The Charlottesville 29

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

In Defense of Praise

I am sometimes asked: “Why don’t you ever write anything negative?” Or, “Do you like everything?”

These are good questions. Both on this site and in my articles for C-VILLE Weekly, you will find nary a negative word. It is fair to question the value of food writing that fails to discriminate between the good and the bad.  Saying everything is good is just as helpful as saying nothing is. As some have argued, “readers want reporters, not fanboys.”

Yet, my focus on the positive is deliberate, and the product of much consideration. Before I began food writing, I pondered whether it is possible to be an effective food writer without criticizing. I ultimately decided that it is, and there are reasons behind my decision to do so.  Here they are.

First, the primary purpose of The Charlottesville 29 is to draw attention to the wonderful food in the Charlottesville area that I believe warrants attention. Criticizing food and restaurants has nothing to do with that goal. There are times, perhaps, when my praise goes overboard, evidenced by readers who mistake my writing for marketing and who email me to try to make a reservation (which has happened more than once). But, my praise is always sincere. This site does not advertise and has never generated a penny in revenue. Nor have I ever owned or invested in any restaurant.

Second, I do in fact discriminate when I choose what to write about. Throughout my writing, I have adhered to a simple rule: If I don’t like it, I won’t write about it. The good, I write about. Everything else, I don’t. As my wife can attest, I spend an absurd amount of time brooding over which restaurants are worthy of inclusion in The Charlottesville 29. Some readers have noticed the conspicuous absence of certain popular restaurants from my selections for The Charlottesville 29 and from my food writing generally. About those restaurants, I follow the advice of Thumper:  “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Third, among the restaurants I do write about, I discriminate by focusing on specific dishes. Even at great restaurants, some dishes are better than others. The guides for restaurants in The Charlottesville 29 include recommendations for what to order, as do my C-VILLE articles. These recommendations may have value to a reader scanning a restaurant menu and deciding on which dish to spend his hard-earned money.

Fourth, who am I to say? If I do not like something, who cares? In drawing attention to the places I love, my hope is that others who share my tastes may grow to trust my recommendations. Praise for a restaurant a reader hasn’t tried may encourage the reader to try it. But, if I dislike something, on the other hand, what’s the value in publishing that? Surely, there will be countless readers who disagree with me, and who should see for themselves. On one recent Friday evening, I picked up my son from a birthday party at a chain restaurant on 29N. As I rarely find myself in such restaurants, I was stunned to see how packed it was. People everywhere, there was barely space to move. It reminded me of the large portion of the population whose taste differs from mine. Another reminder is when my children listen to American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest. My favorite 40 songs evidently differ from America’s. But, I am not right, and others are not wrong. One man’s Air Bud is another man’s Citizen Kane.

Fifth, I have better things to do with my leisure time than criticize others. Among the most significant things I’ve learned while covering food is the extraordinary amount of time, effort, and passion that it takes to run a food business. Food writing for me is a hobby that I squeeze into the rare moments when my career and family responsibilities do not occupy my time. What kind of psychopath uses his spare time to dump on someone’s life work?

Sixth, I am an eternal optimist.

All of this being said, I would not rule out the possibility that I might one day re-consider my exclusive focus on the positive. Chefs and restaurateurs sometimes ask me for constructive criticism, which I have slowly become more willing to provide, person-to-person. Reasonable minds can differ on the value of publishing that critique. For now, however, my focus remains positive.

Never for money, always for love.

Five Finds on Friday: Nina Promisel


Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Nina Promisel of Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, which recently celebrated its 20th year as Crozet’s favorite gourmet market. In addition to sandwiches, salads, and prepared items, the shop has become knonw for its selection of gourmet and local goods, plus beer and wine, including one of the area’s best selections of natural wines, vermouths, and amari. Promisel’s picks:

1) Stir Fried Cabbage at Pad Thai. “Probably the single dish I think about more than any other in town, because it is so simple and perfect. Santi and family’s Thai food is delicious and authentic, and the hospitality is outstanding.”

