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Blast from the Past

Fabulous Foods takes you back for lunch, then adds a dinnertime twist.

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OK, Fabulous Foods, in a strip mall, doesn't look anything like those revered establishments, but its luncheon customers do — ladies of a certain age in floral dresses, some accompanied by daughters, others assisted by walkers; younger women in smart business attire or tennis outfits, and over in the corner, a self-conscious man or two.

The menu offers a wide selection: casseroles with seafood, casseroles with sandwiches, casseroles with side salads, and for those who don't fancy casseroles, quiche with side salad.

My wife, whose Hoosier roots were showing by the fact that she had forgotten to wear a floppy hat, picked the crab-and-cheddar bake ($8.25). It was long on flavor — the Mornay sauce, and egg and cheese gave it a fluffy custard consistency — but a little short on crab.

I flexed my manly discretion by choosing the only thing on the menu that wasn't called a casserole or quiche, a cranberry-cured chicken wrap with country ham, asparagus and brie ($7.75). Both were winners.

Because everyone else seemed to be ordering the lemon pound cake ($3.50), we got reckless and chose the "triple berry beggars purse with butter pecan ice cream" ($4.50). A great combination.

Lunch is only part of the story at Fabulous Foods. At night, the lights go down, the prices go up, and the place goes by another name, The After 5 Café at Fabulous Foods. The café reopened last fall after the post-9/11 recession reduced business so much that dinner was suspended for nearly a year. But now, chef Norman Jordan, a Richmond native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and his business partner, Shelia Kain, are winning back customers with an ambitious and innovative menu.

The café is close to finding its own rhythm, but some easily repairable flaws remain. The name, for one thing. When you call your place Fabulous Foods, you invite comparisons. The food is fine, but this is not Chesterfield's answer to The Inn at Little Washington. Better that they should follow the example of one of my favorite restaurants on the Northern Neck, the Good Eats Café, and use the name to lower expectations.

Our evening began with a listless focaccia, which the waiter announced had just come from the oven. Then why was it cold?

To offset all that healthy food at lunch, we ordered two breaded appetizers, four giant shrimp tempura ($7), which inexplicably came with chopsticks, and bite-sized fried oysters ($8), which did not.

We shared the café's signature dish, she-crab soup ($7), which the waiter thoughtfully divided into two bowls. Unlike the luncheon crab dish, the soup was chock-full of meat.

For entrees, Hoosier Nancy chose the crab cakes ($20) — nothing like that in the Heartland — that had just enough bread crumbs to hold them together. A touch of Dijon mustard and Old Bay seasoning, and — a special touch — maple butter sauce would have been even better had the crab been lump meat. I had the pan-seared rack of lamb ($19), eight tender and juicy ribs in four racks, which rose above the ordinary because they were covered with melted GruyÅ re.

Bananas Foster topped off the evening.

Foster and Kain will take over the catering portion of Fabulous Foods later this year, with the retirement of the founders, and they plan to upgrade the dining room. They might start with putting candles on the tables next to the fresh flowers and turning off the neon "open" sign to distinguish the place from the nearby pizzerias. S



Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d' and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He last reviewed restaurants for Style in the late '80s.



Fabulous Foods and The After 5 Café at Fabulous Foods ($$$)

2029 Huguenot Road, in the Huguenot Village Shopping Center

320-0615 or 320-1499

Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

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