Cookin' or cuisine? Virginia fare from dumplings to duck eggs

What exactly is Virginia cuisine? Massachusetts has its baked beans and simply-prepared seafood, Louisiana is noted for Creole and Cajun specialties, Maryland boasts crab cakes, and Texas is big on barbecue– but what culinary qualities do diners think of in connection with Virginia? A meal at a colonial Williamsburg Tavern, perhaps, with its popovers and peanut soup? A bowl of Brunswick stew?

If you ask Debbie Hackett of Henry's Restaurant why her regular customers come back time and again, she'll say it's because of her "homemade Virginia cooking." Debbie and her husband, Henry, have opened, operated, and sold three Henry's Restaurants-­ including one on the Downtown Mall in the early '80s and another on Fifth Street, which was sold to Amigo's four years ago.

When the couple heard that Immigrant Soul had closed and was for sale in the spring, they decided it was time to open Henry's once again, this time on a slightly more lively (compared to the '80s), restaurant-friendly Downtown Mall.

Debbie has no doubt that her food will go over big, even in the subterranean location she has chosen, which has churned through at least five operations in a decade. (The Mogul, The Pasta House, Brasil-Brazil, and Lafayette preceded Immigrant Soul.)

"People have always came to me wherever I was," she tells Dish with characteristic confidence. After talking with her for just a few minutes, I began to wonder why the restaurant isn't called Debbie's.

"If it has to be done, I'll do it," she says. "I'm doing all the painting, and I do all the cooking." I jokingly ask if she is going to sew new tablecloths, too. "I may. I can do that," she replies.

Customers must find Debbie a hoot. But it's her Virginia home-cooking that has brought them back over the years-­ some even two or three times a day. So what's her interpretation of the term? Hamburger steak smothered with gravy and onions, meatloaf, chipped beef, chili, macaroni and cheese, chicken-noodle soup, carrot cake, fruit and special frozen pies like the popular "nutty-butty"– sounds like comfort food with a capital C.

"I make everything from scratch," Debbie says. Which is why, at least at first, she (and Henry) will be open only for breakfast and lunch-­ plus the occasional Friday night. "I want to ease my way into dinner," she says.


Another side of the coin

So that's one interpretation. Mark Gresge, the owner-chef of l'étoile, has quite a different one. L'étoile specializes in what they call "Virginia-inspired cuisine." What, exactly, is that?

"We're still trying to define it," Gresge admits, "but basically we're taking all local ingredients– from seasonal produce to free-range chicken and high-protein duck eggs– and interpreting them with French techniques."

The difference between Henry's and l'etoile could, in fact, be as simple as the difference between cooking and cuisine. The latter term is French, after all, and it's no coincidence that Gresge points to the award-winning, chic Inn at Little Washington as the founding father of this fresh/French take on Virginia cuisine. Jefferson would no doubt approve of this European influence on Albemarle "cooking."

I say, the more twists, the better.


Speaking of inns and seasonal produce, The Seasonal Cook (located in the Main Street Market) is offering a special series of cooking classes this Fall that will focus on what we could now call "Virginia cuisine."

Jean Knorr, owner of The Seasonal Cook, asked chefs from area inns– Gail Hobbs Page of The Mark Addy Inn, Paul Deigl of the Inn at Meander Plantation, and Alan Archer of the Keswick Club-­ to develop and teach a menu that takes full advantage of local seasonal produce-­ apples, pumpkins, root vegetables, mushrooms.

A glance at a few of the recipes– vinaigrette-tossed baby arugula finished with 24-karat gold white truffle oil, mixed grill of game with a roasted apple risotto, and smoked Virginia pecorino with a local cider reduction-­ reveals that we're definitely in cuisine (vs. home-cookin') territory here.

Bon appétit.

Henry and Debbie Hackett