Perfectly Acceptable 

Don't expect the wow factor at Escabar.

Rumor has a way of fueling hype, and sadly for Escabar, it doesn't quite live up to the expectations its delayed opening engendered.

The food at Escabar isn't bad, but it isn't exciting either. A sort of pan-Mediterranean cuisine that lacks focus offers lots of choices that aren't really any different in taste and execution from fare at other restaurants around town. Pheasant with green tomato and apple chutney sounded tempting and slightly exotic (when was the last time you saw pheasant on the menu in Richmond?), but the dish that arrived was somewhat tough, and the chutney was tangy but unremarkable.

The scallop and crab crˆpes with Mornay sauce were another bland and unexciting dish, although I was much more impressed with the green peppercorn pork tenderloin. Savory and slightly spicy, the pork was served with a delicious and unusual garlic chestnut puree. The appetizers were even better. Generous rolls of tender tuna carpaccio were perfectly matched with a scallion aioli, and the mussels came swimming in an aromatic wine, tomato and saffron broth I could have eaten with a spoon. In fact, I did have a few sips, because when we asked our waitress for bread to mop it up with, we were told the chef had decided not to "do" bread. Not "do" bread? How hard can it be to have bread delivered every day? I don't think wanting a piece of bread to go with a $10 appetizer or a $25 entrée like my pheasant is a particularly unrealistic expectation.

Lunch was better, however, and though it was harder to get a seat, the enormous bowl of cauliflower saffron soup was so good I forgot all about bread. A crunchy fried-oyster sandwich came on a large, golden bun and was accompanied by slender, tasty fries that rival my favorites at Can Can.

The service throughout was excellent, from the friendly maŒtre d' to the exuberant waitress who quickly and apologetically corrected a minor mistake in my order.

Yet as I looked around, I realized that the food was really in keeping with the uninspired décor. Apparently, at some point in the construction process, major design decisions were reconsidered, and the bar and indoor seating were drastically reconfigured. The restaurant, as it is now, isn't by any means awful; it's simply unremarkable. Tasteful wooden booths are flanked by modern paintings and wall sculpture that are neither offensive nor engaging. A large mirror on the back wall gives the tiny indoor space much needed visual elbow room, and the al fresco dining makes up for the lack of tables inside. I thought the tufted maroon cushions on the chairs outside were spectacular until I later saw similar ones for sale at Target.

And here, I think, is a clue to the thinking behind Escabar. Ostensibly, Target represents a funky design sensibility, when in reality, it's an enormous corporation mass- marketing goods to the largest number of people it can attract. Target doesn't really take risks; instead it carefully calibrates how to get as many people in the door as possible to buy laundry detergent.

At Escabar, they've decided on food and design to offend no one. But in avoiding culinary risk in hopes of attracting a wide spectrum of Richmond diners, they have, unfortunately, eliminated the very idiosyncratic creativity of a chef that makes dining out a special experience. Don't get me wrong; I think a lot of people will like Escabar — I liked it — but not a lot of people will love it in the way that makes a restaurant special enough for diners to repeat the experience again and again. S


5806 Grove Ave.
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

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