Luckily Local: Stomachs, get ready to rumble!
There's a running joke here in the newsroom about using "fresh ingredients" in our stories, taken from the often-used phrase in restaurant promotions, which is basically code for meaningless filler. In Charlottesville, however, when we say that restaurants use fresh ingredients, that's a legitimate use of the phrase. Why? Well, I remember talking with former Boar's Head chef Doug Knopp back in 2006, as he berated corporate chicken plants that use steroids and extolled the virtues of local organic farmers like Joel Salatin (pictured) of Polyface Farm near Staunton. Knopp talked about the "Slow Food Movement," an effort to counteract corporate food production by promoting biodiversity in our food supply, preserving traditional wine and food culture, and connecting consumers with ecologically responsible food producers. But there was a problem. He just couldn't get enough locally produced food to fill his menu, even from Salatin.
In just six years, that situation has completely changed. The Local Food Hub, a non-profit organization that connects local farmers with local buyers (and our chosen charity for Restaurant Week), now works with more than 70 farms within 100 miles of Charlottesville, and if you're familiar with the local restaurant scene these days, you know that local menus are packed with local food offerings. Supply has caught up with Knopp's once frustrated demand.
Indeed, Salatin not only supplies many locally owned restaurants, the Chipotle in Charlottesville became the first chain restaurant in the area to buy all its pork from a local farm.
"The sheer amount of restaurants and local goods around here is amazing," says L'etoile chef Mark Gresge. "The relationships that you can have with local farmers and their products is imperative to having a locally sourced restaurant."
As you make your Restaurant Week selections in Charlottesville, keep in mind that most of the restaurants participating use local produce, a remarkable development in our area, and one that makes us very lucky. In a country that serves up so much crap food, absent the essential nutrients we need to be truly healthy, so many "fresh ingredients" on our plates is something for which we should feel grateful. Because it's not some marketing gimmick, some trend designed to charge more for food; it's a matter of life and health.
Several years ago, I made an early morning visit to Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, and after a tour of his farm operation we sat down in his kitchen to have breakfast. His wife graciously cooked up some of the farm's eggs and sausage, along with some raw milk and local apple juice from a nearby producer. It was a modest portion of food, but Salatin had a prediction.
"You won't be hungry until later tonight," he said.
Indeed, I wasn't hungry until the next day. No special research needed. What Salatin's wife served up was so packed with what is supposed to be in food that my body needed nothing else.
Welcome to Restaurant Week 2013 in Charlottesville
Since its inception in July 2009, Restaurant Week has been an event that has made locals and visitors alike more famished each time it's held, prompting some of the best restaurants in the area to step up their game, while taking their price points down a notch. January's title bout features food warriors from Crozet to Madison and everywhere in between, battling not against each other, but for the pleasure of your company. This year, 13 of the most popular restaurants will surely be welcoming old friends during Restaurant Week, but they will also be making new ones.
As RW veteran and C&O owner Dave Simpson put it, "I like restaurant week because it exposes us to people who might not otherwise come here, or who haven't before. It widens our circle of friends."
The Italian Stallion: Ristorante Al Dente
Once a mainstay on the Downtown Mall, this "true" Italian restaurant made the move to the Frank Ix building and never looked back. A little hard to find, perhaps, but worth the trouble. Head down Monticello Avenue and turn on to 6th Street, or go past the Newsplex off Elliott Avenue. You'll find a Tuscan-themed, softly lit oasis for mussels in a spicy marinara sauce and bruschetta. Expect to take your time and soak in the warm atmosphere that chef/owner Karim Sellam has created.
The Shining Star: L’etoile
It's hard to think of a more imaginative, passionate chef/owner than Mark Gresge of L’etoile, who now has chef Ian Redshaw at his side. Gresge is always thinking about ways to innovate and to use local produce– he has even used produce from some of his customers' own gardens–and to make the dining experience at L’etoile out of the ordinary.
"Our attention to detail, taking local nice ingredients and not fussing with them too much" sets L'etoile apart, he says. "A big key is knowing when to stop," says Gresge. The ingredients, he explains, "all have to make sense and flow together."
The American Dream: Balkan Bistro & Bar
A decade ago, owner Anja Andelic and her family were struggling refugees of the Bosnian War. With the help of the local International Rescue Committee, they eventually relocated to Charlottesville, where they began selling things like traditional meat pie (burek), cevapcici, a kind of grilled minced-meat sandwich, and, of course, baklava at the City Market. Later, they would open up a small bakery on Water Street, and about two years ago, they opened up a full-service restaurant on West Main near the UVA Corner.
In addition to homemade sausages, kielbasa, panini sandwiches, and salads, they also offer beer from Croatia, Slovenia, and Russia.
"We're the only restaurant in Charlottesville serving these beers," says Andelic, "and the only one making our own kielbasa, hamburger patties, and sausages in-house."
The Smooth Operator: Bang!
Well, here's your chance to get some Bang! for your buck. Sorry, couldn't resist. Seriously, though, Bang! is perhaps one of the most underrated restaurants in Charlottesville. Great atmosphere, martinis to die for, and a kind of Asian/tapas cuisine that is both inventive and tasty. Think pulled pork tacos with wasabi slaw, chickpea spring rolls, fried green beans, and eggplant tempura. Plus, it was founded by chefs Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne (pictured), who helped make Charlottesville the foodie town it is.
