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Mission Position

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Split personalities can be hard to take. You, your friends, your relatives -- even the restaurant where you've ordered a steak can show symptoms of profound ambivalences that make you want to tear out your hair and scream: "Why? Why me? Why must I suffer so?"

Actually, I don't think the term "split personality" is even used anymore, and I'm sure kind-hearted folks much smarter than I would be happy to update me in the new terminology. Until they do, I'll just say that sometimes when a restaurant isn't exactly sure what it is, none of its customers are either.

Before I first tried to have lunch there, I thought the Down Under Restaurant & Lounge in Shockoe Slip might be some sort of upscale Outback Steakhouse with a lot of beef and spicy rubs. I was leery of the word "lounge" in its name (I'm always nervous about that word unless it applies to the Lounge Lizards), and its long and twisting stairwell leading to the depths below 12th Street did nothing to reassure me.

Not a soul was there, except for a guy sweeping up, and no one was there the next time I went. I decided against lunch. Someone cooking me a solitary meal while someone else pushes dust around in the background gives me the heebie-jeebies.

When I went back for dinner, there were a lot more people at work, but still no customers. The bartender, however, was so friendly and welcoming I decided to stay and check out the food. The space was a lot more inviting at night, with a long, dark granite bar punctuated with blue lights and shiny glassware. A series of black stone pillars, almost like ancient structural supports found at an archaeological dig, runs down the middle of the elongated room, with lots of mirrors and little tables and squishy red leather couches to lounge upon. It's a comfortable space, without losing the slick edge the design seems to be striving for. I could easily imagine the young and unattached hoisting a cosmo or two long after I've put my kids to bed.

But I'd come to eat, not to relive my youth with a couple of bartenders and waiters for an audience. A bunch of basic bar snacks were available, plus a pretty impressive, if unoriginal, menu of fine-dining options. Unfortunately, a lot of these options weren't available, but my bartender's bad jokes were keeping me happy, and I decided to focus on what I could order.

The gingery scallops arrived seared within an inch of their life without being overcooked, and were flush with a big hunk of slightly crispy, sautéed lump crabmeat crumbling on top. The spicy barbecued shrimp came with a dipping sauce that tasted similar to the red glaze they glistened with — but they managed to vanish anyhow.

A New York strip, piled high with superfluous red peppers and onions in a mini-pool of red-wine reduction, came with three scoops of sour-cream-laced mashed potatoes. I didn't fall off my barstool and thank the patron saint of meat-lovers, but it was a decent steak and cooked to order. The crab cakes had no filler at all — just crabmeat all by its compacted lonesome — and the beurre blanc was just the way I like it, mostly beurre without much blanc to get in the way of things. More mashed potatoes rounded out the plate, but I still wasn't complaining.

I couldn't complain because it was pretty good food for a bar, despite the dubious pretension of its menu and fine-dining prices. The bartender explained that the menu was in transition, and I hope they can keep some of their seafood offerings as they tack to the nightclub side of the business. Great bar food is actually hard to find. As they get to know themselves, they shouldn't forget some of the good things that made them think they were a restaurant in the first place. S

Brandon Fox writes the blog "Brandon Eats" at www.brandoneats.com.



Down Under Restaurant and Lounge $$
11 S. 12th St.
225-8117
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Monday-Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Smoking; handicapped access in back.
www.downunderrl.com

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