The Charlottesville 29

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

Category: Introductions

Clifton Inn Reborn

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One of Charlottesville’s most acclaimed fine dining destinations is loosening its tie. The restaurant that Craig and Donna Hartman launched in 1992 went on to become not just a breeding ground for many of Charlottesville’s best chefs but also one of our town’s go-to spots for a special occasion meal. With some recent changes, though, Clifton Inn hopes to to be considered for a bite any night of the week.

After closing briefly in January for renovations, Clifton has reopened with an updated look and a new approach. Former Tavola chef Aris Cuadra now heads the kitchen and has introduced a menu of food he hopes guests will find more accessible. There’s pimento cheese with house crackers; bistro fries; caramelized onion soup with oxtail and Beufort; and, a Mediterranean riff on Shrimp n Grits, with lamb sausage, goat cheese, and mint oil. Don’t worry, though, there’s still sticky toffee pudding. Check out the full menu here.

“Our approach is to make Clifton Inn a little more approachable, less of a special occasion restaurant, more of place where people will come out a few times a month as opposed to a couple of times a year,” says Cuadra. “The food is non-intimidating . . . but still maintaining the reputation of quality and locally sourced ingredients Clifton is know for.”

If you want to see for yourself, now’s a good time because through the end of March there is a “Four for Two” promotion. Sunday through Thursday, groups of four receive 50% off their meal.

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Local beets with chevre, grapefruit, pistachio, and endive

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Slow roasted grouper with Peruvian potato and oxtail, truffle jus, onion ring

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Bistro fries with black garlic aioli

 

Introducing Brasserie Saison

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Will Richey is at it again. And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a restaurant.

Since jumping into restaurant ownership in 2005 with Revolutionary Soup, Richey’s passion has evolved to the point of being a full-fledged addiction. He even now has a parent company — Ten Course Hospitality — to oversee his many projects, which also include The Whiskey Jar, The Pie Chest, The Bebedero, and The Alley Light, a 2015 James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant in the country.

Richey admits that the creation phase is what appeals to him most. Just as those of us with a passion for food are planning our next meal during our current one, Richey is thinking about his next restaurant before his latest is finished. The creation is the fix.

To make that work, the chronic creator knows he needs a stellar team. And, he always has one, thanks in large part to longtime business partner Josh Zanoff, a trained chef who spent years in management at Whole Foods, and has been instrumental to every Richey project. To explain their management approach, Richey likes to cite a Steve Jobs quote: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

The Concept

Richey’s reliance on collaboration begins at the earliest stage of a restaurant. As with his other projects, the idea for his latest venture — Brasserie Saison –, though his initially, was molded significantly by input from others. In this case, the “others” include an impressive pair: Hunter Smith of Champion Brewing Company and Tyler Teass, former Sous Chef of Rose’s Luxury.

Richey’s concept was simple: good beer food. A hard-core oenophile who co-founded The Wine Guild, Richey has a soft spot for beer. “I always think of wine in terms of the food it would go best with,” says Richey. Beer is the same way, he says, but as much great beer as we have in the area, there’s a shortage of classic beer food to pair with it. “So I began to imagine a beer concept that would serve European style beers and common beer foods from places like Belgium and Holland but also Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Poland, Alsace and more.” He even drafted a menu.

One problem. While Charlottesville brews lots of great beer, little of it is in the classic styles that would pair well with Richey’s menu. So, the restaurant would need to brew its own. For that, he knew just who to call. “I had always admired Hunter’s beers at Champion,” says Richey. As luck would have it, when Richey called to pitch his project, Smith, who has no restaurant at his brewery, was already considering the very same thing. “We both got very excited to brew and cook in collaboration on this old world inspiration,” says Richey. In perfect synergy, they thought, the beer would drive the food, and the food would drive the beer.

The Beer

To enhance the harmony between beer and food, brewing will be done at the restaurant, located on the downtown mall at 111 E. Main St., in the former Jean Theory location. “Brewing onsite means we can work in tandem with the kitchen – brew seasonally and with flavors in mind,” says Smith. Richey agrees. “We are brewing beer specifically to match the cuisine we are working with,” he says. “With the brewery in the restaurant, the brewer can be working the same hours as the chef, tasting the food, and smelling the smells.”

So, what types of beer?  Smith’s favorites are the namesake Brasserie Saison and Brasserie Dubbel. “They were written by our Lead Brewer Josh Skinner, and they are just as we want them,” says Smith. “Fruity and complex, but also super dry and begging for food pairing.” The Saison has lively carbonation with aromas and flavors of bubblegum, pear skin, spice, and the classic herbal funk of Belgian yeast. The Dubbel, meanwhile, boasts a huge nose of spice and dried dark fruits, flavors of plums and fig from Special B malts, and a spicy, clove finish.