This Old Friend: The Bavarian Chef
Seriously, this place is always a favorite with Restaurant Week goers. Many people in the area have been going here for years, despite the trek out to Madison. Why? Maybe it's the great German food and the oversize glasses of Weihenstephaner on tap, the golden brown wienerschnitzel, or the spätzle everyone talks about. Likely, though, it has a lot to do with the Thalwitz family, who have been running the place since 1974.
The Phoenix: Caffe Bocce
Back in the day, Caffe Bocce helped put the little river town of Scottsville on the map. Then, after a near decade-long hiatus, this upscale nouvelle Italian concept reappeared in downtown Charlottesville this year on East Market Street in the space formerly occupied by Carlton's.
Chef/owner Christopher Long closed his original Caffe Bocce in 2005 and spent the next few years running a restaurant in Rhinebeck, a scenic village north of New York City in Dutchess County.
"I have a love affair with the Hudson Valley and Central Virginia," says Long, who once again resides in Scottsville, where he served as mayor for several years.
Now, fans of the old Caffe Bocce can once again appreciate the care his kitchen likes to lavish on fish dishes, as well as his French-inspired sauces.
The Master: Old Mill Room at the Boar's Head
Chefs at the Old Mill Room were using local food long before it became so fashionable, and that tradition continues under executive chef Bill Justis, who works regularly with thirteen local vendors, including Polyface Farm, Afton Mountain Farm Orchard Greenhouse (amFOG), Piney River Organics, and Cherry Glen Farm (home of delicious goat cheese, among other things). A stately, elegant place in the center of the Boar's Head resort, the Old Mill Room exudes a fine dining atmosphere, but the cuisine is often light and inventive, like a sashimi tuna on a seaweed salad with an exquisite tempura mushroom grown at amFOG, or the Old Mill Room's signature peanut soup and lobster bisque–- which actually has big chunks of lobster in it!
The Pro: Burtons Grill
A budding chain, yes, but the Massachusetts-based eatery has made a name for itself by offering contemporary American cuisine in an upscale, casual setting, and doing it right. There's also a kids menu, and a separate, gluten-free menu. Chefs here also have quite a bit of leeway. For instance, made-from-scratch risotto fritters (mild Italian sausage and imported provolone surrounded by panko-crusted risotto and deep-fried, served with homemade zesty tomato sauce) are tough to resist, as is their blood orange scallop risotto (sea scallops seared over a creamy risotto with butternut squash, arugula, and cremini mushrooms topped with a blood orange glaze).
"The colors, fresh ingredients, and balance of salt/sweet make our blood orange scallop risotto fantastic dish," says Chef Jereme Nemethe.
The Crozet Secret: da Luca Bistro & Bar
Like a trip to the Bavarian Chef, visiting da Luca Bistro & Bar involves a bit of travel, this time out to Old Trail Village in scenic Crozet. Along with some breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountain views, you'll be treated to their "made from scratch" Mediterranean cuisine, served up by chef Joshua J.Dubinsky-Naber, who uses locally baked bread, Afton-farmed produce, and handmade pasta from Charlottesville. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Dubinsky-Naber became an executive chef at the tender age of 22, and has been wowing foodies ever since.
The Innovator: Horse & Hound Gastropub
Another widely underrated restaurant, Horse & Hound has consistently been a Restaurant Week favorite. Indeed, foodies always keep expressing surprise at how good the food and service is, but we don't. It's just hearty, wonderful cuisine, like the scallops with butternut squash and mashed potatoes, the prime rib, the thick-cut bacon at brunch, or the great beer pairings they do. Think it might be time to take chefs/owners Luther and Brooke Fedora off the "pleasantly surprised" list and put them on the "sure thing" list.
The Choice: The Melting Pot
Having grown up in the 1970s, I know fondue. At one point, it seemed like everyone had a fondue pot, or was having fondue parties. Of course, that trend quickly faded and those pots began collecting dust in cabinets across America. But then came the Melting Pot. Fondue was reborn. The Melting Pot has a great space downtown on Water Street about a block west of C&O, and it's always a fun alternative to traditional dining.
The Passion: Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar
Food, service, atmosphere: it's hard to go wrong with Orzo. Owners Ken Wooten and Charles Roumeliotes, along with executive chef Tommy Lasley, are truly some of the warmest, friendliest restaurant people you're likely to meet, and that spirit trickles down into all they do. Quite simply: these smart folks, who bring to Charlottesville the traditions of Italy, Greece, and Spain, know what they are doing.
The Veteran: C&O Restaurant
This is perhaps the best known restaurant in Charlottesville. As a result, expectations are always high for those planning a visit. Remarkably, the place has been meeting those expectations for three decades! Recently, chef Dean Maupin took the reigns from longtime owner Dave Simpson.
"I'm not some groundbreaking chef," Maupin told the Hook. "I think of myself as a cook, and I take great pride in sourcing great product, and not complicating it."
Of course, Maupin has "cooked" at places like the Clifton Inn and Keswick, two of the finest restaurants in the area, so take his self-imposed "cook" moniker with a grain of salt.