The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Five Finds on Friday: Shelly Robb

Shelly

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Shelly Robb, partner and GM of the soon-to-open Prime 109. As GM, Robb will oversee events in Prime 109’s private rooms, which, given the anticipation for the restaurant, may be in high demand as the holiday season approaches. You can start planning yours already by emailing:  primeevents@109steak.com.

In the background Robb provided about herself, such as her time at Bizou and Tavola, Robb included a detail more touching than any Five Finds participant ever has. “Side note: I have extremely supportive parents who never once made me feel guilty or not good enough for doing what I loved. When you choose to do something completely different from your education, and they are still proud of you and supportive: Priceless.” Robb’s picks:

1) Marinara D.O.C. at Lampo. “The light char, San Marzano, garlic, and oregano lend to a perfectly balanced pizza. I love spicy, so I often add a side of Calabrian chili. It is so simple and addicting.”

2) Hop Cider from Potter’s Craft Cider. “I remember the first time I tried their cider. I was the general manager at Bizou and Tim brought by a sample of their Farmhouse Dry. I’ve since been hooked on pretty much everything they make.”

3) Pinot Noir from Ankida Ridge. “One of the first Virginia wines I fell in love with. I am so excited to try their Brut Sparkling as well.”

4) Palak Paneer or Vegetable Vin D’Alho at Milan. “Indian hot with a side of garlic naan. A once a week must.”

5) Dry Aged Steaks at Prime 109. “Ian has done an amazing job with our dry aging program. It is honestly the best steak I’ve ever had.”

 

Introducing the Prime 109 Bar

Among the many reasons for excitement about the new restaurant Prime 109 – the team, the space, the food – it is easy to overlook the bar. And yet, for Charlottesville cocktail enthusiasts, the opening of a bar like Prime 109’s would by itself be cause for celebration. While our bar scene has its fair share of homegrown talent, never has someone come to Charlottesville with experience in top cocktail bars like Prime 109’s Abraham Hawkins.

Who is Abraham Hawkins?

In 2005, while living in New York, Abraham Hawkins visited a new West Village bar that friends had recommended to him. The bar was Little Branch, the first offshoot of Milk & Honey for late cocktail bar pioneer Sasha Petraske. Hawkins had never been to a serious cocktail bar before, and was hooked. “How could anyone resist?” says Hawkins. “Like so many others, I was captivated immediately by the environment, their confidence in what they were doing, the style and the substance.”

Hawkins was so taken by Little Branch that he sought a job there. But, first he had to train. His mentor was Petraske protege Richie Boccato:

Every Wednesday for a few months I came in at four, which was the call time for the opening bartender. I spent the three hours before opening cutting all the ice – popping and filling molds and chopping rocks – and setting up the two bar stations for service, which were the opening bartender’s duties. Then Richie would come in (with all of his tedious work done) and start working the point station where I would stand at his bar all night long, watching him work, asking him questions about his process, listening to his explanations, and reading and drinking my way through what must have been the entire Little Branch spec book – their compendium of adapted and modern classics.  It was a real treat, and gave me more than a small leg up when I started getting behind the stick myself at that bar.

Hawkins’ education continued on the job, learning from his peers at Little Branch. Of his many mentors, none was more influential than Petraske, the “father of the modern cocktail bar” whose New York Times obituary credits him with restoring “lost luster to the venerable cocktail.” Hawkins agrees: “Petraske did more for modern cocktail culture than anyone else. And, I was there to see it all happen, and make it happen in the ways I was able to contribute.”

Hawkins’ biggest contribution was helping Boccato create the bar Dutch Kills, a Petraske project that opened in 2009. Hawkins calls it one of his proudest achievements. “It was and continues to be one of the world’s greatest cocktail bars,” says Hawkins. And, he is not exaggerating. In addition to routinely making lists of New York’s best, Dutch Kills won Best International Bar at the Bartender’s Choice Awards in Sweden.

hawkinsdk

Abraham Hawkins at Dutch Kills. Photo by Alain Joseph.

