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Zeus Gallery Cafe serves up glamorous food in a casual atmosphere. 

Eclectic American

Behind the dark windows of Zeus Gallery Cafe, just before 5 on a Tuesday night, two servers, a cook and a sous-chef move around the narrow space between the kitchen and the dining room getting things ready, putting their worlds in order.

At 5, things start off slow. Two women sit at the bar, in for cocktails before moving on with their evening plans. The first wave of diners arrive just before 5:30 p.m.: a couple and two groups of four. They take up a third of the restaurant. The kitchen fires up as the first salads and appetizers are prepped, plated and put on the bar for pickup.

Our arrival a little after 5:30 p.m. marks the beginning of the end of the first wave. Other diners follow, and by 6:15 p.m. all nine tables in the intimate restaurant are full, and the front end of the second wave has just started nosing in the door to create the first wait of the night. No one has a reservation. Zeus doesn't take them.

The kitchen flashes yellow as flames curl up from the pan and light up the hood. Things start humming.

Zeus Gallery Cafe is one of the handful of very good Richmond restaurants that have figured out a niche and stuck to their formula: glamorous food, casual atmosphere. That's probably why it's been around for a dozen years. Some folks think it's a Greek restaurant. It isn't. It's American, but it borrows heavily from Europe with tours through American low country and an occasional Asian jag.

How else to explain filet mignon with a sangiovese demi-glace and foie gras appearing on the menu beside Creole shrimp with andouille sausage, basil-corn tomatoes and garlic over rice, and alongside Asian duck breast with snow peas, plum sauce and basmati rice? It's eclectic. It's melting pot. It's American. It's also densely flavored, rich food, generously plated, that calls for small portions or at least a ready willingness to take home leftovers (which, it turns out, reheat very well).

We aren't in a rush, and we aren't being rushed, so it takes us some time to decide on our entrees. While we sit in our booth — Claire Booth Luce, which is behind the John Wilkes Booth (they all have names like that) — we enjoy a brie en croute with scallions, onions, mushrooms in a velvety Madeira sauce ($8.95), and a plate of seared scallops with woody pancetta, carmelized leeks, and a buerre blanc with a balsamic reduction ($11.95).

The menu is hard to read, handwritten and crammed on a slate board that makes the rounds on an as-needed basis. But the servers are pros — ours has been there for 10 years. They know the regularly changing menu very well and are happy to make recommendations if asked.

Grilled New York strip? Griddled backfin crab cakes? Basil-crusted filet of salmon? Unable to decide, I am helped into ordering the veal scallopine, made unusual here by the addition of shrimp and served over a bed of linguine in a Parmesan cream sauce ($23.95). This is one of those dishes that's on the edge of being too much when served in American portions, especially if you run the menu for a full dinner as we do. I can't finish, but, as I said, it reheats well and will make an excellent lunch the next day.

My wife has the filet of sole, a neutral fish, wrapped around some much more interesting crabmeat and served with a garlic potato pancake and haricots verts ($23.95). Very nice.

By 7:15 p.m., following coffee, a well-executed blackberry creme brulee ($5.95) — the man is good with a torch — and French toast strawberry shortcake ($5.95), we call it a night. The kitchen has calmed down. Round one is over, and newcomers have started to convene at the bar and are eyeing the tables. But we have the feeling that if we wanted to stay there all night, that would be fine, too. Maybe next time.





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