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Barrister's has all the ingredients to make it a great restaurant if only it would stop trying so hard. 

The Jury is Out

Barrister's Cafe
101 N. 5th St. in the Hotel John Marshall
Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner Thursday-Saturday 5 p.m.-3 p.m.
225-9697

What happens when a legend and a landmark team up? Sometimes something wonderful. Sometimes not. With Barrister's Cafe, it is uncertain how the partnership will play out.

Located in the still-undergoing-renovation Hotel John Marshall, Barrister's is run by the same creative force that runs the legendary College Deli in Williamsburg. Building on that foundation, lunch at Barrister's looks like a sure thing. The menu offers a dozen of the College Deli's subs (hot or cold, half or whole), along with salads and sides.

Several of the evening entrees are presented at lunch, offering an opportunity to taste-test at prices considerably below the dinner tariff. For $8, midday patrons can sample the herb-crusted salmon in a sun-dried tomato or the vegetable Napoleon — grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers and portobello mushrooms in a tomato sauce.

Dinner, of course, is the real test, and it's in that arena that the jury is still out.

We loved stepping into Barrister's with its flagstone flooring and towering ceilings. The room was brought to life by a keyboard player and crooner playing some delightful jazz. Good dinner music is so rare in Richmond and this is a treasure. Others agreed: The place was packed.

We stepped down another few steps into a quieter — and chillier — dining room and settled in at a white-clothed table. Our waiter appeared to be virtually alone. He performed admirably, but his charm and good humor couldn't fully compensate for slow service.

We took our time with the menu, trying to make some sense of the fare. Ultimately, we saw that Barrister's has no clear identity. It doesn't focus on indigenous Virginia ingredients or clearly trumpet its historic ties. It is, in short, all over the map — a little Asian, a little French, a little Virginia, a little pasta, a little Cajun, a little clever.

Five large coconut and pecan-breaded shrimp ($7) had a nice flavor and texture and were served with a dashing orange-red pepper sauce. But they were cold. And they were served with crispy, pale rice noodles, which made for a pretty plate but added absolutely nothing to our palates.

The black olive and caper pate ($6) was also presented with a flourish. On a deep bed of mixed greens, herbed toast points formed a star shape. The olive timbale — with a base layer of milky, pungent, goat cheese — was also in a star shape. Despite the distracting presentation, the flavor and texture of the dish was really quite nice.

The distractions went on. Tiny cherry tomatoes spiked with lemon grass and skinny drinking-straw-sized bread sticks towered over a salad ($4) the size of Rhode Island. The Roquefort was to die for, and we also enjoyed the very subtle and light orange poppy seed dressing. My carpaccio ($7), paper-thin tenderloin, was shaped into a top hat stuffed with greens. The plate was embellished with seared mushrooms and swirls of balsamic reduction that liquefied nicely with the greens and tartare.

Just when we were wondering what the interior decorator in the kitchen could possibly think of next, out came the main courses.

The twin tournedos of beef ($16) were sautéed with shallots, mushrooms, brandy and in a robust demi-glace. Two 4- to 5-ounce fork-tender beef pieces were presented atop a clump of potatoes, mashed with skins and sour cream. Julienne asparagus spears and carrots completed the plate. The shallots were caramelized and fragrant and the vegetables wonderful.

The crabcakes ($17) were huge and full of more filler than crab. Insulting the crab even further, these pancakes were served with an overpowering tomato relish of salsa consistency and marinara flavor. Lovely asparagus improved the presentation but the other side dish — a timbale of couscous — was odd.

Full but not particularly happy, I realized Barrister's was simply trying too hard.

Even the desserts ($5 and $4) were overdressed. The tart, creamy key lime pie was prettily framed with a fruit coulis, but the same decoration virtually drenched the cheesecake. And my wonderful bumbleberry pie — with a flaky homemade crust and perfectly tart berry filling — came on a decorated plate when a couple of fresh berries would have sufficed. A Chanel jacket doesn't require a ruffled blouse.

Here is an obviously capable restaurateur working in a prime downtown location. Barrister's should fill for lunch and build a dinner following as a jazz Mecca. I'd like to see it reflect a bit on its culinary identity and presentation and consider that more times than not, less is
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