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REVIEW: Embrace French flavors at Swan Dive 

click to enlarge The Alice and the Caterpillar sandwich features blue cheese and wine-braised rabbit on sourdough with mushroom bechamel and a fried egg.

Scott Elmquist

The Alice and the Caterpillar sandwich features blue cheese and wine-braised rabbit on sourdough with mushroom bechamel and a fried egg.

The Black Sheep closed its doors last fall, its giant, epic sandwiches and decadent brunch joining the graveyard of Richmond's beloved culinary staples. But the owners, chef Kevin Roberts and his wife, Rachelle, are back at it, in a different space with a different concept. Their new restaurant, Swan Dive, where the Betty on Davis used to be until it closed last year, made a quiet debut in June. The Black Sheep it is not.

Swan Dive is a quirky version of the cafes of Paris with thoughtful and fresh sandwiches and salads. The restaurant has eased into summer and attracted an array of both tourists and well-heeled Fan dwellers. Inside, a bar seats about a dozen and cozy booths for two or a snuggly four line the narrow space in back. The interior is reminiscent of a funky vintage French saloon, but simplistic and with a polish to it.

Those thick red curtains you expect from any French-inspired space, whether in a theme park or scene from "Midnight in Paris," line the windows — one more decorated surface and it might be overdone. Instead, the aluminum tile of the ceiling shines and the bumble bee stencil work makes an otherwise maroon wall look like antique designer wallpaper.

The hallmark of the menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner, is the traditional croque-monsieur: a fried sandwich featuring ham and cheese, plus several alternate spins on the classic. The four iterations can be upgraded to croque-madames by adding a beautifully fried sunny side up egg atop an already delectable dish, for a dollar.

Though a different overall concept, the same decadence of the Black Sheep comes out in the scale of Swan Dive's dishes. Each version of the croquet-monsieur is intriguing, but it is Alice and the Caterpillar ($14) that truly wows. On a buttery foundation of French sourdough, fourme d'ambert, a French blue cheese, and red wine-braised rabbit are covered in a mushroom-infused béchamel, which must mean heaven in French, and smothered with the same creamy cheese, baked to perfection and topped with that runny egg. A rabbit newbie, I was beyond pleased. The meat tastes like a tender, gamey cousin of duck, with rich and fragrant notes of rosemary and thyme. The sandwich is accompanied by a light spring mix of greens, topped with cherry tomatoes and radish slices, dressed in lemon vinaigrette.

Two other sandwiches stand out for those not as interested in an experience drowned in cheese. Le Club Rose ($13) is a double-decker stack featuring a medium-cooked salmon fillet, bacon, Dijon mustard, arugula, red onion and sliced tomato on the same buttery toasted sourdough. The next level encases a creamy shrimp and radish salad, which is more of a hearty slaw, the dill making it almost Tzatziki-like, and an ideal enhancement to the flaky salmon. The salmon is the star, but the slaw pulls it all together.

The Crabbie Antoinette ($16) is your above-average jumbo lump crab cake with lettuce, tomato and onion on a sesame bun. The mango rémoulade is a lovely topper for the crab, and it also makes an excellent dipping sauce for the waffle fries, which come on the side of all the signature sandwiches. These fries alone make a visit to Swan Dive worth it. The thick-cut lattice makes for a meaty potato fry, seasoned with garlic butter and herbes de Provence. Anyone looking for a frites fix should strongly consider stopping in for a side of those waffle fries and glass of rosé at the bar, especially if you are not immediately up to the challenge of finishing a full meal. Other sandwiches include beef and cod, and for something a little lighter, there are a handful of entree salads.

You may not have room for dessert after a meal, but order it anyway and take it to go. The Eclair of Monte Pistachio ($5) is a doughy, loaf-shaped pastry topped with the standard chocolate glaze and filled with a celadon-colored pistachio cream. It tastes clean and sweet. On a hot evening, it's the Under the Cherry Spoon ($5) that is most enjoyable. A slab of frozen chocolate mousse with pieces of speculoos cookie crumbles frozen into the center for crunch, is topped with a palmful of brandy-glazed cherries and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Each bite is a cool, melt-away taste that disappears almost instantly. Both desserts are highly shareable.

The restaurant offers a few craft cocktails, reasonably priced wine list, and a few French beers. Nonalcoholic selections include Cheerwine, the sweet cherry Southern soda that has become a bit of an enigma in a post-LaCroix world, ginger beer and sparkling lemonade.

Swan Dive also presents a nightly prix fixe dinner featuring an entree and the choice of appetizer and dessert — three courses for $28, or $34 with a wine pairing. The fixed price items are also available a la carte. Keep an eye on the restaurant's Instagram for each day's special, like oxtail gnocchi, steak and eggs vol au vent and grilled tuna and artichoke tartine.

Every bite, every plate I tasted at Swan Dive was packed with a satisfying level of flavor I really have only witnessed at Can Can Brasserie when it comes to European-inspired cuisine in Richmond. I will be back to test the prix fixe waters with an empty stomach and an appetite for creativity. S

Swan Dive
805 N. Davis Ave.
358-1564
Mondays - Saturdays 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

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