At last, her dream restaurant.
The Charlottesville area’s most decorated chef, Melissa Close-Hart has earned all kinds of acclaim — four James Beard award semifinalist nods for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, and entry on the Mount Rushmore of Charlottesville chefs, to name a few. But, for all of her successes, she has never worked at a restaurant serving the food she loves most.
Born and raised in Alabama, Close-Hart grew up on the food of the deep south. Green beans cooked until they are falling apart. Mashed potatoes drowned in gravy. Chicken fried steak. But, the path of a culinary school graduate can lead wherever the next restaurant takes you. And so, since completing New England Culinary Institute in 1998, Close-Hart has found herself cooking a range of cuisines – rustic Italian, refined Italian, New American, and even Latin-American inspired. But, her heart always remained in ‘Bama. “Southern cooking is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Close-Hart.
Enter Mockingbird. When the pandemic closed her restaurant Junction in March 2020, Close-Hart shifted gears to takeout service from the restaurant her business partner owned across the street, The Local, where her husband is the longtime chef. All the while, the plan was to re-open Junction in one form or another once circumstances allowed. With that opportunity here, Close-Hart thought: why not now? “If you asked me ten years ago what my ten year plan is,” said Close-Hart, “this is it. Food that I grew up on.”
Given all the restoration work that went into converting the historic Belmont building into Junction, no major structural changes were needed for Mockingbird. But, the space did require some tweaks to align with Close-Hart’s vision for her Southern restaurant, somewhere between down home and fine dining. She and her team did much of that work themselves, making it brighter, softer, and more feminine, said Close-Hart, with some vintage tchotchke touches. “There’s so much family and love in the space,” said Close-Hart. “It brings me a lot of joy to walk in and see what we’ve done.”
Food was a central part of Close-Hart’s childhood in Alabama. She recalls her uncle dropping off heaps of vegetables from his garden on the front porch of her home, which her mother would use to create dinner each night. Butter beans, sweet potatoes, corn.
Mockingbird is a tribute to the food of her youth. While Southern cuisine can have a reputation for being heavy and calorie-laden, at Mockingbird Close-Hart aims to bring a lighter touch to some of her dishes. Take pan-seared salmon with slow-cooked butterbeans. In some executions, slow-cooked butterbeans can be heavy. But, Close-Hart brightens the dish, giving it a summery feel, with lemon zest, rosemary, preserved lemons, and a salad of local cherry tomatoes.
Of course, heartier Southern staples are also well represented on Mockingbird’s menu, albeit with refinements of a lifetime chef. A standard like fried green tomatoes, Close-Hart says, is “elevated” with whipped house-made pimento cheese, a jam of slowly caramelized onions, and a balsamic vinegar reduction. For chicken and waffles, she first braises chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce before dredging and frying. Even the waffles are elevated: real Belgian waffles with pearl sugar.
A common playground for chefs, daily specials may be what excites Close-Hart most. Oysters Bienvelle brings a New Orleans classic to Charlottesville – oysters baked on the half shell in a sauce of shrimp, mushrooms, peppers, and parmesan cheese, topped with bread crumbs. Another special somes from sous chef Alex Straume, who has worked all over Charlottesville, but always told Close-Hart that if she ever opened her Southern restaurant, he’d be there to join the team. Close-Hart loves his creation of deep fried baby back ribs, for which he first braises pork ribs, which he then lightly batters and deep fries. Out of the frier, they get a toss in a honey glaze.
While tweaks can elevate a classic, sometimes a good chef knows to leave well enough alone. For the banana pudding, Close-Hart experimented with flourishes and riffs before concluding that none improved on the original. It’s made with homemade pudding, Nilla wafers, and fresh bananas, “just like it was when I grew up,” said Close-Hart.
The front of the house is in the hands of wine expert Alicia Whitestone, who came to Charlottesville during the pandemic from the DC area, and a decade in the food and drink industry. With a background in various styles of cuisines, she has quickly embraced Southern hospitality, food, and drink. Like her own recipe for house-made Southern Comfort, with dried apricots and herbs.
Of all the aspects of Mockingbird Close-Hart loves, she is most proud that it is employee-owned, a rarity in the industry. While The Local owner Adam Frazier is majority owner, Close-Hart and three other employees own 49%. Their mission? Close-Hart sums it up: “feed everyone’s soul with Southern charm and Virginia’s bounty.”
Mockingbird opens July 20. Reservations here.