanding of several cooking styles. Fusion has been a hot culinary fashion for the last several years. Munford's offerings seem to stem from instinct and intuition rather than a desire to create something different. The results seem perfectly normal and most add a new dimension. Even if you're a basic-food person, you may find that what seemed strange is really rather
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