When one has a need, others rush to fill it. That’s how the Charlottesville food community works. Please consider helping these people in great need.
This week a fire destroyed the home of the a family beloved by the Charlottesville food community. The Izaguirre family, who run Crazy Farm, are alive only because they jumped from the second floor window to escape a fire that took everything they had. They are now starting from the ground up and would appreciate anything you can give to help them purchase clothes, food, kitchen supplies, bedding, and other necessities. Donate here.
Meanwhile, Vivace’s Landon Saul is one of the most generous people in town. Even as restaurants fought for survival during the pandemic, Saul continued to donate his time and money to those in need. Now, Saul is asking for help for someone he calls his hero, his brother Tim, Executive Chef of JPJ Arena, who also has long given his own time and money to Charlottesville’s community members in need. Tim has been hospitalized battling health issues that include heart failure, sepsis, a blood infection, and now blindness. Landon and Tim would appreciate anything you can give during this extremely difficult time. Donate here.
A lot goes into the way we experience food. It’s more than just sensation on one’s tongue. Appetite, mood, health, expectations, setting, lighting, company, and even weather can color our perception of food.
The most striking meals occur when these factors align. The right bite in the right place at the right time.
One evening in September, this happened. We invited Basan food truck to our house to serve whatever they’d like, and the “omakase” of small bites they created was one of the most memorable meals of the year. There was hamachi sashimi with calamansi sorbet, shishito vin, and jalapeno potato chips. Dashi-compressed watermelon with shiro shoyu and chili. Asian pear soup with white miso and a Japanese whisky reduction. And, even a beef tongue “Big Mac.”
As delicious as each bite was, it was not just food that made the meal so special. The beautiful Virginia late summer weather allowed for dining on the patio. And, perhaps best of all was the company. Days later, the small group of friends who attended still reflected on how good it felt just to be together. Months of isolation can do that.
But it wasn’t that September evening in the company of friends when I enjoyed my most memorable dish of the year. It was months earlier, alone at my kitchen table.
“They’ve Made Every Part of It”
The women behind Basan, Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor, share a deep passion for food. It is so deep that they once spent a year in Japan just to explore the food. A teaching job for Gardner placed them in the small rural city of Miyakonojo, rich with rice paddies and palm trees. There, Gardner and Naylor were struck by the tight-knit and hospitable nature of the community, a welcoming place where a persimmon picking outing could turn into an invitation for tea from the orchard’s owner.
One community member, Yuki, even offered Naylor a job cooking at her izakaya – an informal bar serving small bites to enjoy with drinks. For Naylor, it was a crash course not just in Japanese food, but also language and culture. “Yuki was kind enough to teach me anything I wanted to know,” said Naylor, “and working in an izakaya-style open kitchen was a wonderful way to meet new people and get to know them.” One regular customer, for example, would catch all of the fish for the restaurant each day, and dishes would be built around whatever he happened to catch. He invited Gardner and Naylor deep sea fishing.
Also striking to Gardner and Naylor was the reverence for food, and the time and care devoted to it. Part of the reason was necessity. In a remote community like Miyakonojo, the absence of big city conveniences forces people to grow their own foods, cook locally, and make the best of what’s around. “Japanese culture is very food-centric,” said Naylor, “but even moreso in the countryside where a lot of the seasonal traditions are still intact by sheer nature.”
But, another reason was pride. Take a dish as simple as miso soup, which Yuki served at her izakaya. Despite the time-intensive process of making miso from scratch, Yuki did it herself. For Yuki, to do otherwise would leave to a manufacturer the dish’s most defining ingredient. And so, for months at a time, she would ferment soy beans in a crock with salt and koji, assuring it remained air-tight and at a constant temperature for the duration. People like Yuki, Naylor said, seem “more connected to what they’re making because they’ve made every part of it.”
When Gardner and Naylor returned to Virginia, they were as determined as ever to to do the same. “Our experience solidified our stubborn need to make as much as we possibly can on our own,” said Naylor.
A Labor of Love: Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen
For a bowl of food handed through a food truck window, the amount of work that goes into Basan’s ramen is remarkable.
