Recommended: Five local spots make the cut
In its June 2005 issue, Wine Spectator magazine highlighted Charlottesville as one of six "unique and appealing American wine regions" worth exploring. The tourist-friendly article described both the hip and historic virtues of our town and included a short list of recommended wineries, hotels, and restaurants.
With the July issue comes the announcement of the magazine's international 2005 Restaurant Awards. The awards recognize restaurants whose "wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine, and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers."
To be eligible for one of the three awards– Award of Excellence (2,907 winners), Best of Award of Excellence (613) and the highly-coveted Grand Award (86)– restaurants must submit a complete and accurate copy of their current wine list (including vintages and appellations for all selections) and dinner menu along with a cover letter describing the wine program. Extra points for correct spelling and attractive presentation.
Now that I've explained the rules, time to announce this year's local winners. Out of 82 Virginia restaurants garnering awards, Charlottesville accounted for a total of 5. Keswick Hall's Fossett's shines brightest with the only "Best of" award in town. Sommelier Richard Hewitt designed Fossett's wine list, which includes 650 selections in the "moderate" price range and emphasizes wines from California and France.
According to Wine Spectator, wine-and-dine lovers will also be satisfied by our four "Award of Excellence" winners– The Downtown Grille, C&O, The Silver Thatch Inn, and The Old Mill Room (at The Boar's Head Inn). Wine lists in this category typically include at least 80 well-chosen selections along with a "thematic match to the menu in both price and style."
The Inn at Little Washington was the sole "Grand Award" winner from Virginia.
Attention sommeliers: The deadline for the 2006 Wine Spectator awards is February 1. Now that we're a recognized stop on the wine tour, our restaurants' wine lists can be expected to improve with age.
With all the recent emphasis on local wines, it's only natural to expect (or demand) an increased emphasis on organic as well as fresh, locally grown foods. Leading our local scene is chef Gail Hobbs Page, the former chef at Hamiltons' and the Mark Addy Inn who's now the director and head chef at Maple Hill Farm/Best of What's Around in Scottsville.
She's our local equivalent of Alice Waters, the California food activist and restaurant chef/owner who now has a huge nationwide following. Hobbs Page is currently busy feeding 96 families through Maple Hill's bountiful CSA (community supported agriculture) program. For those interested in participating (you pay a seasonal fee and receive weekly baskets of fresh produce in exchange), they're taking reservations for next spring already at bestofwhatsaround.org.
Hobbs Page is also one of the popular culinary instructors at The Seasonal Cook, the cooking store and kitchen classroom located in the Main Street Market. Her classes generally feature produce from a specific local farm.
"Every class turns into a passionate discussion about food issues," she says. Up next, on August 17, is her class entitled (appropriately): "Chef's Favorite when it's Hotter than Hell!" Since spicy food has a paradoxical cooling effect, this menu includes a red curry beef satay with spicy rice noodles, and a pepper-seared Hatteras tuna on homegrown tomato basil compote.
And if you want a real dining treat in the Alice Waters tradition, take the 75-minute drive to Lynchburg's two-year-old Grace Restaurant in an elegant historic home surrounded by a herb and flower garden. Owners Kent and Brooks Trebilcox change their menu daily (in case a farmer drops by with a bunch of carrots or arugula) and make just about every thing from scratch. They even smoke their own bacon and bake their own bread in their custom-made wood-fired brick-oven.
Why do I bring it up? Not only did I just discover Grace myself and feel the urge to share, but it also happens to be Gail Hobbs Page's favorite restaurant!
A graceful porch at Lynchburg's Grace restaurant