The Charlottesville 29

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

Category: Introductions

Introducing Kyoto 5th Taste: Charlottesville’s First Fermentation Restaurant is an Ode to Umami

Do you know umami?

Once dismissed as a ruse, the taste discovered by a Japanese chemist in the early 20th century is now regarded by scientists and culinarians as the fifth taste, joining sweet, sour, salty, and bitter as the five tastes humans can discern. Everything we taste is believed to be a combination of these five basic taste modalities, each of which has its own receptors on the tongue that respond to specific chemical compounds. For umami, the chemical compounds are glutamates and nucleotides, and they are perceived as a deep savoriness, such as in soy sauce and dashi. In fact, in Japanese umami means “pleasant savory taste” or “deliciousness,” and for some people that deliciousness has become an obsession.

While glutamates and nucleotides occur naturally in some foods – shellfish, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes – more often the chemical compounds result from manipulating natural ingredients through cooking and other means. Aside from soy sauce, other man-made products rich in umami include Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, parmesan cheese, preserved fish, and cured meats. In its purest man-made form, it is crystalized monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

For centuries, humans have been using techniques that yield umami, without realizing the specific chemical reactions that produced the result. Searing, aging, and fermenting all can transform chemicals in foods into compounds that trigger umami receptors. Now that chefs have been empowered with the science behind umami, interest in it has exploded. Chefs are exploring more and more ways to create, manipulate, and utilize the chemical compounds behind umami.

Perhaps the greatest exploration has come in fermentation, the use of microorganisms – like mold – to break down and cause chemical changes in foods. Again, humans have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. But, the deliberate use of fermentation to create the chemical compounds that cause umami is brand new. And chefs are just scratching the surface of its possibilities.

Much of the experimentation has occurred in the United States, led by chefs like Jeremy Umansky, of Cleveland’s Larder, who is so passionate about one mold – koji – that he has even given a TEDx Talk about it, and co-authored a book. A mold that dates back thousands of years in Japan, koji has become the darling of the modern fermentation movement. Umansky uses it on nearly everything. It’s difficult to describe the way it transforms the taste of food, Umansky says, but his best attempt is that after an ingredient — steak, fish, vegetables — is fermented by koji, it tastes like the best version of that ingredient, an intensified version of itself.

Umansky believes that the absence of strict culinary traditions in the U.S. may be why chefs here feel freer to explore new uses for koji and other fermentation methods. And, indeed koji-fermented food has taken off in the U.S., particularly at high end metropolitan restaurants.

In some other countries, the umami and fermentation revolution has faced stiffer headwinds from long-revered culinary traditions. In France, trailblazing chef Michelle Chang, author of the cookbook Ma Cuisine Fermentée, has had mixed results spreading the gospel of koji fermentation. When she opened France’s first fermentation restaurant in 2017, La 5ème Saveur (The Fifth Flavor), some heaped praise. At the Talents Gourmands du Finistère competition, the president of the jury, Frédéric Claquin, chef of Michelin-starred restaurant “Les Trois Rochers”, said: “This cooking is probably 10 years ahead of its time.” But, amidst the praise, others seemed less sure about lurching into the food future. Chang closed her restaurant in May.

Michelle Chang Comes to the U.S. 

With the benefit of hindsight, Chang says she now has a better understanding of what Chef Claquin meant when he called her food ten years ahead of its time. Four years after he said it, she says, “it is still not easy to start a restaurant of fermented cuisine – especially in terms of staff training and restaurant setup.”

And so, when Chang received an invitation to bring her fermented cuisine to the United States, she leapt at it. “I have always viewed myself as a messenger and an educator, rather than a chef,” said Chang. “That’s why I published a book, why I opened my restaurant in France, and why I came to the United States to help set up a fermentation restaurant.”

That restaurant is right here in Charlottesville, as Chang’s invitation came from Gen Lee, co-founder of Peter Chang’s restaurants. Intrigued by the health benefits of fermented cuisine, when Lee learned of Chang online, he asked her to come to the United States to help him revamp another restaurant he co-owns: Kyoto.

Now open with a new name, Kyoto Fifth Taste features umami-laden dishes using techniques and recipes taught to Kyoto’s staff by Chang. Through her research, Chang discerned that, when applying heat to fermented foods, temperature control is vital, to avoid microbial enzymes from losing their activity, and allow fermentation to continue in the cooking process. Combining cooking with fermentation, she says, creates an even richer flavor and experience, reflecting her philosophy that using both cold/fermented and hot/cooked methods achieves a combination of Yin and Yan energy.

Her basic method is first to make shio koji by fermenting rice koji, salt, and water for 5-7 days. That shio koji she then uses as a method to ferment meat, fish, and other ingredients, which she incorporates into her cooking in a variety of methods.