First is the tare. “All ramen starts with a base tare, the seasoning that carries the bowl,” said Naylor.
Basan’s requires a three day process. On day one, they start with Kishibori shoyu, an organic, minimally processed soy sauce. To that, they add dried mushrooms, kombu, bonito, dried anchovies, and dried scallops, and let them steep in the soy overnight to draw out the flavors. On day two, they heat sake, mirin, and dashi, to burn off the sake’s alcohol, and add it to the day one soy sauce mixture. Those flavors meld for another 24 hours, and on day three, they strain the sauce and add two different kinds of miso: red and white. Red miso, Naylor says, is pungent and salty, and can come off as harsh if used in excess. Supplementing it with the milder white miso tames the flavor, allowing miso to remain the shining element of the tare without muddying the flavors of the prior steps’ ingredients.
That’s the tare.
Next comes chili paste. Gardner and Naylor source chilis from a Korean woman in Tennessee who grows and dries them herself. To make the chili paste, they roast chilis, and blend them in a Vitamix with rice vinegar, salt, white soy, and dried Korean chilis, along with some Gochujang also made by the woman in Tennessee.
Next, there is hot sesame oil. For that, they steep more of the chilis in sesame oil over low heat, with a little bit of garlic. They then strain it, leaving behind hot sesame oil.
These are just the dish’s seasoning elements. Next comes the broth, or paitan. To make it, they start by soaking whole chickens overnight in water. This draws out blood and other elements that can cause an excessively gamey flavor.
The next day, they put the whole chickens along with extra chicken necks and backs into a giant pot of water over burners turned as high as they can go. They boil the chickens hard for 8-10 hours, topping off the pot with more water as it evaporates. Next, they add aromatics – scallions, ginger, garlic, and onion – and keep boiling for another two hours. Meanwhile, they use a refractometer to monitor the broth’s density, measured in a unit called brix. For the cloudy and creamy texture they seek in paitan, they aim for 7-8 brix. Once they achieve that, they strain the solids, and the broth is done.
Now for the toppings. First is onsen tamago – slow cooked egg. They bring water to a boil, add eggs, and then shut off the heat. The eggs slowly poach in their shells for 13-14 minutes, yielding the jammy yolk that is a signature of ramen eggs.
For the pork belly, they buy whole bellies which they skin and trim, slicing the bellies into three inch strips. They braise the sliced pork belly in a rondeau over low heat for 2-3 hours, with their shoyu tare, sake, and grated ginger.
For the mushrooms, they use compressed and dried wood ear mushrooms, which they rehydrate with an overnight soak. They then pickle the mushrooms in soy, rice vinegar, sugar, dashi, and salt.
Last but not least are the noodles, which Naylor says took a long time to perfect for the ramen they envisioned. “We wanted chewy, but not too chewy,” said Naylor. “We wanted them to hold up to transport. And, we wanted a little bit of earthiness, so they had their own flavor.”
For the desired texture, they settled on a blend of bread flour, cake flour, and oat flour. And for the flavor, they used a touch of salt and kansui, an alkaline solution that is a signature of ramen noodles. Combined with water, the ingredients form a dough, which they roll into sheets and pass through a pasta machine to form noodles.
With all of the elements of the dish complete, assembly is done to-order on the truck. First into the bowl goes the miso tare, then the spice paste, and then a little bit of hot sesame oil. Meanwhile, they cook noodles for 47 seconds in boiling water. “I can’t tell you how many times we had to re-cook the noodles because they were just one second off,” said Naylor. To avoid that result, they keep handy four tiny kitchen timers, all set to 47 seconds.
While the noodles cook, they add two large ladles of broth to the bowl, and whisk it to incorporate the tare, paste, and oil. When the noodles are done, they add them to the bowl, taking care first to drain all of the water from the noodles. Unlike pasta dishes where cooking water can enhance a sauce, in ramen water is the enemy, as it can dilute the broth they worked hard to perfect. Next, they use chopsticks to fold the noodles over themselves in the center of the bowl to make a raft for toppings. Atop that, they add the egg, pork belly, and mushrooms, and garnish with hot sesame oil and scallions from Naylor’s mother’s garden.
