2022 Dish of the Year: Mike Davidson at The Ivy Inn
In the September 11, 2014 Washington Post, food critic Tom Sietsema devoted more than a hundred words to a dish more than a hundred miles away:
[O]nly in the good company of a regular might a first-time visitor learn about one of the best intermezzos around: a two-bite gyro built from ground lamb, house-made yogurt, aged feta cheese and fluffy pita bread. “My favorite dish in Charlottesville,” announces the discerning local sitting across from me when the nosh appears. Silence falls on the table as four of us contemplate the joy of soft meat, softer bread and the communion of fresh dill, coriander and garlic.
Eight years removed, I can share that the “discerning local” was me (I have been called worse). My wife and I enjoyed a rave-worthy dinner with Sietsema and his partner at Charlottesville’s favorite special-occasion restaurant, Ivy Inn. Afterwards, Sietsema heaped praise on hanger steak with chasseur sauce; trout, stuffed with herbs, “treated to a succotash that summons the season,” and shrimp and grits, “garnished with a crown of lacy buttermilk onion rings.”
But, a gyro? As Sietsema wrote, the menu at Ivy Inn “nods to France, waves at Italy and does the South proud.” Amongst these cuisines, in the hushed, white-tablecloth setting of a historic building in Central Virginia, a Greek street food might ask itself: “well, how did I get here?”
Part of the explanation, says chef-owner Angelo Vangelopoulos, is to use excess product. Butchering lamb, beef, and pork into steaks and chops for the restaurant’s menu leaves leftover trim, and the gyro puts the trim to a tasty purpose.
But, the main reason? His father.
Thomas Vangelopoulos came to the United States from Greece in 1965, first taking a job hand-rolling phyllo dough in Cleveland, Ohio, and then entering the restaurant industry, where he has stayed ever since. At his Georgetown icon Ikaros, which he opened in the 1970s, lines would form down M Street for a taste of the restaurant’s gyro, which Chef Nick would make from meat he shaved from a vertical spit in the restaurant’s front window.
It was Angelo’s childhood in his father’s restaurants that inspired him to pursue his own career as a chef. Angelo has vivid memories of waking up Saturday mornings and riding with his father down the parkway and over Key Bridge to Ikaros, where he would spend the day bussing tables, putting a quarter in the jukebox, and watching how hard his father worked to make his business a success.
Rather than his father’s casual restaurants, though, Angelo had his heart set on fine dining. To that end, he attended the nation’s most acclaimed cooking school – Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1990, and then trained under several of D.C.’s top chefs. By 1995, he was ready for his own restaurant, and moved to Charlottesville to purchase Ivy Inn with his father, a leap of faith to a place he had never been. To say that it has been a success would be an understatement. His 25+ years at the restaurant have brought thousands of happy guests, James Beard Foundation nods, a slot on the Mt. Rushmore of Charlottesville Chefs, and praise from national critics like Sietsema.
Though the restaurant’s focus is fine dining, about a decade ago Angelo began toying with the idea of serving Greek’s most beloved street food. The impetus was a dinner at Komi – then D.C.’s top rated restaurant, whose tasting menu included a bite-sized riff on a gyro. Intrigued, Angelo thought serving some form of a gyro at Ivy Inn could be a way to pay homage to his father. “It was a throwback to my heritage, where I came from, and what shaped me,” said Angelo. “A fun, playful take on a childhood memory.”
Gyros in a Fine Dining Kitchen
A cozy kitchen designed for fine dining is not well suited for making gyros. Without space for a vertical spit, Angelo had to improvise. “How can we make this really tasty,” he asked, “but still make it work for us?” For the answer, he turned to a technique from his classical French training: pâté. The result is a two-day process, rich in attention to detail.
It starts with marinating three types of meat. In Greece, gyros are usually pork, but, at Ivy Inn, Angelo likes to add beef and lamb as well, as a nod to the popular American versions of the sandwich, which often use ground lamb or beef, instead of slabs of pork on a rotisserie. The fat of the pork trim, he says, boosts the flavor of the leaner beef and lamb. He marinates all three in fresh herbs, onions, coriander, and mustard.
After a half-day marinade, he finely grinds the meat.
Next comes a crucial detail. Instead of baking the meat like a meatloaf, which would allow fat and juices to escape, Angelo presses the ground meat into a terrine mold, as he would a pâté. This allows the meat to baste in its own fat and juices while it cooks, and then soak them back up as it cools, deeply enhancing the flavor. Angelo bakes the terrine mold in a gentle water bath until the meat is just set, cools it to room temperature, and presses it under weight in the refrigerator. The result resembles a coarse pâté.
