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With more consistency, Hole in the Wall could be a contender.

The Old College Try

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Hole in the Wall
309 N. Laurel St.
Daily 11 a.m.-midnight
225-7103

If you're into clubbing, you might have heard of Hole in the Wall, a former nightspot on the wilder side of VCU's Grace Street corridor. Under new ownership, Hole in the Wall is trying to make a go of it as a bona-fide restaurant, with emphasis on edibles rather than on liquid refreshment.

But true to its name — and unlike other chic gourmet diners such as 821 Bakery Cafe or Millie's — the surroundings at Hole in the Wall are devoid of charm. The staff, on the other hand, is friendly and attentive enough that you almost forget that the place could use a fresh coat of paint. Not that it has to be gimmicky or cute, but it just seems dingy, which is just two letters away from dirty. On both visits, all the doors were open which was not pleasant on an unseasonably warm spring night.

Our first visit was a rough ride. The calamari appetizer ($6.95) was so overcooked that the crispy batter became tooth-testing crunchy. And the squid inside was tough and chewy. Likewise, the other starter of cold Thai noodles ($4.95) was gloppy and sticky and not discernibly spicy or peanutty. Both came on a king-size bed of undressed lettuce. It certainly filled out the plate, but if the chef thought we'd mistake it for a generous appetizer, he was wrong. The Cajun remoulade that came with it, though, was deliciously fiery and sharp.

Entrees were a much bigger hit with both of us. My salmon filet was beautifully cooked, moist and flavorful with a honey and crushed-pecan crust. At $9.95 it was a bargain. Fragrant basmati rice accompanied it, but when I slid my fork in to take the first bite, the whole serving moved at once. Worst of all, the mixed vegetables were too salty to eat.

My guest's 8-ounce ribeye was another surprise bargain at $9.95. It was fork-tender and napped in a light mushroom gravy. The vegetables were the same on his plate as on mine.

Fortunately, one of the new owners has a track record in this town (with Zeus Gallery), so we went back, sure that a second try would be the winner. And it was. Everything was better from calamari to creme brulee.

We started with a cup of chilled cucumber dill soup ($2.95) that was cool and creamy, and exceedingly generous in portion. Ever hopeful that the first visit was a bogus one, I tried the calamari again as a litmus test. It was as perfect as the first time was not, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. We also tried the egg rolls with apricot sauce ($3.95). I was surprised that the vegetable filling was cooked to softness but I wasn't disappointed. The savory filling was complemented by the sweet sauce.

Our entrees were even bigger winners. My jerk pork — another great value at $9.95 — was three hand-sized pieces of pork tenderloin, seasoned to a pleasant burn, accompanied by black beans and fresh salsa. My guest's penne was probably the best value, especially since we had enough to take home and split for lunch the next day. Our waitress identified the three cheeses that dressed it as Parmesan, provolone and "a touch of cream cheese," which is what the dish tasted like. Not only was it generous, it was delicious.

The dessert list isn't long or varied, but all selections are made on-site and worth winding up any evening.

We're willing to conclude that the chef was just having a bad night on our first visit. To be sure, the second visit was so different, we have to wonder if the chef was the same on both nights. Hole in the Wall has all the makings of a good establishment. With more consistency, it could be a

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