Glass Half Full 

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The best laid plans … sometimes work out even better than anticipated.

That's what's happening at Barrel Thief, a combination wine store and café that began life as an academic exercise in business school and has developed full-blown into a thriving commercial enterprise.

Owners Ned Wheeler, 31, and Ross Mattis, 30, have been friends since they met as first-graders in Providence, R.I. After 12 years as classmates, they went separate ways for college -- Wheeler to Harvard and Mattis to Pacific University in Oregon. But they stayed in touch.

While Wheeler studied organizational psychology in Cambridge, Mattis roamed the Willamette Valley drinking and learning about wine. After graduation, Wheeler went to graduate school in Chapel Hill and Mattis returned to Providence, where he learned to cook at one of that city's finest restaurants.

Mattis wound up in Richmond when his bride enrolled in a doctorate program in psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. At that point, Wheeler and Mattis were only a few hours apart and soon found themselves collaborating on a plan that capitalized on their respective interests and talents.

While Wheeler earned academic credits for the project, he's quick to credit Mattis for his contributions, including knowing that a barrel thief is a long-handled ladle that's dipped into a wine barrel to check the aging process.

Since opening Barrel Thief in late September, the duo's real-life experiences have mirrored the academic blueprint, except that the café piece has taken off faster than anticipated. Wheeler attributes that to people's eagerness to try new dining places but reluctance to abandon a favorite wine shop.

On a recent Friday night at 8, there was a 45-minute wait for one of the 34 seats, scattered at tall tables between stacks of wine.

The emphasis at Barrel Thief, in the Shoppes at Westgate across Broad Street from the Short Pump Town Center, is on healthy and fresh: plenty of options for vegetarians, with portions and selections similar to tapas. Dishes range from $5 to $18, with most in the single digits, but like tapas, those little plates can add up to a sizable bill, especially when paired with appropriate wines.

Barrel Thief's kitchen is a cozy space without a grill, but Chef Joe Costlow works magic on a panini press and stove, and turns out excellent sauces and desserts, as well. Wheeler and Mattis also rely on top-notch local purveyors — Belmont Butchery (meats), Manakintowne Specialty Growers (produce), The Flour Garden (bread) and For the Love of Chocolate — so the kitchen's limitations are not obvious.

Salads are elevated with local micro-greens, imported cheeses, exotic mushrooms, ptés and warm sauces; typical is a pleasing mix of spinach, grilled shiitake, goat cheese and warm bacon dressing.

Appetizers are good enough that you may not get to the more substantial dishes. I'd return just for the grilled Black Mission figs with Gorgonzola and Serrano ham.

Paninis serve as entrees, from three Italian cheeses to a sliced filet mignon with black truffles. Other sandwich ingredients include grilled vegetables, turkey, tuna and ham, as well as salmon dressed with capers, red onions and arugula, and spreads of apple butter, olive tapenade, walnut cream cheese and sun-dried tomato pesto.

Daily specials are market-priced trios of salami, meat, cheese, pesto and seafood, served with a baguette or melt-in-your-mouth wafers from Australia. A smoked seafood sampler artfully combines scallops, sable with Hungarian paprika and maple-cured salmon.

Desserts range from sinful chocolate truffles to sensible sliced apples covered with a thick caramel sauce and sprinkled with crushed macadamia nuts.

You don't have to drink wine at Barrel Thief — microbrews, soft drinks, bottled water and coffee are available (along with a children's menu) — but the large wine card is tempting in variety and price, especially when purchased by the bottle, which often is less than three times the cost of a glass.

While the servers are knowledgeable about wine, they are somewhat less sure about the food: One didn't know the meat in a pté (it was pork), and another failed to explain that the filet mignon was sliced and on a sandwich.

But just like at Hooters, the food, as good as it is, isn't the main attraction. Here, it's the wine.

Barrel Thief Wine Shop and Café ($$) NS W
11747 W. Broad St.
Café hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

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