Naylor acknowledges that not every customer may appreciate every detail that goes into a single bowl of ramen. (If the noodles were cooked to 48 seconds, would they know the difference?) But, to Naylor, that’s not the point. It’s a labor of love. “It’s a lot of fun to build it the way we want it, and that makes it worth it for us,” said Naylor. “When you put all that work into it, it is incredibly satisfying when you achieve your vision of what you want it to be.” Of course, when guests do notice the difference, the work is all the more rewarding.
Right Bite in the Right Place at the Right Time: The 2021 Dish of the Year
One cold evening in January, as I was rushing from one place to the next, I made time to pick up a bowl of ramen from Basan, which had parked in our neighborhood. It was such a cold night that, as I waited for my order, not even the shelter of the car could protect my bones from the winter’s chill. I had asked the kitchen to prepare the ramen however they like it. A dealer’s choice. They made Spicy Miso Paitan with pork belly, onsen egg, and wood ear mushrooms – the dish described above.
When I got home, my family was out, and I sat down at the kitchen table, alone. I removed the bowl from a brown paper bag and placed it on the table. As I lifted the bowl’s lid, steam filled my face and at once began to restore me. The aroma alone, I thought, was worth double the price of the bowl. I paused to enjoy it, inhaling above the bowl. As I dug in, I was in awe, struck by the broth’s flavor. Rich and deep, explosive yet nuanced. I remember wishing I had the discipline to eat it slowly, thinking that might allow me to savor the flavors even more. But, I was no match for it. Without company, I made no time for table manners, and slurped the bowl’s contents in minutes. And yet, the dish still caught my attention. Amidst the flurry of life’s activities, it forced me to pause and take notice.
It was not until months later that I learned the elaborate processes and time the dish’s preparation requires. It all makes sense now. Yes, the fetishization of details in cooking can at times warrant mockery. When those details are just for the sake of details, they can seem like the nouveau riche describing every last element of their mansion. But, when a chef’s attention to detail is for a higher purpose, the results can be transforming.
In Gardner and Naylor’s case, when they returned to Charlottesville from Japan, they couldn’t find ramen anything like what they had in Japan, where they enjoyed it so much they would eat it 3-4 times per week. So, they decided to make it themselves – to bring ramen to Charlottesville. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” said Naylor. “And, the best way to do it right is to be a part of every step of the process.” Like Yuki.
Why set four timers to forty-seven seconds for noodles? Why use three types of flour in one noodle? Why take the time to soak chickens in water overnight? Why spend three days to build a seasoning with a dozen ingredients? Why source chilis from a Korean-American woman in Tennessee? Why measure broth with a refractometer? Why devote so much time to a dish known in college dorms for its instant preparation?
This. This bowl was why. This moment. We don’t get many moments like this. And, the ones we do, we owe to people like Anna Gardner and Kelsey Naylor.
The 2021 Dish of the Year is Basan’s Spicy Miso Paitan Ramen.
Each December we celebrate the Charlottesville food year by asking chefs and others in the industry: what was the best thing you ate all year? Here are picks from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015. And, below are this year’s picks in our food community’s annual tribute to Charlottesville’s bounty. Meanwhile, check back soon for The Charlottesville 29 pick for 2021 Dish of the Year.
Jason Becton (MarieBette, Petite MarieBette)
Kapow Crispy Duck Basil at Pineapples Thai Kitchen. “At the beginning of the summer a new restaurant opened around the corner from our house called Pineapples and we stopped in to try it out. It was so good we came back the next day. We were planning on having our first pandemic staff meeting that week and on a whim I asked them if we could have it there, and they obliged. They made new customers out of all of my employees. Everything on the menu is delicious but for me the standout is the Kapow Crispy Duck Basil and it was the best thing I ate all year, so much so that I have pretty much eaten it every week since then.”
Mitchell Beerens (Lampo)
Chicken from Birdhouse. “Chicken from Birdhouse is the best thing I ate this year. They were just in time too considering it only just opened a week ago. The chefs finish the juicy rotisserie chicken in a blazing hot oven so that it has a nice crispy skin when it’s finished. I love that thoughtful finishing touch. The chicken is wonderful but don’t sleep on the celery salad, the posole, or the insane wine offerings.”
