The Charlottesville 29

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

Category: Introductions

Introducing Siren: With the First Restaurant of Her Own, Chef Laura Fonner is At Last Fully on Display

Like many chefs, Laura Fonner has long dreamed of her own restaurant. She just never dreamed it would be this one. For much of her career, Fonner imagined taking over Duner’s, the Ivy institution where she worked for seventeen years, and which she hoped to buy when its owner retired. But, life and a pandemic intervened last summer to set her on a new path, culminating this week with the opening of her first restaurant: Siren.

The restaurant results from a partnership with Champion Hospitality Group, which she left Duner’s for last June, first to launch a food truck, and then to help with projects like Champion Grill and Brasserie Saison. During the pandemic’s disruption of the industry, Fonner saw the work as a bridge to what she really coveted: her own place. “It was a pause in my world to figure out what I wanted to do next,” said Fonner.

That opportunity arose this summer when The Shebeen became available. She and Champion leapt at it. Unlike newly built cookie-cutter properties Fonner had seen on the market, The Shebeen space had the character and history Fonner sought. She has fond memories of eating maraschino cherries and orange slices at the bar as a child when her father frequented its previous tenant, Random Row. The Shebeen felt right. “There’s nothing in Charlottesville like it,” Fonner said.

A Space That Became Fonner

While full of character, the dark and time-worn pub needed a lot of work to transform into a venue suitable for the dining experience Fonner envisioned. “I initially thought it just needed a slap in the ass and a face lift,” said Fonner, “but it ended up needing a total renovation.” And so, for months, the chef poured herself into tireless reconstruction: refinishing the bar, tables and floors; tearing out and replacing the kitchen; building new walls and ceilings; and, more.

Without any design experience, Fonner admits she had no specific vision for the renovation. “All I knew is I wanted it to feel like I invited someone over to dinner in my own house,” said Fonner. Paradoxically, that lack of vision forced a piecemeal, organic approach whose result captures Fonner better than any design plan ever could. Siren is Fonner. It has her blood, sweat, and tears in it. Literally.

Bit by bit, with the help of family and friends, Fonner made gradual refinements and additions, each one infusing a bit more of Fonner into the space. Throughout the restaurant, the décor tells of Fonner’s life: mementos from her parents’ travels, gifts from friends, her grandmother’s artwork. “There is a story behind everything,” she said, and the result is an image of Fonner. “This looks exactly like me,” said Fonner. “And it’s weird because I never knew that this is what I looked like.”

The Food

Like the space, the food is all Fonner. Again, instead of using a formulaic template like many restaurants do, Fonner’s starting point was simply: what do I like to eat? Long days of renovation left food planning to nighttime, when a work-weary Fonner would fill notebooks with ideas for dishes. “Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and write down an idea,” said Fonner.

In homage to Fonner’s grandmother’s Greek roots, the menu tilts Mediterranean, with some American thrown in, too. And, the focus is seafood, Fonner’s favorite thing to cook. Even as Executive Chef of Duner’s, Fonner would always work the seafood station. “It’s so delicate, and you have to do it just right,” beamed Fonner.

Seafood plus Mediterranean means things like shrimp souvlaki sandwiches, tuna tartare with Calabrian chili aioli, and bowls of mussels and chorizo in a broth of tomato, fennel, and citrus. (Menu here!) And, one thing Fonner could never leave off the menu is dumplings, for which she is well known. “Everyone would expect dumplings,” said Fonner. Regulars visited Duner’s just for her dumplings. Chefs have called them the best thing they ate all year. And, celebrity judges on the Food Network raved about them in competitions that the dumplings helped Fonner win.

At Siren, the Mediterranean theme yields chicken gyro dumplings, another nod to her grandmother’s heritage. Fonner’s signature handmade dough encases ground chicken, spiced like gyro meat. “From there, I wanted to try to make it as close to what you would expect from a gryo, but in dumpling form,” Fonner said. And so, garnishes are house-made tzatziki, microgreens, pickled onion, poached tomato, and tirokafteri – a spicy, feta-based spread.

And then there is the Red Plate Special, Fonner’s joke at her own expense. A multi-time Food Network champion, Fonner’s only loss came when she was deducted points for serving her final dish on a red plate, which one judge would have preferred be white. At Siren, Fonner is using the gaudiest big red plate she could find to serve a rotating special of whole fish. “I try not to take myself too seriously,” said Fonner. “If I can’t make fun of myself, what’s the point?”

Serendipity –> Siren

Sometimes things fall into place. If Fonner had taken over Duner’s, as she once hoped, she never would have created a restaurant quite like this. The history and following of Duner’s would have compelled her to carry on its legacy, leaving little opportunity for Fonner to make her own mark. But, Siren? Siren is all Laura.

Which is very good news for Charlottesville.

Siren opens this Thursday, December 9 at 247 Ridge McIntire Rd.

Introducing ooey gooey crispy: Elevated Grilled Cheese from a Chef and a Cheesemonger

This one has been a long time coming.

