FOOD- THE EATER- Rock of Ivy: Duner's rotates that localvore menu


Photo by Ryan Hoover

When I find myself explaining my city to outsiders, I'm not just recalling the cosmopolitan restaurant scene, the organic locavore movement, or even the community's infatuation with grocery stores.

I think of institutions, a handful of local restaurants where the cooks flatten hamburger buns, the cashier does magic tricks with spare change, and the owner visits tables to make sure customers are happy– after all, he started out as a line cook when his restaurant opened in 1983.

"Our new people have been here for six or seven years, that's 'new people,'" Duner's owner Bob Caldwell tells me over the phone. "Most nights, I know almost everybody in the room."

He estimates that his Ivy restaurant has served more than a million meals. He calls it a "neighborhood bistro," I call it an institution.

An old friend and I met at Duner's one Monday evening in February. It was early when we arrived, and the two small dining rooms and bar soon swelled with salt-and-pepper couples and ripe families around us. Our waitress appeared to sense that we were catching up after two years and slowed our meal to a leisurely gait.

Duner's changes menu daily– and posts it online every afternoon– and on that particular Monday, we had our pick of 2 soups, 9 appetizers, 18 meat and seafood entrees, 1 each of vegetarian and pasta dishes, 2 sandwiches, and 8 desserts.

The food is mostly contemporary American, though several dishes borrow flavors and techniques from classic French and east Asian cuisine. It would seem too ambitious. But for chef Laura Walke, 24, and her 3-cook line, it's not. They make their own patés, dumplings, and sausage on the premises and order as much produce and cheese from local farmers as they can in the spring-summer-fall months.

I started with an order of four large, delicate butternut squash tortellini resting in brown butter. My friend had a generous portion of grilled scallops the size of quarters, with shrimp creme and thyme, and I enjoyed a smoky essence. Some restaurants would consider these servings entrees, and it was an indication of what was to come.

I ordered what was described on the menu as "Sauteed veal sweetbreads with Pommery mustard demi-glace." My plate held a generous portion of six tender pieces of pan-fried sweetbreads, the thymus gland of a calf, and they were barely breaded but otherwise unadorned, pairing beautifully with the salty, savory sauce. Pommery mustard, made in Meaux, France, is a pricy delicacy with an almost 400-year-old tradition. I could have sworn there was soy sauce in the demi-glace.

My friend was thrilled with her pork loin with bourbon and molasses barbecue sauce. I would have liked to see the pork chop more tender and its sauce more substantial, but the flavor was all there. Both of our dishes were served with smashed potatoes, and we both brought these home with us for late-night second helpings.

Only because we requested take-home boxes did we have room for dessert. My friend's chocolate dome cake was moist with mousse layers and a ganache-like shell, and I appreciated the mild sweetness. I ordered the "ice cream sandwich," promising vanilla ice cream with apricot cobbler between brownie crusts. Cobbler pieces were scarce, and the ice cream was too hard to get a spoon into even after we'd signed our credit card receipts. Duner's could do away with the canned whipped cream garnishes; the desserts need no intimation.

I returned the following Saturday with a couple that hadn't been there in at least four years. They had both forgotten how good the bread is, doughy and salty, never overcooked. Before the meal was over, our server wrapped a loaf for them to bring home. It was a classy move, not one they'll soon forget.

She ordered white bean and kale soup with soft, flavorful venison meatballs, and the broth pulled it together beautifully– light, not too greasy. The venison was likely sidemeat, skillfully reworked from lean cuts that debuted as entrees. He ordered fried oysters with mustard remoulade, enough to fill a dinnerplate, and they smelled and tasted fresh. My fried chicken livers were just right, undoing years of preconceived notions about hard, crumbly morsels. It is not just me: apparently, their liver sells well.

All entrees, and the pasta and vegetarian dishes, come with a side salad and choice of six homemade dressings. The mustard vinaigrette varied slightly in consistency from my first visit to my second, and I prefer it when it skews to mustard rather than oil and vinegar. My blue cheese dressing was the envy of my table on this second visit.

Having sufficiently tried pork, shellfish, and offal, we moved on to red meat, fish, and duck. I tasted my friend's flank steak with a southwestern spiced sauce and seared Rag Mountain trout. The cut and temperature of the steak were expertly done, though I thought the sauce was diminutive. I loved the trout– the stuff of childhood memories in "the real Virginia"– but the fried cakes of crab, potato, and zucchini that accompanied needed more TLC from the spice rack and fry pan.

My duck came two ways, a confit leg and sliced breast, cooked medium, with chard and "crispy" sweet potato gnocchi, which were soft. The confit was decadent– more moist and rich than I've had elsewhere. The natural juices formed the base of the most generous saucing I'd yet seen, which I happen to like.

Charlottesville residents should know–it's hard to argue with tradition. At Duner's, you can count on a good meal, but don't bet you'll get the same thing twice.