It’s a Thanksgiving tradition for a reader selected at random to participate in Five Finds on Friday, and, from the hundreds of entrants, this year’s winner is artist Sarah Trundle. Her abstract paintings can be purchased here, and you can keep up with her latest art on her Instagram page. Trundle’s picks:
1) Grn Street Single Veggie Burger from GRN BRGR. “I pop in to Dairy Market to grab one of these for lunch as often as I can. The burger patty itself is amazing, but the toppings are what keep me coming back. The bun is soft and simple and perfectly sized (i.e. non-mammoth), and it comes with ched’dar, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles (the latter being a must-have for a burger in my mind), and the final piece de resistance, their “street sauce” – some kind of condiment amalgam perfection. The whole thing is just synergistic burger magic.”
2) Birthday Cakes from Chandler’s Bakery. “Granted I have a thing for layer cakes with buttercream frosting, but Chandler’s makes by far the best. Every reason to celebrate calls for a Chandler’s cake, perfectly moist, creamy, sweet without being too-sickly-sweet, and beautifully decorated. Shout out to their radio bars as well; like gourmet hostess ding dongs but a million times better. Plus it just smells so good in there, and the assortment of goodies behind their old school glass bakery case delivers a huge blast of nostalgia.”
3) Charred Carrots at Oakhart Social. “I’m always happy to order whatever the group wants when I find myself at Oakhart Social — it’s ALL good — but this item is a non-negotiable must-have for me. The natural sweetness of the carrots, the slightly smoky flavor, the creamy sauce, the little crunch of the nuts. This is one I’d prefer not to share with the table.”
4) Käsekrainer at Kardinal Hall. “Had to look up the spelling on that one! I don’t know much about sausages other than that I like them, but this one is other-sausage-worldly, and I’ve never tasted anything like it. Kind of savory, kind of sweet, kind of very delicious. Just get it. It comes on a roll but you can order it on top of one of their salads, which is what I do. Ser Guht.”
5) Farmers Bread with Meze Trio at Smyrna. “Really this is mostly about the bread. Order extra. And more extra. It’s lightly toasted/grilled, and just chewy, crusty, perfection that will transport you directly to the Mediterranean. The trio of dips – yogurt goat cheese/ hummus/ and charred eggplant – are amazing as well but they are really just a vehicle for bread. And even more bread. Best I’ve had locally.”
There’s lots to like about Smyrna. The food is delicious. The service thoughtful. And the setting transporting. But, what may stand out most about the restaurant that opened this summer on West Main is the clientele. On most visits – particularly Sundays – you may spot top chefs at nearby tables on their nights off. Every now and then, a restaurant comes along and captures the hearts of Charlottesville chefs. For now, that’s Smyrna.
The man most responsible for this is chef Tarik Sengul, a New York transplant who trained at hot spots like Temple Court and the world-renowned L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon before moving to Charlottesville to open his own restaurant. His mentor at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Christophe Bellanca, calls Sengul one of the best he has ever worked with – high praise given the caliber of chefs that pass through the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s no wonder Sengul’s food has earned such a following in his short time in Charlottesville.
It’s not just the caliber of cooking, though, that keeps chefs coming back, but the style of food, too. Sengul takes the classical training and techniques he honed under chefs like Bellanca, and applies them to the flavors of his native Turkey. Sengul calls it “traditional Anatolian cuisine, cooked with Appalachian ingredients, using modern techniques.” The result is unlike anything in Charlottesville, and rare anywhere in the country. While Turkish restaurants are not uncommon in some parts of the U.S. (Charlottesville boasts Sultan Kebab and Otto), they often focus on rustic, informal fare, rather than the type of cuisine coming out of Sengul’s kitchen.
“It’s a new style of cookery we very much needed and a welcome addition to the area,” said Belle chef and co-owner John Shanesy. “Tarik’s pedigree is hard earned, and you can taste the confidence in his dishes. Clean, minimal and straight to the point.” Case in point was a bowl of gazpacho with sour cherry and goat cheese that Shanesy enjoyed during a birthday dinner for his wife. “The tartness of the cherry with fresh heirloom tomatoes and the creamy Caromont goat cheese was put together wonderfully,” Shanesey said. “Three textures, each very important and in harmony together.”
Lampo’s Loren Mendosa, once named C-VILLE’s Best Chef, also celebrated a special occasion at Smyrna, and says he was blown away by the whole experience. “I went in with expectations of fine dining,” said Mendosa. “And, while it is that in some respects, it is such a different take on it, with the Turkish and Mediterranean influence.” Mendosa enjoyed everything, but the standout was manti – handmade Turkish dumplings stuffed with Sharondale Farm mushrooms, served with garlic yogurt and dehydrated tomato, and drizzled with pepper butter sauce. “That was the dish that stuck with me,” said Mendosa.
The manti is a two-day affair, beginning with handmade dough that Sengul calls a hybrid of Italian pasta dough and classic Aegean manti dough. The aim is a texture that sits between the softness of Asian dumplings and the firm bite of a Western noodle, Sengul said.
For the filling, Sengul’s team sears a medley of mushrooms with herbs, and blends them with dehydrated cherry tomatoes and creamy ricotta. After cooling, the filling goes into piping bags. The next day, the dough is rolled to appropriate thickness and cut into squares for filling and shaping into dumplings. That vital step belongs to a manti expert named Seda, who hails from a Turkish city known for its manti: Izmir, which, incidentally, was once called Smyrna. One by one, Seda meticulously fills each manti and folds them into little purses.