Ever since we heard that food super-couple Carolyn Stromberg Leasure and Zack Leasure were relocating from D.C. to Charlottesville, we have eagerly awaited what they might do here. In D.C., Carolyn ran Righteous Cheese, the acclaimed artisanal cheese shop in Union Market, while Zack was Executive Sous Chef of Tail Up Goat, helping it earn a Michelin star and nod as one of the country’s best new restaurants. Both were favorite stops on D.C. visits.

After arriving in Charlottesville in 2017, they dabbled in the idea of a cheese food truck, Carolyn did pop-up cheese tastings, and Zack spent time at several restaurants and also served as Executive Chef of Big Kitchen Hospitality Group. All the while, though, we hoped that they might join forces for their own place in Charlottesville. Next month, they will do just that, when their grilled cheese shop ooey gooey crispy opens in CODE.

It is a product of two great passions: food and Charlottesville.

A Passion For Food

After working in restaurants in high school and college, Carolyn tried the normal job thing, but couldn’t shake the lure of the food industry. She worked in several fine dining restaurants before embracing her true passion: cheese, which was the very first word she said as a child. Opened in 2012, her artisanal cheese shop and wine bar Righteous Cheese offered 100+ cut-to-order artisanal cheeses and flights of wine and beer pairings. She also made grilled cheeses so good that USA Today called them among the nation’s best

Zack’s entry to the food world was Charlottesville’s Vivace before he set off for D.C.. There he found a job at one of the city’s most influential restaurants, Komi, which was consistently ranked the #1 restaurant in the city during his tenure. “What I learned there forever shaped my sensibilities on food and, even more so, on hospitality,” said Zack. Next, Zack was Sous Chef at Red Apron Butchery and Osteria Morini before joining a team of Komi veterans to open Tail Up Goat, a restaurant devoted to whole animal butchery, bread baking, pasta making, and preservation.

A Passion for Charlottesville

Even before they moved to Charlottesville in 2017, Carolyn and Zack had been set on it as their forever home. “We had visited Charlottesville many times, both to see family and to enjoy the outdoors, and had met many people in the food scene,” said Carolyn. “We were so welcomed and really felt the community of what it would be like to live here.” Another plus was family life, with two young boys. “We wanted our kids to enjoy the same kind of outdoor freedom that we had growing up – just exploring the woods,” said Carolyn. “Now that we’ve been here several years, we feel totally enmeshed in the community and our kids definitely spend their days in the outdoors.”

From their first day in Charlottesville, Carolyn and Zach immersed themselves. “We are completely committed to both being a part of the community and doing our part to contribute to it,” said Carolyn.

Introducing ooey gooey cripsy

And, what will their contribution be?

Grilled cheese. “It is the ultimate comfort food,” said Carolyn. “We eat it all the time and, though anyone can make grilled cheese, we believe it deserves the same level of thoughtful attention as the dishes we crafted for years in our fine dining backgrounds.” That attention especially took off when Carolyn would bring home amazing cheeses from Righteous Cheese, and she and Zack would make grilled cheese sandwiches, experimenting with flavors and textures. 

Years of trial-and-error from two talented and passionate food artisans is about to pay off for Charlottesville.

“It starts with ingredients,” said Zack. Sourdough bread from Albemarle Baking Company, high-quality cheeses from sustainable farms, and local and sustainable meats. “From there, it’s all about the extra attention and love,” said Zack. Buttering the bread all the way to the edges to ensure uniform color and crispiness; shredding rather than slicing the cheese to achieve the right gooey interior at the same moment the outside is shatteringly crisp; allowing the grilled cheese to rest before cutting so that the cheese comes together just so. “These are details that may seem inconsequential, but have been tried and tested in our kitchen,” Zack said. 

At ooey gooey crispy, guests will be able to create their own custom grilled cheeses from a menu of select ingredients. Choose your cheese from Fontina Val d’Aosta, cheddar, gruyère, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or brie. Choose butter from classic, sage butter, parm butter, or truffle butter. And choose toppings from crushed potato chips, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, bacon marmalade, picnic ham, or Mike’s hot honey.

Better yet is a menu of house favorite combinations, like brie, truffle butter, and crushed potato chips, or Zack’s favorite, Fontina and sage butter.  “We use traditional Fontina Val d’Aosta, which is robust and funky, but when it melts, it changes a bit – mellows out and gets buttery too,” said Zack. “The classic Italian alpine cheese paired with the woodsy herbaceousness of the sage butter exemplifies the northern Italian flavors I love dearly. Plus it’s just so damn good.”

For lighter meals, there is also a menu of “big salads,” such as Carolyn’s favorite, the Blustery Fall Salad, with roasted celery root, arugula, celery hearts, lemon-soaked currants, toasted hazelnuts, brie, and sherry vinaigrette. “With those bites of brie, toasted hazelnut, and currants, it takes it from sad-salad-lunch to something super luscious and indulgent without being heavy,” said Carolyn, who likes to pair the salad with Creamy Tomato Soup. “It’s the best tomato soup I’ve ever had, and it has the added bonus of being vegan,” said Carolyn.

