When we walked into Mezzanine, our eyes took in the booming business of a small restaurant bringing in large numbers of well heeled customers. We saw people sitting elbow to elbow, squeezed in along one wall, spilling out on the… mezzanine, and tucked away upstairs. At first, we cringed at where they’d put us. But, as we followed the hostess upstairs, some breathing room unfolded, and we were given our own booth. Awesome. We love booths.
Across from our table, the multi-colored chalkboard menu beautifully explained the options. As you probably already know, Mezzanine was given the honor of Style Weekly’s Restaurant of the Year. The scene on this night reinforced it: Everybody loves a winner. I’ve hosted some discussion of that issue on this site. Prior to eating at Mezzanine, I’d have personally given the award to both The Black Sheep and Cafe Rustica. Almost half a year later, I finally got a chance to update my opinion.
If you’re not into my play-by-play storylines, I’ll save you the trouble: the food we had at Mezzanine was nothing special. The choices on the menu sounded like fashionable fine dining, with an earthy ethic. And for many diners, that’s all that is required to warrant a $100 dinner for two. Not me (surprised?). In fact, I was disappointed in Mezzanine, in Style Weekly, Richmond’s restaurant scene overall, and the complicit customers who line up to overpay for culinary underachievement.* Having sufficiently spread blame around, we DID have a nice date; the first nighttime outting in too long.
Our meal started with some initial confusion trying to make sense of the “small plates” ($9-18) vs the “large plates” ($18-30) and how to fit those in next to the choices of soup, a list of interesting salads, and appetizers. I ordered a $10 app of Mobjack oysters with sriracha aioli. Heck, I put sriracha on everything, so I gotta try that. When the four miniature oysters came out, their little shells filled to the brim with bright red sauce, I was underwhelmed by the portion size, but hoped for the best. I slipped an oyster in my mouth and regretted it immediately. It was like a whole tablespoon of straight sriracha in my mouth. Every part of my mouth and lips burned for the next twenty minutes. Karen scooped some sauce with her her fork and was exclaiming WTF did I make her try that for and she likes sriracha too. Well, let’s not be so hasty, I thought. I hate to send things back.** And I’m no spice-wuss. I tasted another oyster. Yuck. Pure hot sauce. After getting permission from Karen, I moved the plate aside, drained my rusty nail (of course), half my water and some of Karen’s delicious Spanish white wine.
The server took the oysters back. Apparently, all I needed to say was “too spicy,” (note to self, keep conflict brief). Meanwhile, Karen was picking through her poke and ahi tuna with pineapple and ponzu sauce. It was a small pile of half-inch yellow and red cubes ($10). The pineapple was the first to go. “You can’t really mess up raw tuna, but there’s no interesting flavor here, except for pineapple.” Whatever, those were just appetizers. The replacement for the oysters came out, a $9 order of shrimp and scallop ceviche. I liked this. Lime and cilantro, with a touch of jalapeno. It was small, but tasty. Nothing an amateur couldn’t make, but successful. As a frequent commenter, TBS, said the other day, “save some money and make it yourself.” (or call ahead to this place and they’ll make a big portion of ceviche just for you!)
Our “small plates came out quickly. Karen had a $10 order of shrimp and pork meatballs with gingered soy glaze (or something fancy-asian like that). Her plate had four meatballs on it and a little ramekin of sauce. It had sounded exciting to Karen, but it didn’t look or taste exciting. The sauce was mostly hoisin and the meatballs were… meatballs, not obviously a shrimp amalgamation. I tasted it and was reminded of Vietnamese pho noodle soup. Not a bad thing, but an unspectacular plate of food for sure.
My small plate was a special of tilefish over butterbean hash ($14). The portion wasn’t too small and the flavor of the corn and beans was very fresh. The fish gave off a juiciness that saucied up the dish with warm seasoning in each bite. Karen tasted it, liked it, but wasn’t quite impressed in the balance of the evening. We picked over our food and focused on our drinks and talked about the “large plates” we didn’t get. The veggie option you see at every fancy restaurant was called the Budda Bowl (cheezy name): brown rice, stir fry, and peanut sauce for $18. About as appealing in this context as a hippy’s patchouli’d armpit (in other words, I kinda wanted it, but not at the freakin restaurant of the year, yeesh).
We ended with the s’more. It was a graham cracker poundcake with torched marshmallows and a milk chocolaty drizzle. We’d intentionally left room for desert, so we tore into it, reaching capacity quickly and not quite able to finish the plate. Somewhere along the way, I splurged on a glass of a pinot noir (gladiator something or other) to give me some impactful complex flavors (aside from sriracha) . For $9, I would have been miffed had it not delivered a lot of oak and pepper and juiciness.
When I got the check, my server came back to let me know that he had to make a change. My rusty nail was not $9, but $10.50 because it was a “martini pour.” I guess that means two liquors. Whatever, it was small compared to other rusty nails I’ve had. Maybe this was payback for sending back those oysters drowning in sriracha. Also, the scotch used in my drink tasted like something above rail, probably above Dewars. Not really necessary with a sweet drink. In fact the strong scotch flavor and too little Drambouie, made it a funny tasting glass of scotch. Guess I shoulda sent that back too. Whatever. We had fun. By the end of the meal, we were really enamored with the artwork on the walls. Some great paintings upstairs, for sure. Be sure to check those out.
So, in short, we’re glad we went to Mezzanine (although not a $100 I’d spend again). It’s always good to demystify a place, especially an overhyped popular restaurant. Maybe we should have ordered “large plates,” but it’s Mezzanine’s fault for distracting us with lackluster “small plates.” Next time, I’ll go with my instincts. When the weather is a cool 74 degrees, maybe we should have eaten outside on Main street at that spot with the half-price quesadillas I heard about on twitter. After all, going out on the town is what you make of it. I think our definition of fun will swing to the other end of the culinary spectruum, next time we get ourselves a sitter.
*some score Mezzanine with a handicap for their small kitchen and dedication to local organic etc. I didn’t do that. Aesthetically, it’s a cute place and it felt nice to be there. How ’bout that?
**felt bad the servers have to go up and down those stairs so many times. Our guy seemed a little out of breath, but hid it well.