Ice Ice Baby

After more than a decade at some of New York’s best cocktail bars, Hawkins came to Charlottesville in 2016 in search of something new. With Prime 109, he has found exactly that — the chance to build his own bar from the ground up. In doing so, the biggest lesson Hawkins brings with him from his New York schooling is the importance of attention to detail. But, the attention to detail must be for a substantive purpose in enhancing guests’ experience, not just for show.

For customers, Hawkins concedes, the difference between purposeful attention to detail and pure show may not always be clear. Take bars’ ice programs, which many may view as a pretentious gimmick. “I know that hearing the words ‘ice program’ makes people roll their eyes,” says Hawkins. “I feel the same. It reeks of the kind of elitist pretension that alienates people from cocktail bars, and that’s the last thing I want.”

But, Hawkins explains, ice programs are an essential part of the very best cocktail bars, many of which devote hours every day to preparing ice and cutting it into various shapes. Dutch Kills was a pioneer in this regard, Hawkins says – one of the first bars known to use hand cut large format ice, broken down in house. After initially outsourcing the large blocks, Dutch Kills now makes all of its ice onsite.

Why all the effort? Because of how ice influences a drink, says Hawkins. The two vital factors are temperature and water content. “Using different types of ice, and applying the technique that they allow, both in the preparation and service of drinks,” Hawkins says, “gives you more control over these factors.” Petraske once explained ice’s importance:

Imagine it’s a hot summer day and you’ve been working outdoors. You crack open an ice-cold bottle of Coke. Unbeatable. Now, leave that same bottle of Coke open at room temperature until it’s warm and flat. Undrinkable. Yet we haven’t changed the recipe or the chemical composition of it at all.

The Prime 109 Bar will have large format “flawless” ice for down drinks, Hawkins says, and will also shake drinks with big ice instead of standard-sized cubes, which enables chilling a drink without watering it down. The type of ice in guests’ glass will depend on their order. Tall drinks, for example “will be served on spears of ice that fit the glass like a dream,” Hawkins says. “Not just beautiful, these larger and tailored formats of ice allow for the preparation of drinks that have optimal temperature and water content, and give drinks a longer lifespan in the glass, staying cold without getting too quickly over-diluted.”

hundredweight-spear

Spear from Dutch Kills’ Hundredweight Big Ice.

The Prime 109 Bar

It’s not just ice. Hawkins plans to bring the same attention to detail to all aspects of serving guests, and without pretense. “My bartending philosophy is rooted in the fact that we are here for our guests first and foremost, not to satisfy our own egos,” Hawkins says. A thirteen-page training manual that Hawkins drafted for Prime 109 Bar staff  begins with a quote from his mentor Petraske.

We are craftsmen. We are not artists, nor ‘mixologists’, nor bar chefs. Just bartenders, doing something that, although quite simple, few bars can manage to do. We make cocktails as well as can be made, and that should not be such a big deal.

Indeed, much of the Prime 109 cocktail menu is classics, done well. A House Martini, House Manhattan, and House Old Fashioned. “No bartender worth their salt is beyond the basics,” Hawkins’ training manual reads. “And, a bartender without absolute and unquestionable reverence for the basics has nothing to build on.” In Petraske’s posthumous book Regarding Cocktails, Hawkins described Petraske’s commitment to quality, which Hawkins seeks to emulate:

Sasha’s pursuit of quality was relentless. If there was a problem with one of the drinks in a round, the whole round would be thrown out and begun again. Every drink had to be perfect and they all had to go out together. What mattered always was quietly and unobtrusively doing our part—not for applause or personal gain, but simply because it was the right way to do things.

One of Hawkins’ favorite classics from the Prime 109 menu is the Bramble – lemon, sugar, blackberries, and gin. “Simple, fresh, and beautiful,” says Hawkins.