View the full opening beer menu here.

The Food

In the kitchen is Tyler Teass, who worked at l’Etoile and Clifton Inn before becoming Sous Chef at Rose’s Luxury, Bon Appetit’s 2014 Best New Restaurant in the country. This marks one of the only times a sous chef of such a nationally acclaimed restaurant has come to Charlottesville to help start a restaurant. (Restaurant Daniel’s Francis Reynard coming to Fuel more than a decade ago was perhaps another.)

When Teass joined the team last year, Richey sent him the menu he had created nearly five years earlier. “A week later,” says Richey, “he sent me back a menu that blew my mind.” While it still followed Richey’s initial focus on Benelux, Teass gave it a modern American touch “that made the entire idea come to life,” says Richey.

Yet, despite all of his success as a chef, Teass never takes food too seriously. When I sent him background questions about the restaurant, his responses used the word “fun” six times, which reflects his positive temperament and unpretentious approach. Asked about his philosophy for cooking, he said: “I like really bright, seasoned food, lots of vegetables and meat that’s cooked nicely. And nicely cut chives. Is that a philosophy?”

And so, while the cuisine is inspired by Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Teass is no stickler for culinary tradition. “Their food culture is really interesting and using that as a basis for the food we make is important,” he says, “but at the same time focusing on delicious, fun, well-executed food.”

The vegetable-focused opening menu includes dishes like fried and raw Brussels sprouts with tomatoes, shallots and parsley; roasted sunchokes with creme fraiche, horseradish and trout roe; and, crispy scallops a la meuniere, with celery root and benne.

With all the focus on pairings, I asked Richey which excite him most, and he named the Moules Frites with Brasserie Saison, which, he says, “will be an essential experience for anyone coming through the door.” Another favorite is the Brasserie Dubbel with either smoked beef bitterballen or roast beef “carbonnade.” Finally, Richey likes the Tripel with housemade duck sausage. “That is magical,” he says.

Teass is particularly fond of a dessert he has made for his wife for years: buttered popcorn pudding, with lime and creme fraiche. “It’s essentially a curd with popcorn puree, topped with a creme fraiche mousse, lime zest, candied lime segments, and popped sorghum, which look like little pieces of popcorn,” says Teass.

Joining him in the kitchen are two seasoned sous chefs. Morad Sbaitri, who recently moved from Morocco, has “skill way beyond what we could have hoped for,” says Richey. And, Nick Moon spent time at The Whiskey Jar before honing his skills at MAS Tapas. “There are few better kitchens in this town to learn and grow than the one at MAS,” says Richey.

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Citrus-poached shrimp with lemongrass sauce

The Bar

“Beer is a main focus,” acknowledges Leah Peeks, a veteran of The Whiskey Jar and The Alley Light who now is the Beverage Program Director for Ten Course Hospitality. But, there is lots of other goof stuff, too. “Leah’s artistic talent fuels her inspiration behind the bar,” says Richey, “and keeps it interesting and dynamic.”

The restaurant’s focus on Benelux means that gin abounds, including Peeks’ all-time favorite liquid: a 50/50 martini of Plymouth gin and Dolin Blanc vermouth with orange oil and orange bitters. “I can’t wait to drink one with oysters. And mussels. And beer. All of the things, really,” says Peeks. The rest of the cocktail menu is “classic, clean, crisp, and bright,”she says. As with the beer, “I let the food be my guide on cocktail choices.”

THE KITCHEN COCKTAIL – market price – rotating chef’s choice of seasonal flavors

THE BRASSERIE SAISON COCKTAIL  – 9 – Bombay, lemon, pink peppercorn, Saison – up // balanced // refreshing

THE 50/50 – 10 – Plymouth, Dolin Blanc, orange oil, orange bitters – up // smooth // clean

THE MARTINEZ – 11 – Tanqueray Old Tom, Carpano Antica, Luxardo, mulberry bitters – up // smooth // fruited

THE VESPER ROYALE – 11 – Aviation, Ketel One, Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, Carpano Antica – up // balanced // refined

THE ROUGETTE – 11  – Navy Strength Gin, Lillet Rouge, grapefruit, hopped grapefruit bitters  – rocks // citrus // bright

THE 23 SKIDOO – 12 – Bulleit Rye, Aperol, amaro, lemon, charred lemon bitters – up // balanced // bright