To order, the kitchen boils about 15 manti to al dente, and then tosses them in clarified butter with dehydrated tomatoes and herbs, and plates the dumplings over a garlic-infused yogurt. A sprinkling of Manakintowne herbs finishes the dish for service.
Smyrna is not just for fancy-smancy dishes and special occasions, though. It does everyday fare, too, like kebabs, steak, and burgers. Some chefs are regulars, like Mendosa’s Lampo co-owner Mitchell Beerens, also a C-VILLE Best Chef winner. “I love Smyrna,” said Beerens. “I’ve been a dozen times at least. Best steak in town.”
Sengul says that the most important lesson he has taken from his years of training is the importance of harmony among ingredients. “Like music, food is a composition,” said Sengul. “It requires combining many different elements, prepared with the utmost respect and focus on the task at hand to produce a sum greater than its parts.” That focus extends to all of Smyrna’s food, as two-time James Beard semifinalist Angelo Vangelopoulos, of The Ivy Inn, observed during a big family dinner. “I tasted nearly everything on the menu,” said Vangelopoulos. “and thoroughly enjoyed every dish, with raki-balik, manti, octopus and kebabs being highlights.” Zocalo chef and owner Ivan Rekosh had a similar experience sampling most of Smyrna’s food. “There were no duds on the menu, and we ordered a ton,” said Rekosh.
Sengul’s cooking has even won praise from notoriously tough food critic Jose de Brito. The James Beard semifinalist behind Café Frank calls Smyrna “one of the best additions to the Charlottesville food scene of the last few years.” Particularly impressive to de Brito has been attention to detail, in dishes like charred eggplant, which Sengul first grills, and then cools quickly and coats in olive oil to prevent oxidization. Next, he scoops out the flesh, chops it, and adds confit garlic, confit red peppers, and cilantro, and finishes it all with a drizzle of pomegranate reduction. “No bitterness and perfect seasoning,” said de Brito, who also cites Sengul’s hummus as a favorite. “One of the best in a long time,” said de Brito.
Sengul co-owns Smyrna with Orhun Dikmen, a longtime employee of his brother’s restaurant Sultan Kebab. As manager of the front of the house, Orhun is largely responsible for another aspect of Smyrna that chefs find so appealing. Kindness. While this may seem an odd criterion for dining out, chefs cannot help but mention it when discussing Smyrna. “You can tell its genuine,” Mendosa said of the kindness of Smyrna’s owners and staff. De Brito said the same. “They are genuinely nice, and it is palpable that they care,” said de Brito. “Their hospitality is the cherry on top of great food.” Vangelopoulos agrees. “The thing that stands out most is Tarik and Orhun’s passion and excitement for hospitality,” said Vangelopoulos. “They visited every table to check whether guests were enjoying themselves, all the while excitedly explaining dishes and ingredients.”
Smyrna is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday at 707 W. Main Street.
Linh Nguyen owes her love of food to her mother. It began with her mother’s cooking during childhood in Vietnam, and continued when they came to the United States when Linh was ten. And then it really took off years later when her mother became chef of a restaurant run by Linh’s siblings. Crystal, as it was called, was Charlottesville’s only Vietnamese restaurant at the time. Seeing the joy her mother took from cooking for others left Linh dreaming of one day running her own restaurant. Sadly, her mother succumbed to cancer just a few years after Crystal opened, and the restaurant closed in the early 2000s.
For the next two decades, Linh’s dream was deferred by the task of raising her four children. All the while, she stayed active in the industry, helping her sister with her own food businesses: Got Dumplings and Poke Sushi Bowl. Now that Linh’s children are grown, the wait is over. Nguyen’s Kitchen opened last month in Albemarle Square, and is run almost entirely by Linh and her husband Chau, who together do all of the cooking and service.
Drawing from Linh’s mother’s recipes, the menu has an international flair. Because Linh’s grandparents were Chinese, the Vietnam native felt culturally Chinese as a child, and her mother cooked a wide range of cuisines, not just Vietnamese, and not just Chinese. The menu of Nguyen’s Kitchen reflects that – pork buns and har gow from China; edamame and takoyaki from Japan; and chicken wings and bulgogi from Korea. But, the dishes that have quickly earned the biggest following are Vietnamese – a cuisine that, since the closure of Crystal, has not always been well-represented in Charlottesville.
In the U.S., pho is king. Linh’s is two day affair, starting early one morning with a hard boil of beef parts to remove blood and impurities. Next comes a long simmer, which lasts all day. Removing the broth from the heat is one of the last tasks before the restaurant closes each night. After being refrigerated overnight, the next morning the broth goes back to the stove, this time with the addition of seasonings. Linh is hesitant to name them all, but acknowledges common pho ingredients like star anise, cardamom, and rock sugar. To order, the broth is served with traditional accompaniments: noodles, bean sprouts, and herbs.
While pho is the American crowd-pleaser, Linh says her Vietnamese guests tend to order a different noodle soup: bún bò Huế. Similar to pho, the dish named for the the city Huế has a more citrusy and fruity aroma, thanks to plenty of lemongrass and Linh’s (not-so) secret ingredient, pineapple.
There’s also the traditional Vietnamese sandwich banh mi, with house-made mayo. And, a vermicelli bowl, with a choice of protein, like grilled pork.
And, there’s even a contraption that shakes up bubble drinks to order.
Nguyen’s Kitchen is a small, order-at-the-counter joint, and most guests take their food to go, but there are a few tables for on-premises dining.
While Linh long dreamed of opening her own restaurant, just one month in, the experience has already exceeded her expectations. “I love to cook,” said Linh. “Now that I cook for other people, I know why it made my mother so happy.”