Bramble

Bramble

The menu also borrows from Hawkins’ mentors, like the Cobble Hill – dry vermouth, amaro montenegro, rye, and bruised cucumber – conceived as a “summertime Manhattan” by Milk & Honey alum Sam Ross. “Strange and brilliant,” says Hawkins. Another is Boccato’s An American Trilogy – demerara sugar, Apple Jack, and rye.

trilogy

An American Trilogy

And, for those with a sweet tooth, Hawkins likes the Cafe Con Leche – Goslings rum, Lolita, sugar, cream, egg yolk, and nutmeg. “F-ing delicious, excuse my French,” says Hawkins.

But, Hawkins’ favorite way to order is his favorite way to take orders, too: “bartender’s choice.” At Dutch Kills, he says, more than 80% of the drinks were ordered this way. To this end, Hawkins’ manual urges staff to expand their repertoires, and commit them to memory. “The more you know,” the manual says, “the more options you have for both satisfying specific demands and making honed recommendations to guests.” Also vital is grasping the basic framework of the essential cocktails – i.e. the drinks which are the theme on which others are a variation. Just as the five “mother” sauces of classical French cooking are foundations that yield countless variations, Hawkins says, so it is with cocktails. You might add bitters to a Gimlet to make a Bennett, or blackberries to a Gin Fix to make a Bramble, says Hawkins. “The possibilities are vast but become focused and relatable in relation to the basics that root them.”

The Prime 109 Bar opens soon.

 

Introducing Prime 109

Prime109Logo

When five partners opened a tiny Belmont restaurant in late 2014, skeptics scratched their heads. Sure, it was a talented team. Loren Mendosa had run the kitchen at Tavola and also cooked at MAS. Ian Redshaw had cooked at Tavola and been head chef of L’Etoile. Mitchell Beerens had cooked at Tavola and MAS, and had also helped launch several restaurants for Virginia Restaurant Company. Shelly Robb was longtime GM of Bizou and also assistant manager at Tavola. And, Andrew Cole had directed Tavola’s award-winning beverage program.

But, five working partners and just twenty-one seats? Restaurants’ tight margins often fail to support just one partner, let alone five. And besides, food is an ego-laden business. With so many cooks in the kitchen, egos seemed bound to collide.

And yet, Lampo has thrived. Four years after opening, lines still form outside the restaurant every day for dinner. Since 2014, no restaurant has made more appearances in Five Finds on Friday or Chefs’ “Best Thing I Ate All Year.” And, in both 2017 and 2018, Lampo won Best Restaurant in C-VILLE Weekly’s annual Best of C-VILLE.

For their next trick, the team is going to the opposite extreme: from a tiny pizzeria off-the-beaten-path to a colossal steakhouse in the former Bank of America building at the heart of the downtown mall – Prime 109. While Lampo is one of Charlottesville’s smallest restaurants, the multi-story, 10,000 square-foot Prime 109 might be the downtown mall’s biggest. Ever. Lampo’s entire restaurant could fit in Prime 109’s kitchen. Three times.

And so, again there are skeptics. In a restaurant market that many call over-saturated, Prime 109 is adding more than 150 seats. And, while the steady trend in restaurants is smaller and more casual, Prime 109 is a throwback to grand and opulent.

Prime space

Photo by Signe Clayton.

How does the team plan to overcome a new set of doubts?

The same way they did at Lampo: relationships.

Good People Make Good Restaurants

The relationships most vital to the Lampo team’s success are those they share with each other. At the risk of sounding sappy: good people make good restaurants. And, by good, I mean decent, kind, and caring. Sure, it helps to have talent, passion, and business aptitude. But, what stands out most about great restaurant successes is that they are usually run by good people.

