The Charlottesville 29

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

In Praise of Long Form

One of the great benefits of running a website with no advertising or revenues is the freedom to do “what I want when I want,” as an old friend likes to say. With no master other than my own interest, I can write whatever I choose to write about whenever I choose to write about it. I can even create my own rules, like focusing on the positive.

I also have no limit on length. Most newspapers and magazines impose strict word limits on writers. Here at The Charlottesville 29, I am free to indulge in pieces as long as I like. In the past, I have utilized this freedom more than once – whether for a thorough introduction to a new steakhouse, the love story behind the warmth of an Italian storefront, or a full biography of Charlottesville’s signature restaurant.

Of course, it is important not to abuse the freedom. Blaise Pascal ended one of his Provincial Letters to the Reverend Fathers with an apology: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.” Indeed, brevity can take time. The word limits of standard published pieces encourage strong, efficient prose. Those limits and skilled editors conspire to encourage good writing habits and prevent writers from humoring themselves with unnecessarily flowery, ostentatious, grandiose, multi-syllabic, verbiage, that is excessively overflowing with extravagantly elaborate adverbs and adjectives blatantly intended to camouflage the ineptitude of the writer by drawing attention to his supposed erudition rather than serving what should be the primary purpose of writing, which is to communicate with the reader, and therefore, for one thing, avoid run-on-sentences that seem to go on forever and cause readers’ eyes to gloss over before they even finish reading all of the superfluous palaver.

Where was I? Oh yes, be concise.

While I do strive for that, next week I will publish one of my longest pieces in years. In this case, though, the length is not because I lacked the time to make it shorter. Rather, it is because, in my view, the topic warrants much to say. I hope some readers will agree.


Five Finds on Friday: Sarah Humphrey


Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Sarah Humphrey of Fellini’s, which was among the picks this week in chefs’ Best Thing I Ate All Year. Fellini’s now hosts weekly Martini Wednesdays, with martini specials and Sinatra-era classics by decked out pianist Sammy Horne. And check Fellini’s Facebook page for updates about their special celebrations on Christmas Eve and NYE. Humphrey’s picks:

1) English Muffins from The Bread Basket. “Ginny from The Bread Basket has a lot of fans. She is particularly known for her beautifully twisted baguettes which are featured in several restaurants. But have you tried her English muffins?  Heavens to Betsy!  They have the same glutinous, dense quality as some of her other breads, and are slightly salty, and just wonderful.  I adore the whole wheat version. My husband and I have used them in the past for brunch, and they are a fantastic foundation for all sorts of Eggs Benedict dishes.  They make a great egg sandwich.  They are perfect for big, gloppy burgers because they stand up to all the juices and goo without breaking down like brioche. And I love them with just a little unsalted butter and blackberry jam.”

2) Almond Pave from Patisserie Torres. “I love most almond desserts, but this is my new favorite.  It’s made with cake soaked in almond syrup, and the interior is light and fluffy but soooo soft and moist. The exterior is slightly crackly, with almond cream coated in sugar and sliced almonds.  t’s a sweet pastry, for sure, but not cloyingly so. It’s more decadent and less messy than an almond croissant. This new patisserie has a lot of gems and I’m excited to have them here!”

3)  Chicken Liver Mousse (or any appetizer) at Petit Pois. “I mean, I’d be content to sit inside or outside of this charming restaurant with a glass of sparkling wine and just eat Albemarle Baking Co. baguette and butter. The service is always perfect.  And the appetizers!  If they have steak tartare available, order it!  It is sublime.  The French Onion Soup is nearly over the top, it’s so thick and rich and flavorful. The mussels are always plump and perfectly cooked and there’s a ton of mirepoix left in the bowl for you to spoon up. The escargots are exactly what you’d hope for, bathing in butter with a generous amount of parsley and garlic.  I have to get them almost every time I’m there.  My favorite might, however, be the chicken liver mousse.  It’s served with crostini, but it’s so rich I prefer it with plain baguette.  The mouse is gorgeously seasoned with cognac and it’s impossibly smooth and refined,  It’s practically a condiment.  Have you tried it on corn on the cob?  Seriously, I brought some home and it was awesome. Sorry, Chef.”

