If you pay even the most negligible attention to Richmond's dining scene, uproar over the latest local restaurant closings is hard to avoid.
The restaurant industry is a fickle one, and constant turnover is the nature of the game. However, I still stomp around like a cranky toddler, perturbed that chains continue to multiply while eclectic, homegrown spots die off in clumps.
This year, however, a well-timed email helped soothe my disappointment. Ipanema Café recently announced it had completed an interior renovation and menu refresh in order to celebrate its — big inhale— 14-year anniversary.
Sure, there are a few double-decade restaurants in Richmond, but not many can claim this longevity while serving a vegetarian-only menu in a hard-to-find basement beneath a tattoo parlor. Talk about a limited audience.
Yet owner Kendra Feather has not only persevered but also thrived on such uniqueness. Her knack for knowing Richmond's collective palate and how to entertain and educate it has since spawned Garnett's Café, The Roosevelt and WPA Bakery (set to open in Church Hill next month).
So it's no wonder that after 14 years, she figured it was time to spruce up Ipanema, an artsy VCU hangout that has garnered quite a diverse following, including this unabashed carnivore.
Inside, the chalkboard menu remains, showcasing new autumn menu items from chef Will Wienckowski, such as sweet potato fritters with goat cheese sauce ($4.95) and pozole (Mexican stew with hominy, red beans and poblano peppers, $12.95). The bar, tabletops and hand-stenciled back wall have been updated but still retain Ipanema's signature vibe.
An ever better addition is Ipanema's new "Steal This Wine List," where all bottles are $30 each, which is a minuscule markup from retail costs. Options include 2011 And Co. The Supernatural Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 Bernard Baudry Chinon "Grezeaux."
Service is laid-back, so don't expect white tablecloth attentiveness. During my recent stop-in to check out the new menu, our server was there when we needed her but left us to our conversation when we didn't. She feigned no enthusiasm when we ordered the Autumn Roll ($4.95) and brandade (salt cod and potato puree, $5.95) to start, simply taking our order and moving on.
A rustic take on a Vietnamese spring roll, two rice paper wrappers held a brightly colored assortment of pickled beets, quinoa, almonds, cabbage and carrots. The sweet-meets-tangy aspect of the beets paired well with lemon tahini sauce, where a citrusy snap balanced its nuttiness.
Topped with lightly browned, melted pecorino, the silky blend of cod and potato was advertised as incorporating Aleppo peppers, so I was expecting a little kick. Instead, the dominant flavor was fishiness. I wish the peppers' signature cuminlike undertones had been more apparent.
Our entrees — mushroom pot pie ($12.50) and risotto with butternut squash and Brussels sprouts ($13.50) — could make any meat lover think twice about dissing vegetarian fare.
Two decadently flaky pastry rounds attempted to contain a heaping cream-based stew chock-full of hearty mushrooms, carrots and spinach. Fennel balanced the dish's earthiness with subtle licorice notes. I couldn't get over how a pile of veggies could be so savory.
The risotto was equally as hearty, topped with shredded cheese and laced with sunflower seeds. The natural pungency of the Brussels sprouts did a wonderful job quelling the mellow sweetness of the butternut squash. It could have used a touch of salt to bring out the flavors a little more, but overall, I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
If you have room for dessert, don't miss Ipanema's vegan pies, which are phenomenal. Flavors, such as blueberry and apple, rotate often.
With reasonable prices, a great wine list and a menu flavorful enough to appease vegetarians and carnivores alike, Ipanema clearly knows how to keep the customers coming. Guess I can't be surprised when I get the next email celebrating its 28th anniversary.
Freelance writer and graphic designer Dana Craig has been reviewing restaurants for The Times-Dispatch since 2004. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/danacraigrtd.