The Lampo team is good people. Tight margins have not sunk them because they care more about each other than squeezing out the last dollar. “We understand that, at the end of the day, best quality products are more important that someone being upset,” says Redshaw. Egos remain intact because no one worries who receives “credit.” When Mendosa was named C-VILLE’s Best Chef in 2015, there was no one happier than his partners. When Redhsaw won the same award this year, it was again his partners who celebrated most. “We were thrilled for Ian,” said Mendosa. “It was great to see the greater public recognize what all of us have known for a long time.”

On a recent national food podcast, Beerens explained what’s behind the team’s success:

We all loved each other. We were real, true friends. And, we trusted each other . . . because these people don’t have a bad bone in their body. It’s not just because we are business partners and we can all gain something off of each other. These are just genuinely good people.

The Team

The Lampo team’s close relationships were never more needed than after a tragic accident Redshaw’s wife Allie suffered in March 2017. Former chef of Timbercreek Market and sous chef of Pippin Hill, Allie’s hand became stuck in a meat grinder at Lampo, eventually requiring amputation. In the wake of Allie’s accident, the Lampo team and food community rallied behind her, and with their support, she channeled her passion from cooking to wine. Now equipped with a prosthetic hand and a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Allie is Prime 109’s Associate Wine Director, assisting Cole as Wine Director.

The kitchen roster, meanwhile, reads like the Golden State Warriors of Charlottesville cooking. At Executive Chef is Redshaw. Chef de Cuisine is Bill Scatena, former head chef of Pippin Hill. Pastry Chef is Beerens, good news to anyone who has had Lampo’s bread or crostatas. And Sauté Cook is Mendosa, who will also serve as the restaurant’s de facto CEO. Got that? No bruised egos here: the restaurant’s CEO and winner of 2015 C-VILLE Best Chef is Sauté Cook. Happily.

Heading the bar is Abraham Hawkins, a 2016 transplant from the Big Apple, who boasts more than a decade of experience in some of New York’s most acclaimed cocktail bars, including the worldrenowned Dutch Kills, which he helped launch in 2009.

Reinventing Local Sourcing

As with Lampo, the idea behind Prime 109 is to fill a void. In the case of Lampo, it was good Neapolitan pizza. With Prime 109, it is a showcase for local meat. Sure, Charlottesville has steakhouses. But none that puts our region’s bounty front and center.

This is where another key set of relationships come in – those with the local food community. As devotees of local sourcing, the Lampo team has built connections with some of our area’s best. With a fondness for meat, Redshaw has led the way on that front through a steak program at Lampo featuring local meat that he dry-ages himself to enhance flavor and tenderness. The steak program became so popular that Prime 109 was a natural outgrowth, drawing on a trio of key partners: Seven Hills, Sherwood Farm, and Highland Orchard Farm.

Prime steak

Dry-aged steak program at Lampo.

An abbatoir and meat wholesaler, Seven Hills has changed the landscape of Virginia beef, Redshaw says. “Their facilities are the most humane I’ve seen,” says Redshaw. “And they focus on the same key tenets we do.” Sherwood Farm and Highland Orchard, meanwhile, are two area farms that Redshaw says raise cattle the right way. “Happier cows make better meat,” proclaims Sherwood Farm.

A key concept behind Prime 109 is that the restaurant’s size will enable it to transform conventional restaurant-farm relationships into true partnerships, with the end result being better products at better prices.

A key concept behind Prime 109 is that the restaurant’s size will enable it to transform conventional restaurant-farm relationships into true partnerships, with the end result being better products at better prices. “I’m most excited about the opportunity to grow and support local farmers in a new way,” says Mendosa, “going beyond just utlilizing their ingredients, to helping streamline their businesses so they’re more profitable and better able to focus on producing the best products.” How? Meat’s typical path from farm-to-table is laden with middle men and inefficiencies: processing, packaging individual cuts, and distribution. The sheer scale of Prime 109 will allow it to cut out many of these inefficiencies by buying whole animals directly from farms and having them processed by Seven Hills specifically for the restaurant. This is a win-win-win. For farms, better profits and more time for other tasks. For Prime 109 and guests, quality products without exorbitant prices.