4)  A tie (Thai! no pun intended!) between Yum Woon Sen and Guay Tiew
Tom Yum at Thai Cuisine & Noodle House. “This is my favorite cuisine, and my favorite Thai place in town. I cannot decide between these two dishes, but I feel that both of them are often overlooked. For appetizers, people gravitate toward fried items or fresh rolls, but Yum Woon Sen is a great cellophane noodle salad. It strikes the perfect balance or sour, sweet, and spicy, with ground pork, cilantro, red onions, peanuts, and fish sauce. I love it hot, cold, or room temperature. My other choice is a Thai noodle soup.  It is so, so elegant. If you wanna be really cool, ask for sen mee instead of the rice noodles. This broth is pretty sweet, so I add a lot of sambal and jalapenos in vinegar. It’s great with meat, but I also enjoy it vegan with fresh (not fried) tofu and vegetarian broth, and I add extra veggies. Almost nothing makes me happier.”

5) Chocolate Truffle Torte at Duner’s. “Pastry Chef Linda Steiner is amazing, and Duner’s is so lucky to have her. Everything she makes blows me away. This dessert is not always on the menu, but it can be found fairly often. It is a great gluten-free dessert option to those who are tired of crème brulee. It’s super rich and fudgy, like the interior of a chocolate truffle. The best part, really, is the crust–it’s all nuts and I’m wild about it.  There’s a touch of cinnamon which really elevates this torte. Duner’s serves it with whipped cream, berries, crème anglaise, and raspberry coulis, but all you really need is two bites of the torte. I can’t rave about it enough.  If you’re full from dinner, get a slice to go.”


Chicken Liver Mousse at Petit Pois

Introducing Little Star, a Restaurant from Jose Andres Alumnus Ryan Collins


Jose Andres may be the most influential chef alive. His impact extends well beyond mere restaurants to such life-altering matters as providing more than 3.6 million meals to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. With the belief that “food can be an agent of change,” in 2010 Andres founded World Central Kitchen, an organization which tackles not just disaster relief efforts but also health, education, jobs, and social enterprise. In both 2012 and 2018, Time Magazine named Andres one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. And now, Andres has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Before all of that, Andres did nothing less than help to change the way America eats. The first of his acclaimed tapas restaurants Jaleo opened in 1993, paving the way for the small plates revolution to come.

Perhaps overshadowed by all of this is another way in which Andres makes a mark: his progeny. In 2006, Andres and Rob Wilder formed ThinkFoodGroup to oversee Andres’ ever-growing group of restaurants and endeavors. At ThinkFoodGroup’s headquarters, a culinary team collaborates daily to develop new dishes, products, and concepts. With the benefit of Andres’ guidance and training, alumni of ThinkFoodGroup and its restaurants have been spreading across the country, starting projects of their own. Those alumni now run some of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants.

And, one of them is set to open a restaurant in Charlottesville.

Ryan Collins

After nearly a decade working for Jose Andres, Ryan Collins came to central Virginia in 2016 to run the kitchen at Early Mountain Vineyard. There, he began building relationships with peers in the Charlottesville food community, like those with Ben Clore and Tristan Wraight of Oakhart Social, with whom he grew close. After a few pop-up dinners, Collins, Clore, and Wraight found that they worked so well together that they thought they should open a restaurant. Upon ThreePenny Cafe’s closure earlier this year, they pounced. “When they heard the space was available they jumped at me and we all jumped at the space,” says Collins.

In the new restaurant, called Little Star, Andres’ impact is unmistakable. Collins spent three years as chef of Andres’ Mexican restaurant Oyamel and five years at ThinkFoodGroup. At ThinkFoodGroup in particular, Collins says Andres’ influence was profound. “Working for Jose shaped the way I think about dining, from the flavors I like to eat to how I eat them,” says Collins. “A meal used to be a experience that was more eat-finish-go. Now it’s more of a time to unwind, socialize, connect and center myself.”

