Side Dish 

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Semester of Sugar

When Richmond native Alexa Pistolis went off to become a "puff," as pastry majors are called at Johnson & Wales University, she expected to make the usual cakes and confections, but perhaps not the cruise-ship-worthy seascape that was her recent Chocolate and Sugar Artistry class assignment.

Pistolis worked with isomalt (a beet-based sweetener) and sugar, using molds and free pours to create the design, then airbrushed on the colors. The seaweed, coral and sea urchins looked great until the next day, when Pistolis learned that humidity had sapped the strength and color and left a sad, sticky mess — just as her chef professor had warned.

But culinary school is a kick, she says: "Knowing how to do this is a great asset when I work for banquets, weddings and events. If they want a really cool showpiece for their table, I can do it." Sophomore Pistolis loved her EZ Bake oven as a child and before college had a small cookie catering business, Angel Bakery. Starting after Thanksgiving through the end of February, she'll be interning with The Jefferson's pastry chef Jim Gallo.

Sandwich King

Chef Michael Hall was the big winner at the March of Dimes Signature Chefs event Nov 5. His "West Ender Portobello Club" won in both the presentation and Richmond signature dish categories in the event's Elegant Sandwich competition. Roasted portobellos, rather than bread, held together turkey pastrami, country ham, thinly sliced cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.

Second place went to Catering by Jill for a sweet-and-sour duck wrap with tropical chutney. India K' Raja nabbed third with a deconstructed kebab on naan with homemade paneer and curried chicken.

Style Weekly restaurant critic Joseph W. Cates, one of the competition's judges, says a rare seared-duck sandwich with foie gras and pomegranate mustard didn't work as well in the mouth as it looked on paper, but otherwise the event was a gastronomic winner all around.

On The Table: Menus and Changes

In Carytown, Amici introduces its winter menu this month, including baked quail stuffed with Italian sausage and sage with a red wine reduction; eggplant stuffed with ricotta and baked with fontina; and a return of the much-requested shaved fennel salad dressed with white balsamic vinegar.

The Wooden Spoon, which opened in spring 2005 in the former Caffe di Pagliacci, has closed.

Saigon 2000, one of many Vietnamese restaurants along West Broad Street, is closed and is expected to change its menu to Thai fare in coming weeks.

Thai Country out on Staples Mill Road has a new owner and chef, and is now named Tip Thai. Menu additions include more curries, clay pot dishes and other specials.

Meatless Nights: Vegetarian Contingent Eats Up

Tofu on Fire, hot and complex, is the dish that keeps 'em coming back to Mom's Siam on Monday nights. It seems that Mom's informal vegetarian night is developing a cult following among the meat-free, who are discovering off-the-menu veggie specials and camaraderie in Carytown.

Downtown at Ma Musu's Africanne on Main, a 10-item-or-larger spread of all vegan dishes fills out the buffet line on Fridays, 5-8 p.m. Card-carrying members of the Vegetarian Society of Richmond get a discount; $9.95 covers the meal and tax. Beverage and gratuity are extra. 200 E. Main St. 343-1233. S

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