To help cook this well-sourced meat, the team called on another local connection: acclaimed cookware artisan Blanc Creatives, whose Founder Corry Blanc built Prime 109’s massive wood-fire cooking system. Drawing inspiration from Grillworks and Grills by Demant, Blanc designed the system with grills that can easily be raised and lowered above the fire, to control temperature while achieving the sear that steak-lovers seek. Above each grill is also a vertical rotisserie to hang items for slow cooking, like ducks and prime ribs. “The guys gave me a great opportunity on this one,” says Blanc, “–design, engineer and fabricate a concept that’s been in my head for a while.”

Grill

primesoft3

Photo by Signe Clayton.

The Customer Experience

A spectacular space. A loaded roster. Quality products. What will it all add up to?

The Food

The approach, Redshaw says, is the same as Lampo: technique-driven, flavor-focused food, lacking in ego. Humility aside, Prime 109 will showcase Redshaw’s passion and talent like no restaurant has before. Having seen glimpses of what he can do at Lampo and L’Etoile, Redshaw’s fans in Charlottesville have long awaited a chance like this for him to let loose. And, it’s not just customers who are excited. “We’ve consistently said throughout our partnership that Ian is the most talented in the kitchen,” says Mendosa.

prime ian

Prime 109 Executive Chef Ian Redshaw. Photo by Signe Clayton.

One menu section is a la carte, like a traditional steakhouse. Choose a cut of dry-aged steak, priced per ounce, and pair it with your choice of toppers and sides. Toppers include options like foie gras, bordelaise, and barolo compound butter. Your side might be thrice cooked fries; smoked fingerling potatoes with ramp aioli, smoked salt and chives; or Charleston Ice Cream, Carolina gold Rice, Maine uni, chervil, and puffed wild rice. Plus, Parker House rolls, made to order.

Primesoft5

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Lampo regulars will recognize the attention to detail. For potato pave, a traditional gratin of thinly sliced potatoes is first pressed, and then square portions are deep-fried in tallow, and topped with creme fraiche and chives. For a creamed spinach riff, spinach is sautéed with shallot, garlic and olive oil. Then, rather than folding in bechamel, the spinach is topped with a fonduta out of an iSi and crisped shallot. “It’s all the flavors you think of nostalgically with creamed spinach, while enjoying something a bit lighter,” says Redshaw.

Among dry-aged steaks, the signature is the restaurant’s namesake, Prime 109: Sherwood Farm bone-in rib-eye, dry-aged for 109 days. Redshaw recommends it with a loaded baked potato, rapini, and “Oscar” topping, which is Dungeness crab in a sauce of demi glacé, foie gras, and shaved truffles. “Takes me back to the Steak Diane I had as a child at the Walnut Room in Chicago’s Marshall Field’s,” Redshaw says.

Much of the rest of the menu is refinements of steakhouse classics – dishes the team has been fine-tuning on the side, even running as occasional Lampo specials. Beef tartare is hand cut local beef with mustard seed, anchovy, caper, radish, shallot, parsley, quail egg, and aioli. French onion soup is house bone broth with candy onion and brandy, topped with raclette and sourdough. And, in a dish Lampo regulars might recall as a special, fire roasted lobster is served in uni butter atop spaghetti a la chittara, with calabrian chili, oregano, and tomato.

Another former Lampo special, chicken liver pâté, became so popular that they decided to “retire” it and save it for Prime 109. Chicken liver mousse comes dressed with cherry mostarda, smoked hazelnuts, parsleyed parmesan, frico, and Earl Grey golden raisins.

Keeping with the theme, desserts are updated classics. The Ice Cream Sundae includes Splendora’s cardamom gelato and brown butter gelato, topped with hot fudge, miso caramel, salty peanut brittle, cookies, whipped cream, and, of course, a cherry on top. And, Lemon Meringue Pie builds atop a shortbread crust, with lemon, brûléed meringue, huckleberry sorbet, blueberry, and key lime.