Salmon is fermented in shio before a quick sear, and served in a fermented lemon and koji sauce.

Lamb is fermented in shio koji for several days, which not only enhances its flavor but also begins to break it down, yielding tender meat that requires little additional cooking. Served with a fermented sauce of tomato pesto and koji.

Fermented scallops with risotto.

In pursuit of her mission, Chang hopes to help others open fermented food restaurants in the U.S.. Interested restaurateurs can reach her through her website.

But, her first will always be Kyoto Fifth Taste. Now open at 1864 Rio Hill Center.

Introducing Mockingbird: Chef Melissa Close-Hart’s Restaurant Dream Come True

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.

Introducing Mockingbird

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.”

The Food

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.

Introducing Smyrna: Aegean and Charlottesville Hospitality Meet on West Main

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Two Turkish immigrants with a love of hospitality meet while working at a restaurant and then open their own place in Charlottesville. The same story behind successes like Sultan Kebab and Otto has given rise to another Charlottesville restaurant. Orhun Dikmen and Tarik Sengul open Smyrna this week on West Main.

Dikmen came to the United States in 2015 to pursue a career in hospitality, and began in New York as a server at a popular Gramercy wine bar, where Sengul happened to be chef. Both from Turkey, they became fast friends. The following year, Dikmen moved to Charlottesville to help his brother launch the new downtown location of Sultan Kebab, but all the while stayed in touch with Sengul, with whom he often discussed their shared dream of opening a restaurant together.

That dream came to life earlier this year when they learned that the former home to Mangione’s on Main was available. They leapt at it.

Why Charlottesville for a Turkish tandem who met in New York? The fit was no accident, say Dikmen and Sengul. Smyrna is the ancient name for Izmir, the city on the Aegean sea where Dikmen is from, which, like Charlottesville, is known for food and hospitality. Dikmen’s brother even runs a restaurant in Izmir, and Dikmen says that it is Charlottesville’s “soul of hospitality” that people like him find so appealing. “It’s multi-cultural and alive.” Dikmen would sing Charlottesville’s praises so often that Sengul made several visits to see for himself. He was so impressed that he agreed to relocate to launch their restaurant together. “Charlottesville has a dynamic spirt,” said Sengul. “We want to match that spirit at Smyrna,” said Sengul.

Aegean Cuisine by a World Class Chef

While it’s not uncommon for people to be drawn to Charlottesville, it is rare for a chef to arrive with a resume like Sengul’s. After the Gramcery wine bar, Sengul cooked at Tom Colicchio’s Temple Court, and also spent several years at world-renowned L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon under mentor Christophe Bellanca. “He is one of the best I have ever worked with,” said Bellanca – high praise given the caliber of chefs at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “The most imporant thing to me is his finesse,” Bellanca said. “He is very precise and smart, with a cooking sensibility. Some guys just get it.”

Tarik Sengul (Center), with Spencer Dunsmore (L) and Nadim Mukaddem (R)

At Smyrna, Sengul draws on his classical training to apply Aegean flavors to local Virginia ingredients. With finesse, of course. “Raki-Balik” is a delicate, playful ode to the Turkish practice of enjoying fish (“balik”) with Raki, a spirit made from grapes and aniseed. Sengul starts by curing fluke lightly in lemon zest, salt, and sugar, just to firm the flesh. Then he makes cantaloupe compressed with anise, shaves fennel, and sets the fluke, melon, and shaved fennel in a pool of vinaigrette laced with reduced Raki.

Charred eggplant is more traditional. Sengul chars the eggplant on a grill, and cools it very quickly and coats it in olive oil to avoid oxidization. He scoops out the flesh, chops it, and adds confit garlic and confit red peppers. Finally, he mixes in cilantro and tops it all with a pomegranate reduction. “Simplicity and careful handling of ingredients is the key here,” said Sengul.

And, a selection of skewers is a nod to ocakbaşı, a style of casual restaurant in Turkey where grilled food is served directly to customers sitting beside the grill. For lamb meatball skewers, Sengul starts with whole legs of lamb which he breaks down, de-sinews, and then double-grinds the meat to yield a smooth texture. He gently mixes the meat with his blend of spices, and rolls it into small balls, which he chills so that they can be skewered properly. On the grill, he starts them on high heat to create a crust, and then moves them to lighter coals to gently cook them through. “Flare ups and smoke are the enemy of cooking on the grill, as they’ll mask the flavor of the meat, which must be the star,” said Sengul. Meanwhile, Sengul brushes lavash bread with lamb fat and toasts it on the grill. To serve, he spreads spicy garlic yogurt dressing on the bread, and tops the meatballs with pickled fennel. It’s a plate of food that is every bit as delicious as it sounds.

Open Tuesday June 28, Smyrna serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday nights. Follow along on Smyrna’s Instagram.


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