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Chef Michael Hall grows a new audience with his latest culinary venture, The Vine. 

Taking Root

The Vine
550 E. Grace St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
648-3501

It's good to see the lights on again next door to the Carpenter Center. The location was dark for a while after the demise of Blue Point Seafood, and now The Vine has established roots. Although the 6th Street Marketplace, of which the restaurant facility was a part, never lived up to expectations, Blue Point Seafood made a good run of it until it finally fizzled last year. Indications are everywhere that downtown is having a renaissance, with a bigger convention facility in the works and building renovations or construction going on in almost every block. Perhaps The Vine, with Chef Michael Hall in charge, is at the right place at the right time.

Hall brings to The Vine some good experience. For five years, he brought consistency to the kitchen at None Such Place in Shockoe Bottom, which continues to serve up good food in an area where good food is not of the utmost priority in the minds of those who wander its streets in the evening.

The Vine is, for sure, a larger operation than None Such Place, but by drawing from the affluent crowds that come to the Carpenter Center and conventioneers who look for dining alternatives, as well as the increasing numbers who live in and around downtown, this new operation should have a fairly large customer base for lunch and dinner. No doubt Hall also brings a following from his previous haunts.

I like the restaurant space. It is designed to give a feeling of intimacy even though it's substantial. And yet with large windows showing off the surrounding cityscape, you have the best of both worlds. For those who like al-fresco dining, there's a pleasant and quiet terrace set back from the street.

Hall's menu falls into that popular and rather broad category of "contemporary American," which is open to the whims of culinary fashion and often gets caught in the traps of descriptive rhetoric (as we critics sometimes do). It's difficult to know where the emphasis is in an entree such as "Andouille sausage breaded Vietnamese catfish with herb tomato concasse" ($13.95).

For starters, you can't go wrong with "Michael's scallop mousse crab cluster cakes," ($7.95) which are luscious, lumpy nuggets the size of golf balls. Though the menu, promised "just tomatoes and shot gun lime sauce" to accompany these delicious little crab "cakettes," the pepper-bacon relish which actually did come on the plate competed rather than complemented. Pan-seared foie gras (goose liver) on a grit cake with sea scallops ($6.95) in a creamy sauce is a rich send-off. Other beginnings ($4.75-$9.95) include several salads, duck breast in a savory crepe, a portobello "napoleon," baby lamb chops, and butterflied shrimp over a peanut-coconut fritter. It's heady, trendy stuff.

There should be something among the entrees ($11.95-$24.95) to appeal to most appetites from a pasta for vegetarians to a 30-ounce T-bone steak for the extreme carnivore. In between are the usual fish and shellfish, poultry and meat dishes. The house pasta, dubbed the "550," is served "en papillote," a strange conception since generally the point of opening these little paper packets is to get a whiff of aromatic herbs and vegetables and/or a visual surprise. Here you get some nicely cooked seafood and some gluey pasta wrapped in paper. It doesn't work very well. On the other hand, the lamb chops, which were in fact a pair of meaty, four-rib "racks" were beautifully cooked. I wasn't keen on the promised blueberry marinade and didn't taste it. Risotto, the current culinary hot commodity, is here paired with corn, resulting in more of a cake than a creamy risotto.

Desserts are numerous and substantial. The pastry of good apple pie lost its flake in the microwave; key-lime pie got a boost of flavor from a chocolate-crumb crust.

Chef Hall has good culinary instincts and is no doubt eager to win a new audience with a bravura performance. Once he's into the run, he'll know that the most satisfying performance is one that lingers long after the play is
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