Tim Burgess (Bang!, Bizou, The Space)
Miso Sea Bass at Ten. “Honestly, is there a better dish than the Miso Bass at Ten? Pei Chang is such a pro, the standard set there is hard to beat.”
Andrew Cole (Lampo)
Celery and Olive Salad at Birdhouse. “It’s the simple elegance of this dish that makes me love it so much. It’s not trying to be anything that it’s not, and what is, is delicious. Perfectly balanced and just a joy to eat, much like everything else from Birdhouse.”
Ryan Collins (Little Star)
Raw Fish at Ten. “It’s hard to do a best thing I ate this year because work’s been so busy and hard to staff. Days off consist of dinner dates with my wife at places that are our favorite must-go places rather than new spots. I go to Ten with the munchies and Pei feeds me raw fish until I pop. Anything Pei gives me is my favorite thing.”
Jose de Brito (Café Frank)
Pain Au Chocolat from Cou Cou Rachou. “I did not dine out as much as I would have liked this year; most of my time has been taken by Cafe Frank’s kitchen, but one thing that stuck out in my memory was a recent purchase at the new Cou Cou Rachou bakery on Preston. It was a pain au chocolat. In my mind there is no good laminated dough if it is not extremely messy when you eat it, and it was a perfect tasty mess. I even took a picture.”
Rachel De Jong (Cou Cou Rachou)
Rotisserie Chicken and Collard Greens at Birdhouse. “The first thing that comes to mind is brand new. Rotisserie chicken and collard greens from Birdhouse, just opened over on Henry Street. Best greens I’ve had since living in Nashville, and I could eat that chicken every darn day. Cabbage is also not to be missed. Liz has put together an awesome wine list. So so happy to have a cozy, welcoming spot like theirs.”
Patrick Evans (MarieBette)
Crying Tiger at Pineapples Thai Kitchen. “We were thrilled when Pineapple’s Thai opened up within a block from our house. We had our staff party there just two weeks after they opened, and they have quickly become part of our weekly food routine. Everything we’ve had there has been wonderful, and I try to order something different each time. The Crying Tiger is especially memorable though.”
Craig Hartman (BBQ Exchange and Champion Ice House)
Tempura Cuttlefish at Ten. “I ate a lot of food this last year, but there is one dish that I am dreaming about. The flavor was explosive, the texture had such contrasting components: crispy, hot, cool, soft , and moist. It was Pei Chang’s tempura cuttlefish with a Korean chili and sesame cream reduction. It just hit every longing that I had at the moment. So damn good.”
Brian Helleberg (Fleurie, Petit Pois)
Dinner at Duner’s. “The team at Duner’s has treated me like family ever since I first worked there 35 years ago as a busboy and dishwasher. This summer, I appreciated that warmth and familiarity more than ever while dining there. I knew the food would be delicious with Hayden Berry back in the kitchen and it certainly was. But, in addition to Hayden, there were at least four others on staff who were there since my first day. That made me feel grateful and humble – two ingredients for any great meal.”
Christian Kelly (Maya)
Cold Fried Chicken Salad from Multiverse Kitchens. “The Asian influences, crunch, pow flavors of jalapeño and cilantro, light and layered. Harrison’s a badass for opening during a pandemic (maybe a little crazy too?). Well done chef, thanks for yummy food.”
Michael Lewis (Boylan Heights)
Tohoku Mussels from Public. “A flavorful, soothing, huge bowl with a spicy, ‘gluten free’ broth of chilis, scallions, and pickled daikon. Pairs perfectly with a dry martini from John. After a long weekend, and especially for restaurant people, love that they’re open on Sundays and Mondays.”
Kathryn Matthews (Iron Paffles)
Veal Sweetbreads at C&O Restaurant. “The veal sweetbreads from C&O Restaurant were special for many reasons. First, it was part of the first meal my husband and I ate in a physical restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic; but most importantly, it was purchased by my late grandmother as a gift to celebrate a recent achievement. The Marsala sauce was sweet and rich, teaming perfectly with the tender, succulent sweetbreads. The added butter-toasted brioche made for a truly decedent appetizer, fit for any celebration. I will never forget it.”
