When Rancho T closed, I think I was one of the saddest people in Richmond. Sure, Richmond has biscuits, pimento cheese, and even casual Latin fare aplenty. But we are sadly lacking in creative or upscale Latin-inspired cuisine. Yes, we have a few options, but the Fan is certainly light.
So I’ve been anxiously waiting—or shall we say drooling—ever since I heard Jason Alley and Michele Jones of Comfort/Pasture were teaming up with Jay Bayer of Saison/Saison Market to open Flora, an upscale casual Mexican concept, in the old Balliceaux space.
I got to check it out last night. Pasture’s former chef de cuisine Sergio Gomez, who is also a native of Oaxaca, is leading the kitchen. If you ever visited Pasture’s taco Mondays in years past or have tried any of the Mexican-influenced menu specials, you know the man knows what he’s doing when it comes to Mexican-influenced fare.
The menu starts with Latin menu items, including many dishes that are traditional to Oaxaca, but makes some quite creative plays. One of my favorite tastes last night was kibbi frita—yes a Mexican take on the traditionally Middle Eastern dish made from bulgur and ground beef. A nicely sized, meaty football was fried crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, then topped with rich, cool crema, piquant salsa criolla, and tangy pickled onion.
I opted to leave the traditional Oaxacan fried grasshoppers to more adventurous diners, but if you want to sample them, they are there. I tried a chocolate-covered ant at a food culture summit a few years ago and think I’m good on insect ingestion for the next five years or until it’s a necessity.
Back to what I did eat. Guacamole with queso cotija and ancho peppers was smooth, fresh, mild and all too easy to keep eating—a perfect crowd pleaser that arrives nice and fast if you go with a hungry group. Next time I’ll be asking if there’s any homemade hot sauce stashed in the back to satiate my personal need for heat, though!
Another of my favorites of the night was chilaquiles—also known as stewed tortillas. A heaping pile of corn chips is smothered in mole verde, queso cotija, pickled red onion, and topped with a soft egg. The mole verde was filled with rich, herby notes, which combined with the cheese to make for a fun combination of soft textures and sharp flavors.
For my main course I had to go for the cochinita pibil: pork shoulder roasted in banana leaves served with black bean puree, rice and habanero salsa. This dish was certainly not pretty, but dang was it delicious. The mouthwateringly tender pork tasted like what I hope pork will taste like every time I order it at a local Mexican restaurant and am resoundingly disappointed. Every bite melted in my mouth. The salsa provided a mild accompaniment that let the roasty, meaty flavors shine, and the pureed black beans were simple and satisfying. This was your classic Mexican comfort dish prepared to perfection.
Of course Jay Bayer is behind the cocktail menu magic. These are not your typical mango and strawberry margaritas. At my server’s suggestion I tried the Evil Kermit, a vegetal combination of aquavit (a caraway- or dill-flavored spirit), reposado tequila, celery syrup, lemon and Strega (an Italian herbal liqueur). While I would not say this drink is an everyman pleaser, if you like drinking on the side of something different, I’d highly suggest the combination, which actually ends up being light, tangy, and a little green-tasting. I also have to say I absolutely love the colorful, playful design of the cocktail menu, which makes me think of tarot cards.
The restaurant has been repainted and freshened with the addition of colorful, floral art and related décor. The centerpiece is an Ed Trask mural in the back room, which will still be a home for live music and special events. Speaking of live music, that will kick off on the official first night of business—tomorrow March 24—when Mike Murphy and Friends with guest DJ Ant Boogz take the stage at 10:30 p.m. The restaurant will be open for dinner as well. You also might want to stop by on Saturday night when Jason Alley’s band Los Ramones takes the stage.