The next day, Angelo removes the meat from the terrine mold and slices it into strips.
The sliced meat is now ready for the griddle.
Meanwhile, another key detail: bread. “For me, you have to have good bread,” said Angelo. While there is decent commercial pita bread available, Angelo says, even better is making your own. “We’re a restaurant that likes to make everything,” he said. “When you make it fresh the same day, it’s especially pillowy and soft.” Essential to that softness is cooking the bread longer on one side, yielding a crisp and flavorful exterior and a soft interior.
Next comes assembly. Atop the fresh pita, Angelo piles the sliced griddled meat with tzatziki sauce he makes from house-made yogurt, cucumber, dill, and garlic. Atop that come tomatoes, onion, and aged feta cheese. Some gyro shops add fries to their gyros, and, depending on the day, Angelo may do the same – crisp shoestring potatoes.
After rolling the sandwiches, Angelo slices them into small pieces for service.
When Ivy Inn first began making gyros, they were just a secret treat. The kitchen would slice the sandwiches into small bites, and send them out to a few lucky guests between courses. As word spread about the delicious gyro bites, guests would start requesting them. And so Angelo decided to find a place for them on the menu. He settled on a garnish for one of his most beloved dishes: rack of lamb. The “Duet of Lamb,” as the menu called it, would sometimes add a bite-sized gyro to the plate.
After more than a decade as a miniature intermezzo or garnish, this year came a major change in the life of gyros at Ivy Inn: they reached the menu as a standalone item. At last, guests could order a gyro itself. What prompted the change?
His father again. In August, my own father passed away, and Ivy Inn’s gyro appeared in my father’s posthumous Five Finds on Friday.
Gyro at The Ivy Inn. There’s something about Brits and lamb. But, my father’s fondness for lamb is not the only reason the list includes this gyro sometimes served with rack of lamb at The Ivy Inn. Since his death on Sunday, my siblings and I have had many conversations about “what Dad would have wanted.” And, one thing I am sure he would have wanted is to include Angelo Vangelopoulos in this list. Though my father did not know Angelo well, he was a great admirer of kindness, which, come to think of it, may explain why I have always strived for it. In the Charlottesville food community there is no one kinder than Angelo, whom my father admired from afar. Long live Angelo and my father’s favorite gyro at The Ivy Inn.
My father’s passing made an impact on Angelo. “What you were going through, having lost your dad, it touched me a lot,” Angelo told me. “I could relate to some of the things you said: Enjoy every moment. My dad is 83 and I know there are a lot less days with him around.”
And so, for the first time, Angelo decided to put the gyro on the Ivy Inn menu. He named it for the man whose death left Angelo reflecting on the bond he shares with his own father: Mike Davidson. “Sometimes the most impactful things you can do with food,” said Angelo, “are the ones that come from somewhere visceral that has meaning to you.” The dish’s unusual name prompted questions from guests, which Angelo says only made it more meaningful, as staff would share the story behind it. “Any time you can have a conversation about the food on your menu, and your staff can talk about it,” said Angelo, “that makes your guests’ experience even more special.”
And so, just as the origin of the Ivy Inn’s gyro more than a decade ago was to pay homage to Angelo’s father, so too was its addition to the menu this year. By naming it after my father, Angelo was thinking of his own father, too. “A nod to him, how much he has influenced me, how much I love him,” said Angelo. “And, just knowing I’ll miss him.”
In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the “magical thinking” the late author describes is the unshakeable belief that the loss of a loved one – in her case her husband – must be temporary. The impossibility for the human mind and heart to process the permanence of a loved one’s death leaves just one alternative. “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible,” she wrote.
Anyone who has lost a loved one will recognize this. After a memorial reception for a good friend who died far too soon, his widow and I discussed how neither of us could shake the feeling that at any moment during the reception he would come around the corner, beaming his ear-to-ear grin.
Part of this is just habit. Like reaching for the light switch when the power is out, impulses hard-wired by decades with a loved one don’t just vanish. On dog walks, commutes to work, and other moments when I would call my Dad, I still reach for my phone, months after his passing. As Didion writes:
I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.
And then there are the bigger moments – life’s great joys and sorrows. We may not notice this when our loved ones are alive, but their empathy so deeply enriches the way we experience these moments that the shared experience becomes an extension of ourself. When a loved one’s death extinguishes that shared experience, a part of our self fades with it. We never live those moments the way we once did.
What does any of this have to do with gyros? Well, the 2022 Dish of the Year is the Mike Davidson from The Ivy Inn. If only he were here to see it.
As he would say, though, can’t be helped.