Michael McCarthy (Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie)
Vegetarian Plate at Sultan Kebab. “I have been enjoying the vegetarian plate from Sultan Kebab. Everything is so bright and flavorful. Yummo. I always want to branch out but find myself ordering the veggie plate every time.”
Kelsey Naylor (Basan)
Cloak and Dagger White Stout from Decipher Brewing. “So not necessarily a food, but beer is basically food right? I don’t know that I have the words to describe just how amazing this beer is. Ridiculously smooth, just the right amount of coffee, and way too easy to drink more than a few of these bad boys. They used Shenandoah Joe’s coffee and a ton of actual vanilla beans to make it, and I would almost be willing to fund their vanilla bean tab if it meant that they would brew this absolute unit of a beer again.”
Jenny Peterson (Paradox Pastry)
Summer Squash Pizza at Oakhart Social. “The squash pizza from secret pizza guru Todd Grieger. I have no idea what all was on it, but it was probably one of the most perfect pizzas I’ve ever had.”
Wilson Richey (Ten Course Hospitality)
Molasses Ginger Caramel from La Vache Microcreamery. “I’m not typically a big sweets guy, but I enjoy a well made dessert or pastry from time to time and we have so many good ones to choose from in this town. Maybe it was the difficulty of the last two years but something about that caramel just was other level for me this year. It was necessary. The very first one of these caramels transported me into the Fall and Holiday season and to a calm and warmth I well needed.”
PK Ross (Splendora’s)
Scallop Crudo at Broadcloth. “Best fancy pants dish I had this year was a scallop prep at Broadcloth. Scallop crudo (as chunks) with tomato and cucumber in a wee pool of buttermilk.”
John Shanesy (Belle)
Spicy Chicken Karaage from Basan. “I didn’t get out much to restaurants this year, but I did crush quite a few orders of these nuggies. Looking forward to see what this squad of ultra kind and very talented cooks do this year with the new spot.”
Susan Sweeney (Cake Bloom)
Hands on Breakfast at Guajiros Miami Eatery. “I first discovered Guajiros Miami Eatery in what felt like a truly endless summer building out our shop on West Main. Mornings started extra early to keep up with my weekly cake orders, while afternoons lingered well into night with paintbrush, sandpaper or measuring tape in hand, hustling to get our doors open while battling all manner of permitting roadblocks. One day, sensing low blood sugar and low morale, my sister sent me down to Guajiros insisting the Hands On Breakfast would set me straight. A Cuban cousin to the burrito, this delicious wrap features scrambled eggs, sweet plantains, rice and beans, pico and cilantro aioli. Like everything on their menu, I imagine this homey, but masterful combination being made for generations and fine tuned over the years transforming it from just food to the nourishment I was so deeply craving. Pro-tip: for more feel-goods, pair it with their tart and super refreshing Hibiscus Margarita.”
Angelo Vangelopoulos (Ivy Inn)
Ottobun from Otto Turkish Street Food. “I could eat an Ottobun every single day. Take your pick, the chicken and beef are both delicious, and be sure you have the ezme (red pepper sauce), fried eggplant and fries on it. So good.”
Julie Whitaker (Vu Noodles)
Breakfast Bread from Althea Bread. “I have many favorites, and one that comes to mind is Althea Bread. All of their breads are made with organic local Virginia grains. Our favorite is the Breakfast Bread. It is hearty and 100% freshly milled grains. We love it with butter and jam for breakfast.”
Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)
Cinnamon Buns from Belle. “Todd has brought in cinnamon buns and doughnuts from Belle kitchen many times this year, and they are absolutely delightful. Really fantastic. The cinnamon buns are dense and light somehow. And they have seriously deep shelf life, considering they aren’t pumped with preservatives. I swear I had a couple of ‘em hang out on my counter for four days while I kept chipping away at them, and they were bangin’. Belle kitchen is rad.”