THE ALPINE – 14 – Tanqueray, Chartreuse, honey, ginger, lemon, champagne – long // citrus // complex

THE BIG KID COCKTAIL – 9 – Flor De Cana, Licor 43, Lone Light Chocolate, milk, soda – long // chocolate // foamy

THE LITTLE HEAD BUTT – 10 – Champion Shower Beer Pilsner and Gin – Beer and a shot

The wine list, she says, is “smart and concise” with several offerings by the glass joining bottle options “that will make wine nerds delight.” They are even pouring a glass of Champagne for what Peeks says is half of what it should cost “because Wilson just loves it and wants to serve it.”  In charge of the wine is Will Curley, former manager of Chicago’s Balena, who recently moved to town and quickly became Wine Steward for Richey’s restaurant group. “His palate is so correct,” says Peeks.

The Details

Brasserie Saison opens Thursday, February 1, and will seat 45 inside and 30 outside. Open seven days a week, it will serve lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m, and dinner from 5-10 pm. A midday menu will be offered in between.

Introducing Junction

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After a year-long “investigation into the state of the American restaurant industry,” writer Kevin Alexander recently concluded: the restaurant business is a bubble about to burst. “America’s Golden Age of Restaurants,” he says, “is coming to an end.” If that’s true, no one seems to have told Charlottesville. Though one local food business owner says we’re “over-restauranted,” many others are busy planning new spots – so busy in fact that 2017 could be a banner year for new restaurants, perhaps rivaling 2014’s The Alley Light, Lampo, Oakhart Social, Parallel 38, and Public Fish & Oyster.

Smoked Kitchen and Tap sneaked in just before 2016 closed, and first up in 2017 is Junction, Charlottesville’s most anticipated opening since Bodo’s on the Corner. Part of the reason is that Junction, like Bodo’s, was a long time coming. Almost all new restaurants experience delays, but work began on Junction in the spring of 2014 – nearly three years ago. Since then, the restaurant had one preview dinner in 2014 and another in 2015. When it opens next week, it will be more than 30 months in the making.

But, it’s not just time that has stoked the anticipation. It’s the people involved. Heading the team is restaurateur Adam Frazier, owner of The Local, who bought the historic building across from The Local in late 2013. “My wife and I saw an opportunity to restore a beautiful old building in the center of Belmont,” he says. He and others in the community worried that, if one of them didn’t buy it, a developer might knock it down and put a new multi-story building in its place. “I love old buildings and I really enjoy renovating them to preserve and continue their history,” says Frazier.

The Space

The restoration project was massive: removing paint from the exterior to restore the brick to its original state; stripping all of the walls; replacing windows with wavy glass to match what would have existed when it was first built; repairing windows and sills to their original state; installing heart pine floors with antique cut nails to reproduce the building’s original look, etc. One of the happy surprises was discovering a vintage Pepsi sign under the walls, now a signature of the main dining room.

(Thank you to Ron Paris for sharing these images.)

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The result of all of the effort is a strikingly warm two-story space, with lots of natural light to enhance hues of red and brown. Handcrafted details abound, thanks to the help of many local craftsmen:

  • Dining Tables: made on site from reclaimed lumber
  • Bar: built with lumber from the original building and reclaimed wormy chestnut from Richmond’s E.T Moore
  • Bar Stools: fabricated by Barry Umberger, who also did woodwork for C&O, from reclaimed white and red oak from an old Asheville, NC gas station
  • Copper: done onsite including exterior, ceilings, and doors by James Sexton
  • Metal Work: framing, staircase, railings, and art by James Martin
  • Trim and Woodwork: made from reclaimed wood by Marvin Flores and David and Eman Partington
  • Benches: made onsite from oak provide by Johnny Walker, a farmer who also provides lamb to The Local

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The Food

Focusing first on the decor may be burying the lede here because the big story is the kitchen, led by four-time James Beard semifinalist Melissa Close-Hart. Close-Hart made news in 2014 when she announced she was leaving the dream job she held for fourteen years, Executive Chef of Palladio Restaurant, to team up with Frazier. “I feel that I had grown culinarily as much as I could at Palladio,” says Close-Hart. “It was one of my best chef experiences in my career, but I was ready to do something new.” That something new is very very new. After a decade and a half cooking Italian food at a beautiful vineyard in Piedmont, Close-Hart will be cooking Southwest cuisine in Belmont.