The Wine

The wine list belongs to Wine Director Cole and Associate Wine Director Allie Redshaw. “Tasting with her is remarkable,” Cole says of Allie. “The way she has honed her palate in the kitchen over the last few years allows her to key in on the specific aromas and flavors in a wine.” While Cole’s and Redhsaw’s tastes both lean towards the esoteric, their aim at Prime 109 is to have something for everyone. “Our goal,” says Allie, “is finding a balance between approachability and refined eccentricity.” And so, while there will be plenty of the hard-to-find pét-nats and orange wines that Cole and Redshaw enjoy, there will also be Napa Valley Cabernets for steakhouse traditionalists and lots of Virginia wines to match the local cuisine. Having overseen an exclusively Italian selection at Lampo for the past four years, Cole feels reinvigorated to be able to draw from wines from all over.

PrimeAllie

Prime 109 Associate Wine Director Allie Redshaw. Photo by Signe Clayton.

The Chef’s Counter

The Blanc Creatives custom wood-burning over and grill sit open to the restaurant, bordered on two sides by a marble counter, where guests can enjoy their meal while watching Redshaw and Scatena man the grill. Eventually, Redshaw plans to offer guests at the chef’s counter an omakase-style meal. Tell him how much you’d like to spend and some of your likes and dislikes, and he will take it from there. Or, just order a la carte and watch the show.

Primejv

The chef’s counter. Photo by Signe Clayton.

The Bar

While a chef’s counter “omakase” experience might be a special occasion treat, the team wants Prime 109 to be somewhere you can go often. And so, a bar menu will offer affordable sandwiches of dry-aged roast beef, house pastrami, and the Prime Burger – aged beef, American cheese, pickles, onions, and “Primal sauce,” on a sesame seed bun.

As for Hawkins’ cocktail program, this is next level stuff.  An early disciple of the cocktail renaissance of the past two decades, Hawkins sees both positives and negatives in what it has wrought. One positive is obvious: better cocktails more widely available than ever before. A negative, however, he says, is the flood of opportunists to the industry who mask incompetence by elevating style over substance. Hawkins is all about attention-to-detail, but each detail, he says, must have a substantive purpose to enhance the guest’s experience. It’s not just for show. The term “ice program,” for example, may sound pretentious, but Hawkins says there are good reasons he devotes such an enormous amount of time to cutting and perfecting the size and shape of ice for each drink. Proper temperature, dilution rate, etcVisit here for more details on Hawkins’ ambitious cocktail program.

The Extras

In converting the space from bank to restaurant, with help from JAID + Figure and architect Stephanie Williams, the Prime 109 team was determined to preserve the natural elegance and nuances of the historic building. “The sheer scale and decadence of the existing elements of the space lended themselves to our take-off on a bank heist complete with a steak dinner,” says Amy Morris of JAID + Figure. “We played with scale large and small, from column treatments to glints of brass slicing through floors and climbing up vertical surfaces.” Morris credits Sanger Carpentry (banquettes and back bar), U-Fab (banquette fabric) and Lucent Lampworks (custom lighting) as vital to the result.

prime clock

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Prime column details

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Prime lighting

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Primesoft1

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Primesoft2

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Prime vault

Photo by Signe Clayton.

Using existing features of the bank, bells and whistles abound. The restrooms’ working fireplaces remain. A coat-check revives a dying courtesy. The bank’s former drive-thru is now valet parking. Two second-floor rooms for private events offer dramatic views of the restaurant below. And soon, basement vaults will host events as well.

When Bank of America announced in 2016 that it was leaving the building, exactly 100 years after it was built, Tim Hulbert, executive director of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, told C-VILLE Weekly: “It’s a pretty dramatic space. I suspect some smart entrepreneur will see the opportunity and seize it.”

Prime 109 opens soon.