Ooey gooey crispy opens in November. Meanwhile, you can visit here to learn more about the project, help them get off the ground, and win rewards like their own cookbook, free grilled cheese, and more.

Introducing Taste Shack: Smoked’s Justin van der Linde Brings His Attention to Detail to Classic Sandwiches and Familiar Favorites

Nearly a decade has passed since Justin van der Linde began selling barbecue from a cart on the downtown mall. The crowds that flocked to his cart only grew when, in 2016, he opened a brick and mortar home for Smoked. Even certified barbecue judges heaped praise.

All the while, as passionate as van der Linde was about barbecue, the culinary school graduate could not shake the urge to make other foods he loves. “I get this itch every once in a while to do something new,” said van der Linde. And so, van der Linde has sold his beloved Smoked, to turn all of his attention to a new venture: Taste Shack, which opens next week on 29N.

For van der Lind, “something new” never means reinvent the wheel. That’s not his M.O. Rather, he takes classic foods he loves, like barbecue, and applies obsessive attention to detail. “I am not the great inventor,” said van der Linde. “But, I do like to make a run at it.”

With Taste Shack, he is making a run at a menu of classic sandwiches and other familiar favorites, where the simple names bely the effort behind them. For “Chips and Dip,” for example, van der Linde first slices and soaks Russet potatoes. He then deep fries the sliced potatoes and, while they are still hot and ready to absorb flavor, tosses them in a house-made “red-salt,” which he likens to a dry rub. The dip for the chips is van der Linde’s take on a classic game day bacon-and-onion dip, but requires a lot more care than opening a pouch of powder. Van der Linde roasts onions in butter, which he chops together with cherry-wood smoked bacon, and blends with beef broth, sour cream, and minced chives.

Fans of Carving Board, the sandwich shop he ran with his wife, will be thrilled to know that sandwiches are a focus of Taste Shack, again with van der Linde’s signature attention to detail. For a Steak and Cheese, he says, the cut of beef is crucial. Too fatty and the fat won’t have time to render on the flat-top. Too lean, and the meat will dry out as it sears. That’s why he calls rib-eye the “king of the cut” for the sandwich. “You get that good mouth feel,” said van der Linde, “and there’s enough marbling that you get that good sear before it dries out.”

For the sandwich, Van der Linde starts with whole rib eye, which he trims to an eighth of an inch of fat. He freezes it briefly to firm up before shaving off thin slices. The shaved beef stays raw until order when it is seared on the flat-top and topped with a choice of cheese and toppings. The whole thing is stuffed into an Amoroso roll, which van der Linde re-bakes at the restaurant, yielding a crisp exterior and soft interior.

As good as the Steak and Cheese sounds, van der Linde’s personal favorite is the Country Gentleman, a nostalgic tribute to a childhood favorite from a sandwich shop called Chubb’s, where his father would take him on Sundays. Van der Linde starts with whole turkey breasts, which he de-bones in house. “This ensures the highest quality whole muscle product,” said van der Linde. “Nothing extruded like you would find in most deli turkey.” He brines the turkey breast for 48 hours in 50/50 sugar and salt, rubs it in salt and pepper, and then roasts it whole, adding honey towards the end of the roast time, to bring a touch of sweetness without burning.

For the sandwich, he piles the turkey with Kite’s country ham, Southern style slaw of green cabbage, and a choice of cheese (he recommends Swiss). Next comes the key, van der Linde says. A house-made Russian dressing that he likes so much that he is tight-lipped about its preparation. While all sandwiches come on a choice of bread, van der Linde says grilled rye is the way to go for the Country Gentleman.

And for those cutting carbs, sandwiches can also be ordered over greens instead of on bread. It’s all made from scratch. House-brined corned beef for Reubens. House-brined and house-smoked pastrami. And a smash-burger inspired by the 2017 Dish of the Year.

A Happy, Hometown Place

The COVID-19 pandemic weighed heavily in van der Linde’s planning of Taste Shack. For guests, the pandemic changed the ways many people want to dine, he said: faster, easier, and often on the run, whether from Apps or instore kiosks.

But, it’s not just ease people seek, van der Linde says. More than ever, people crave a happy escape. And so, his aim with Taste Shack is to create what he calls a “hometown place with hometown service,” where everyone feels welcome and happy. Like The Tavern back in the day. “It’s a shack,” he said, “so come as you are. Bring your kids in muddy cleats and shin guards falling out.”

The pandemic’s lessons extend to staff, too. “I am hearing what the industry is saying,” said van der Linde about restaurant workers fleeing the industry. “Message heard loud and clear. Our staff is just as important as the customer.” In addition to “top pay” and a positive environment, the father of two plans for hours that allow staff a quality life outside work: Monday through Friday, 11am – 7pm.

Taste Shack is located on 29N at 2291 Seminole Lane. Check back for an opening date.


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