Risk and Reward 

Old City Bar balances safe and signature dishes in an urban landmark.

On the evening of my first visit, a crowd of bankers gathered for a wine tasting beside the fireplace. Squint your eyes a little, alter the cut of the business suits, and we could have been back in a turn-of-the-century men's club.

Even the menu at Old City Bar is old-fashioned. Its dominant characteristic is safety. You probably won't be surprised by anything you find on this extremely limited menu (four appetizers, two salads, six entrees and two desserts), but there are some very nice embellishments on classic dishes and a few signature items that lift the offerings slightly above the ordinary.

An excellent example is oysters Weynoke, chef/owner Dave Napier's signature appetizer, which he brought from the original opening of Indian Fields Tavern, through his White House Catering career, to his new digs in the Bottom. The lightly breaded, pan-grilled oysters were plump and sweet enough to stand on their own, but paired with thinly sliced Smithfield ham atop a light corn cake and topped with oyster cream, they approached the sublime. This is one of those dishes that may be enough to decide future dining reservations.

The same cannot be said of the smoked duck Wellington. It sounds like a wonderful idea. A slight variation on a classic, it came wrapped in a wonderfully light pastry crust; sadly, the overall flavor was muddled and unrefined. The shredded duck overpowered what was supposed to be a mélange of wild mushrooms and savory herbs. The presiding flavor was pure smoke, and the scant red currant sauce added little to the experience.

The entrees range from $21 for blackened chicken with peaches and cream to $27 for a French-cut rack of lamb. The menu notes that any entree can be "Oscared" by the addition of jumbo lump crabmeat and asparagus for an additional $8.

Steak Angelina is a pair of petite filets glazed with Roquefort and accented with a rich demi-glace. It is a beautiful cut of tenderloin prepared to a perfect medium rare and finished with a quick blast in the salamander broiler to melt and caramelize the cheese. Absolutely delicious.

The crab cakes are golden and crispy on the outside and full of jumbo lump crabmeat, but without any other flavor. The twin sweet-pepper sauces, again scant, lack the oomph necessary to carry the dish, another instance of crab cakes failing to live up to their potential glory.

Other safe options include the center-cut filet with béarnaise and the roasted half-duckling with maple glaze and duck reduction. But what troubled me about the main courses was the lack of attention given to the side dishes. This was especially disconcerting considering there were only two. Each entree was accompanied by sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes that were shockingly bland. (My wife tried in vain to revive them by stealing butter from the bread basket and adding a copious amount of salt.)

Yet for the food's lack of daring, Dave Napier has taken a big risk, both by gambling on a spot that has hosted several failures and by investing in post-Gaston Shockoe Bottom, an area haunted by the ghosts of Havana '59 and The Kitchen Table.

The vision of Richmond's old-city revival may justify such a risk. After all, Napier is not alone down there. Diners can look from the Old City Bar dining room, over the 17th Street Farmers' Market, and into the windows of the cozy and fairly crowded second story of Café Gutenberg.

Though we stayed at Old City for a glassy crŠme br–lée and sly fox pie, both of which were delicious, diners might be lured across the way for after-dinner drinks and coffee. And isn't that vibe — the sense of options — exactly what Richmond's urbanites crave? S

Old City Bar
1548 E. Main St.
Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.


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