deco: no surprises

Trying a restaurant for the first time on the Saturday night after Valentine’s Day isn’t the best idea; many restaurants produce special menus, and the crowds may have different expectations. But the quality and execution should still represent the business, correct?

Valerie and I received a late confirmation of visiting friends and made a quick effort to find a place for dinner. The nature of this weekend meant that our favorite choices (and usual back-ups) were already booked, so I suggested calling Deco. I wasn’t hopeful they’d have a table for 4 on a Saturday evening, what with their recent win of the 2013 Elby Award for “Best New Restaurant”, but we had no trouble. So it was that tonight was my first experience at Deco.

It’s a neat little space. It looks like a shoe box from the outside and it’s simple on the inside. But the interior is helped quite a bit by some pretty and effective light fixtures, and while the dining room is cozy it never felt cramped.

I started checking out the menu while Valerie and I waited on our friends to arrive, and noticed two things. First of all, much of tonight’s menu was different from what I saw on the website. This shouldn’t shock, but it’s not just the specific items so much as the sections and pricing. Then I saw “San Valentine” across the top of the page and realized that, while it wasn’t a pre-fixe menu, it’s probably a special set of dishes running from this past Thursday through this weekend. They certainly seemed to carry a holiday premium with prices well above the online menu (I’m talking most main dishes over $20 while they’re almost all under $20 on the website). So yeah, see paragraph one. This wasn’t likely the usual fare. But some of Richmond’s best restaurants change up their menus frequently to little or no detriment, right?

Well I’ve gotta say that the food at Deco was just…okay. I had the risotto del giorno which, tonight, included clams, mussels and shrimp mixed into the rice with a healthy dose of marinara stirred through. I wouldn’t get it again. It wasn’t bad, but it was just on the right side of keeping it at the table. I may be growing snobby about what passes for a good restaurant, but I don’t send food back unless there’s something truly problematic about it. “Bland and mineral-y” is a disappointment, but not the same as delivering incorrect or undercooked food.

Valerie’s pasta with a “filet ragu” tasted much better, but I feel like the only reasons they used beef tenderloin in that dish were to both justify the higher price and catch the eye of folks who reflexively drool over filet mignon. A different cut might have added more flavor for a lower food cost, but “sirloin ragu” doesn’t have quite the same ring to most diners, does it? Valerie just wanted pasta with meat sauce, so ultimately it was fine. I wish I’d ordered it. I didn’t finish my entrée, and I was planning to skip dessert, but I always fall victim to cannoli. Deco’s cannoli were pretty good, I have to say.

Between our companions’ meals and our shared appetizers, we saw a few other unremarkable dishes. Their “crab meatballs” were basically miniature crab cakes (including that pale orange-y dipping sauce), and the fried calamari (because of course…) was passable with its included marinara. If Deco’s typical menu is close enough to what’s on their website, it’s also fairly unremarkable. That’s not automatically bad, but I’ll have to try it myself to see what the fuss is about.

I was disappointed with my main course, but I’m more disappointed by the restaurant – not because it’s particularly bad, but because it’s not particularly good. Not tonight, at least. It doesn’t have to be the best restaurant in town. But par-for-the-course, upscale-casual Italian food isn’t something we’re lacking in this town or any other the size of Richmond. What is it about Deco that secured it’s “Best New Restaurant” award? How did Deco win the award over Belmont Food Shop? Or Heritage? Or Peter Chang’s China Cafe?

Look, I’m not saying people shouldn’t eat here. I just tend to spend a lot of words explaining why something bothers me (I am descended from lawyers). I want to give Deco a fair shake, so I plan to return soon and try a few more dishes. Hopefully next time I’ll be eating my words along with the food.