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Revolutionary Soup turns starter to meal

Soup is a starter. At least at some places. At Revolutionary Soup, however, soup is the main event.

Located in a stark, crimson-painted basement room on the Downtown Mall, Revolutionary Soup truly seems to be a revolutionary enclave and, in one culinary way, it actually is. At Revolutionary Soup, soup leaps from being simply part of a meal to being a meal from which it is hard to part.

Founded in June 1998 by University alumna and former Duner's pastry chef Wendy Verhagen, it is a restaurant that attempts -- and succeeds -- at making the ordinary extraordinary.

From Verhagen's creative eye and ladle come nine soups, which are offered up to the patron's palette. Of these soups, four are staples, which are featured daily. These tasty standards are miso with shitake mushrooms and carrots, Senegalese peanut soup, lamb curry, and lobster and crab chowder.

Of these daily soups, the miso is the most mild. Largely broth-based, it incorporates a combination of carrots, seaweed and scallions. The seaweed stands out and gives the miso its salty bite. This soup is well-done and reasonably priced at $2.75 for a small, $3.25 for a medium, and $3.75 for a large.

Still, the miso is not the best of Revolutionary Soup's culinary creations. Particularly excellent is the lamb curry.

At $4.00 for a small bowl, the lamb curry is a rich and hearty soup that melds tender chunks of lamb with red potatoes, lentils, tomatoes and spinach. And, with the zing of zesty curry flavor, this lamb soup makes for a spicy indulgence.

Equally strong is the Senegalese peanut soup, which is as appealing to the eye as it is to the tongue. Vibrant orange, thick and creamy, this soup excellently combines the smooth richness of peanuts with the potency of spice, and so takes a traditional Virginia specialty to a new exotic level. The only thing working against this soup is the incorporation of tofu, which does not hinder the taste, but which adds a somewhat unsettling slimy sensation to a spoonful for the novice vegan.

Chowder lovers will revel in Revolutionary Soup's lobster and crab concoction. Not only does it provide its consumer with nice strips of the undersea dwellers, but it also makes food pyramid points by being loaded with kernels of corn and peels of onions. Creamy, like the peanut soup, the chowder is a hearty meal in and of itself and is reasonable, starting at $3.75 a bowl.

A soup that is not featured daily, but is of particular note, is the restaurant's version of posole. In fact, this soup might be the best soup Revolutionary Soup offers. Made from a blend of Mexican pork, chicken and hominy, the posole is served over rice and makes for a very thick stew and a very satisfying meal. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in its artful meld of savory flavors and its balance of comfort food with spicy experimentation. Starting at $3.75, the posole is a filling choice that makes one appreciate the potential for soup to be more than simply a side dish.

Not as strong are the sweet potato lentil soup and the cream of broccoli soup. Both of these soups are somewhat bland. The cream of broccoli particularly fails by being watered down and incorporating traces of broccoli, but no real fronds. Such experiments do not draw patrons, and do not reflect the general satisfaction that comes with a warm bowl of Revolutionary Soup.

Each day, new soups are created. With them always come two staples -- the kindly demeanor of the counter help and a generous hunk of crusty white or wheat bread. The help can be found happily, just inside Revolutionary Soup, while the bread comes from just down the street at Albermarle Baking Company. Both enhance the place and the meal through their equally warm contributions to the experience.

And, should the customer not be full from a hearty heaping of soup, Revolutionary Soup has some gooey brownies and cookies at the counter to ensure that customers leave with a sweet taste in their mouths.

Diners also will leave without a hole in their pockets and, although meals can be had for pocket change, payment is easier than ever as Revolutionary Soup recently began accepting credit cards.

Even though the Hoo Bus stops on the Downtown Mall right in front of Revolutionary Soup, getting to the restaurant during its open hours can be the tricky part. Revolutionary Soup is closed by 3 p.m. on Saturday and is closed all day Sunday. But the restaurant is great for weekday lunches and warm winter dinners as it is open 11:30 a.m. through 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and is open an extra hour Friday evening.

With its unusual premise, funky atmosphere and some truly revolutionary soup, Revolutionary Soup is a culinary rarity in Charlottesville and brings a new meaning to the word "starter"

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