Close-Hart has cooked this type of food at home for years, but never in a restaurant, so one of the few upsides of the delay in opening, she says, is time to explore Southwest cuisine even further. “I have been doing a lot of research, both through books and eating at like places,” she says.”I have also been smart in hiring Amber Cohen as my sous chef.” Cohen spent three years as head chef at Continental Divide, one of Charlottesville’s most popular destinations for Southwest cuisine.

The opening menu includes items like an empanada of grilled shrimp, roasted corn, and sweet potato with roasted jalapeno-cilantro crema and queso fresco. There’s also house smoked local pork belly with a creamed corn johnny cake, arugula, mango-chipotle glaze, and a slaw of pickled mango and red onion. For dessert, there’s a classic with a modern twist: Junction’s Fried Ice Cream Supreme, using an ice cream of Mexican chile and dark chocolate in a cinnamon-coffee cookie crust, with whipped cream, salted caramel, and toasted hazelnuts.

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Cornmeal crusted tomatillos, baby arugula, pickled red onions, Caromont Farm goat cheese, honey-chipotle vinaigrette

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Smoked brisket tacos

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Texas Cowgirl Chili – Seven Hills braised beef, tomatoes, house made chili powder, sour cream, aged cheddar, corn bread

When asked to name a favorite, Close-Hart balked. “I’m just excited to cook for the public again,” she says, after two years of staying busy catering for The Local, where her husband is Executive Chef. When pressed, though, Close-Hart acknowledged a fondness for a side of Charred Baby Carrots with Caromont Goat Cheese & Carrot Top Chimichurri. “I am most excited about our Sides to Share section of the menu,” says Close-Hart. “It gives me a chance to showcase local produce and y’all a chance to try multiple dishes at one time.” Like many accomplished chefs, Close-Hart likes to take classic components and add her own twist. Here, the carrot top chimichurri was inspired by an R&D trip to Austin. “Each component stands out on its own, yet they meld wonderfully together,” she says. “And anything with Gail’s cheese is easy to love.”

Cohen, meanwhile, is partial to the Soup of the Day. “It will surprise no one who knows me,” says Cohen, “that I’m most excited about the soup.” The opening one will be a posole verde, with slow cooked pork, hominy, cabbage, avocado, and lime. “Soup is my favorite medium,” Cohen says. “I’ve always loved how much you can accomplish with one small bowl.”

The Drink

Running the bar program is Alec Spidalieri, who has managed The Local bar since 2015. Spidalieri became a bartender as soon as he turned 21, and has made it a career ever since.

His aim at Junction is to create a hybrid of the craft cocktail bar and neighborhood bar. “I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive,” Spidalieri says. “I want the bar to be somewhere that you can just as easily get a nice cocktail with an important client as grab a beer or two after work with your friends.”

His cocktails follow a similar approach. On the one hand, with house-made bitters, cordials, and tonics, they have the ingredients to sustain the interest of cocktail geeks. On the other hand, many also have a round, slightly sweet finish, giving them broader appeal. “I think of a good cocktail list as being like a well-rounded album, except that you drink it instead of listening to it,” says Spidalieri.

Spidalieri allowed me some samples, and my favorite was his riff on a Paloma, with Camarena Silver tequila, Aperol, lime juice, and house made salted grapefruit cordial. Spidalieri runs the whole thing through his Perlini carbonating system to give it a bright effervescence, and pours it into a trumpet champagne flute.

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Meanwhile, a sure crowd favorite will be The Other Woman – a vibrant combination of Belle Isle Moonshine infused with hibiscus and rose, house pomegranate grenadine, lemon, and egg white.

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Spidalieri’s favorite is the Texas Hold Me, inspired by a suggestion from autocorrect when he was texting about Texas Hold Em. It’s coffee-infused bourbon, Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur, lemon juice and a house made orgeat syrup of roasted walnut and brown sugar. Warm with a slightly spicy finish, says Spidalieri. Like Junction itself, perhaps.

As much work as he’s devoted to the cocktail menu,  though, Spidalieri is just as excited about everything else. “I’ve put a lot of care into ‘off-menu’ cocktails, with everything fresh and made in house,” he says. “Your Manhattan will have a house-brandied cherry, your Gimlet will have house lime cordial,and  I’ll always have a house tonic to mix with.” Beer and wine are not afterthoughts either, with 12 taps of mostly local and craft beer and a list of 50 wines, exclusively sourced from North and South America, to echo the food.

The Details

Junction opens January 26, and will seat 160 indoors and 50-60 more outdoors. Initial dining hours: Sunday-Thursday 5-10pm; Friday & Saturday 5-11pm. Reservations available through Open Table on the restaurant’s website or calling  (434) 465-6131.

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