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Swanktified

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There's a new place for fine dining at The Rivah this summer and, true to its name, it's fancy in a casual kind of way.

Swank's on Main is the creation of Executive Chef Joe Merolli, whose talent in the kitchen made an even swankier spot, The Trick Dog Café in Irvington, the place to eat and be seen on the Northern Neck for the first three years of its existence.

Fans of Merolli, who helped make Millie's the hippest dining scene in Richmond, will detect glimpses of his skill at Swank's, which opened in January, but they may have to put up with some growing pains.

On two recent visits, both the food and the service displayed some glitches, but judging by the summertime crowds of locals, retirees and weekenders who are packing the place most nights, the kitchen and wait staff are scoring more hits than misses.

The restaurant's grand opening came just in time for the completion of a downtown makeover that's transformed Kilmarnock, already the largest town on the Neck, into a bona fide tourist destination, complete with a trolley bus for visitors.

Two years ago Merolli converted the garage portion of a Shell station into The Brake Pad, a must-stop for the food cognoscenti. Its popularity prompted investors to provide a larger, fancier venue for Merolli's talents.

Now nothing in town is trendier than Swank's. The dining room of the wood-and-stainless space is flanked by a square bar near the front window and an eight-seat counter, where diners can chat with Merolli in a wide-open kitchen while the Queens native prepares dishes from Europe, Asia and the American South. That's if you can hear him over the noise in the room. There also are tables on the sidewalk beneath a black-and-white awning.

Merolli's fascination with foreign food is on display in a platter of lamb served atop Moroccan couscous, accompanied by a crispy East Indian tortilla made with lentil flour and cucumber yogurt. The loin of lamb, marinated in five spices and cut into thick slices, was moist and chewy, a most satisfying dish.

Equally enjoyable was flaky trout generously covered with almond slivers, flanked by chunks of jumbo lump crab and served over stone-ground grits.

Less successful was a roasted monkfish, sometimes called the poor man's lobster because of its firm and meaty texture, which in this case was mushy and taste-challenged. What flavor there was came largely from caramelized-onion mashed potatoes, braised fennel and a garlic sauce.

Entrees, which also include a New York strip steak, grilled salmon, Cajun chicken and vegetarian pasta, range from $12 to $28, although a special filet mignon climbs to $35.

Most of the sauces and desserts -- try the chocolate pté — are made on the premises, but a spicy dipping sauce that highlights fried calamari is homemade and worth the trip.

Regular appetizers ($7 to $12) include grilled Hawaiian prawns, Thai beef salad, duck confit eggrolls and catfish goujonnettes, a fish equivalent of chicken tenders.

Lunch entrees ($8 to $12) include pan-fried liver, a seafood taco, grilled shrimp pizza and a steak-and-egg crêpe. Sandwiches are less exotic — chicken and tuna salad, pastrami and Swiss, chicken, pork and a turkey breast, salami and cheese club.

Sunday brunch ($8 to $15), at least on one visit, failed to rise to a swanky level. That Mexican favorite, huevos rancheros, usually a spicy egg dish, was so bland it couldn't be rescued by salt, which, in a bit of chef ego, was not on the table, and the accompanying salsa and sour cream couldn't fill the void. Has Merolli been gone so long from Millie's that he's forgotten about its famed spicy "messes"?

Better was the Hangtown Fry (a San Francisco specialty), an omelet of scrambled egg, ham, onion and cheese topped with fried oysters.

The name Swank's isn't a nostalgic tribute to the flashy style of the Roaring '20s, but the name of those investors who briefly had an ownership interest in the restaurant. (Susan Hill subsequently reopened The Brake Pad and re-christened it The Car Wash Café. It serves standard breakfast and lunch fare.)

While Merolli liked the play on words, he wishes he'd asked Swank's owner, John Tripodi, to change it to Swanky Joe's. Even without tablecloths, the name would fit. S

Swank's on Main ($$$)
36 N. Main St., Kilmarnock
(804) 436-1010
www.swanksonmain.com
Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

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