2) Dumpling Soup from Sussex Farm. “It is my regular habit to reward myself on Saturday mornings for getting to the Charlottesville City Market early enough to get back to Greenwood in time to open up the store. If there’s no soup that day, the Breakfast Bowl (add avocado and kimchi!) also makes me feel victorious.”

3) Sauteed Escarole and a Negroni at Lampo. “At the other end of the day, I love
to score a seat at the bar at Lampo and have one of their perfect Negronis
along with an order of the escarole, and anything that’s on the specials list.”

4) Merguez Sausage and Winter Greens from Double H Farm. “We buy all kinds of amazing produce and meats from Ara and Gayane for the store, but for my own quick and delicious dinner, a pan full of the Merguez and a pile of whatever greens they are offering this week is hard to beat.”

5) Pulpo at Comal. “Finally made it to Comal, and was so impressed with our whole meal (basically one of everything on the menu), but the pulpo was so perfectly cooked and accompanied that it really stood out as a special dish. Can’t wait to go back.”

Dumpling soup from Sussex Farm

Vu Noodles to Move to The Flat Creperie Space


Sad news came today that The Flat Creperie, a longtime fixture for real crepes on the downtown mall, had closed. The good news is that the new tenant will be Vu Noodles, the beloved Vietnamese vegan food restaurant that had been sharing space with Pearl Island Cafe at Jefferson School City Center.

“I’m thrilled and so lucky to have The Flat,” says owner Julie Vu Whitaker. “It has been a place I wanted for so long.” As for what to expect at the new location: “sky’s the limit!” says Whitaker. Pho every day, to start. And, down the road, crepes may in fact return to the former creperie, in the form of banh cuon, traditional Vietnamese rice crepes (below).

Whitaker is building her new kitchen now, and expects a Spring opening. Stay tuned for vegan food so satisfying, even carnivores swoon.


Introducing Kanak: the Milan team brings Indian food to 5th Street Station


Charanjeet Ghotra is at it again. The co-owner of several revered Indian restaurants in Virginia has opened yet another.

A native of Punjab, India, Ghotra came to the United States in 1996, at the age of 20, as he puts it: “with the American dream in my mind.” Family friends first put him to work at a Long Island restaurant, and then sent him to Virginia Beach to help with another they owned, Nawab. There, he met his future business partner, Jaswander Singh. Now they have four restaurants.

It took a few years of learning the ropes before the duo opened their first one in 2002, Milan Indian Cuisine in Lynchburg. The following year they opened another Milan, in Charlottesville. And in 2009, they added Anokha, in Richmond. Each earned a loyal following. And, then this week came their fourth restaurant, Kanak Indian Kitchen, in 5th Street Station.


The idea behind Kanak is simple: bring their beloved Indian food to another part of the town. Milan fans on the south side of Charlottesville can now enjoy better access to favorites like chicken tikka masala, vin d’ alho, saag, and korma. But, beyond these standards, Kanak (Sanskrit for “gold” or “wheat”) also introduces new dishes not found at Milan.

A menu of small plates for sharing, for example, includes dishes like Rechado Prawns – prawns with chili, coconut, sugar cane vinegar, tamarind, and garlic. Or, one of Ghotra’s favorites, Stuffed Aloo Tiki – potato patties with a toasted spice mix, yogurt, and chutney.


For entrees, Ghotra likes the catfish (yes, catfish!) – Punjabi Masala Catfish – spiked with garam masala, ajwain, lime juice, and tadka – Indian spices tempered in ghee. Chukundari Kofta, meanwhile, removes meat from the traditional kofta meatball, and replaces it with a bright red minced beets, cashew, and potato, encased in semolina, bathed in creamy spinach yogurt sauce.


Kanak is in 5th Street Station at 385 Merchant Walk Square Suite 400. Lunch is Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner is Tuesday through Sunday, 5 pm – 10 pm.