Collins says that Little Star will reflect that way of eating, drawing on two countries’ cuisines he came to love while working with Andres. “Working at Oyamel for three years, I fell in love with Mexican food and culture,” says Collins, “and the remaining five I spent with Andres, I fell in love with Spain and the connection to each other they share.” And so, Little Star will feature what Collins calls hearth-cooked Modern American Cuisine with nods to Spain and Mexico.

The Food

Consistent with the relaxed, convivial way that Collins likes to eat, the Little Star menu combines “smaller snacky things like you would see on a bar in Spain,” Collins says, with other small plates that can also “double as sides for the main event of large format options.” Collins’ aim is to offer options for diners who want to celebrate with a special meal as well as those who just want to eat well on a random Tuesday without spending a lot of money.

Collins marinates lamb shoulder in mojo rojo for 24 hours and then wraps individual portions of the lamb in banana leaf to braise for four hours. From a bone-in pork rack, he separates the loin from the ribs and marinates the latter in olive oil, orange, lemon, bay leaf, peppercorn, oregano, garlic, and cilantro. Then he slow roasts the ribs and smokes them before searing to order. For the loin, Collins makes mole mancha manteles, a glistening sauce of guajillos, pasillas, raisins, currants, pineapple and plaintains.

A  sampling of other dishes Collins has planned:

Charred Endive, Piquillo Confit, buttermilk dressing, poppy seed, green onion, bottarga

Charred Endive, piquillo confit, buttermilk dressing, poppy seed, green onion, bottarga

Shrimp sauteed with leeks, garlic, grapes, deglazed with anejo tequila and fresh juiced grapes and lemon juice.

Shrimp sauteed with leeks, garlic, grapes, deglazed with anejo tequila and fresh juiced grapes and lemon juice

Beef Rib, Sour orange and annato marinade, Pickled jalepino and roasted garlic habanero dressing, tajin

Beef Rib, Sour orange and annato marinade, Pickled jalepino and roasted garlic habanero dressing, tajin

Country Ham Croquetas

Country ham croquetas

The Space

In a former gas station beside the Main Street Market, the location has an unlucky history, having been home to Station, White Orchid, Zinc, and Threepenny Cafe. While maintaining the feel of the historic garage, Collins otherwise overhauled the space, adding needed brightness and warmth. “We are really trying to make the space feel warm and special,” says Collins “without straying to far from what the space is in the history of the city.” Redwood, butcher block, stucco and tile join for the effect.

The Bar

Running the bar is Joel Cuellar, a transplant from New York, where he spent a decade at Brandy Library and then Copper & Oak. While in New York, Cuellar taught seminars, did private tastings, and traveled the world to meet distillers. “I’ve been immersed in the world of spirit,” says Cuellar. “It’s my passion.”

Like many of us, Cuellar came to Charlottesville by choice. After years in the New York area, he and his wife sought a better place to raise their twin daughters. While visiting fellow New York transplants Jason Becton and Patrick Evans of MarieBette, they fell hard for Charlottesville and decided to move here themselves this summer. In Charlottesville, Cuellar met Collins, and the two struck it off from the start. “After our first conversation I knew I wanted to work with him,” says Cuellar. “I appreciate his philosophy and I understand the flavors he wants to bring to the table.”

And so, Cuellar plans a bar program that mirrors and enhances the food, with an emphasis on spirits from Mexico, where Cullear was born. Cuellar’s twist on a Mexican Ponche combines tequila, guave, tejocote (a regional Mexican crab apple), cane sugar, and spices. Served hot, it is traditionally enjoyed during Christmas and New Years.  Meanwhile, another winter warmer he has planned is an Armagnac-based smoked cocktail with chili and spices. “Perfect for cold nights,” says Cuellar.

Little Star opens later this month. Check back for details. And follow along on the Little Star Facebook page for updates.