The Charlottesville 29

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

The Sun Also Rises: As Sun Sets on The Blue Point Founders’ 32-Year Run, New Owners Carry the Legacy

If you have dined at The Blue Point lately, you may not have noticed that it is under new ownership. That’s by design.

Three Decades of Excellence

It is no hyperbole: The Blue Point’s founders Sam McGann and John Power achieved something few in the world have: maintain a world-class restaurant for more than thirty years. In an industry in which few restaurants last three years, three decades of excellence is almost unheard of. For McGann and Power, that excellence made all the more daunting the question of what would become of The Blue Point after they sailed off into the sunset.

For others in similar situations, legacy has been paramount. Forty years after the Tice family founded John’s Drive-In, they chose a buyer who could best sustain the Outer Banks icon. In Charlottesville, Virginia, C&O’s owner of 30+ years hand-picked a successor he deemed most capable of carrying the torch. And, nearly thirty years after founding the bagel institution Bodo’s, the owner rejected outside offers to put it in the hands he trusted most: his employees.

McGann balks at the word legacy. Yes, the fate of The Blue Point matters to him. But, it’s not out of vanity. Working three decades in the same windowless room, McGann has no desire for the limelight. Rather, what weighed on McGann as he prepared to move on was the same thing that propelled three decades of success: people.

Executive Chef Dave McClary has worked at The Blue Point for more than twenty five years. Pastry Chefs Jack Baumer and Joe Santoro have been there more than fifteen years. As have A.M. Chef Matt Estrada and Bar Manager Christy Mode. Chef de Cuisine Reed Carden has been there more than eight. In an industry known for staff turnover, retention like that would be inconceivable to most restaurateurs. And, it has been vital to The Blue Point’s consistent success. With new chefs in and out of the kitchen, the pork chop might not always taste the same. The seasoning of the she-crab soup could be off. Or, the glaze on the hoisin ribs might be too sweet. Ever notice that almost never happens at The Blue Point? When vacationers return each summer for a meal they’ve anticipated all year, their food tastes just as they remember.

But, how did McGann and Power keep their staff so long? Simple. They took care of them.

Sam McGann (left) and Larry Bird, I mean John Power

Cold Winters, Hot Summers

Every winter since it opened, The Blue Point has lost money. For months at a time. During the tourist offseason, there is just not enough demand to cover the costs of running a restaurant of The Blue Point’s caliber. Still, each cold winter day McGann, Power, and their staff, would get up, work hard, pay the bills, and grind. All to lose money.

Why not just close?

The people. If The Blue Point were to close during the winter, McGann said, his staff would have lost their jobs. The people he works with every day. The people whose families are like his own. And so, to endure the losses of the long winter, each year McGann and Power would take out huge loans just so they could keep their staff employed until the profits of the summer returned. “Hospitality is not always quantified in nickels and dimes,” said McGann. “We had to maintain the staff. They are family.”

McClary, who started at The Blue Point on Day One and is now Executive Chef, was most struck by the respect with which McGann and Power would treat everyone, from chefs to dishwashers. “They were both at the restaurant all the time, which is uncommon for many owners, and made us feel like they were one of us,” said McClary. “And, they had a practice of letting employees grow into their own self-created roles so they felt like they had stock in The Blue Point family’s success. You don’t find that at other places.”

“Trust and Knowledge”

That same concern – The Blue Point family – was top of mind for McGann and Power as they prepared to move on. When word broke last year that they may be willing to sell their iconic restaurant, suitors rushed in. Investors and longtime customers talked big money. But, for McGann and Power, the decision came down to more than who could write the biggest check. The most important thing was how the sale would impact the people with whom they had worked for years. In the wrong hands, they worried, The Blue Point could falter, or even fail. “Trust and knowledge” were key, McGann said. They needed someone who, with these qualities, could sustain The Blue Point and their longtime family.

In Ryan Raskin and his two siblings, they think they have found them. With fifteen years of restaurant experience, Ryan has been an assistant manager of The Blue Point for nearly a decade, and has long dropped hints about buying the restaurant. “You’re no spring chickens,” he would tell McGann and Power. “If you want to sell, I can preserve your legacy.” While sister Leigh and brother Jamie are also industry veterans – the three own Eventide together – it was Ryan’s role in The Blue Point family that was a difference-maker for McGann and Power. Sure, part of the reason was his passion for service, an intangible you either have or you don’t. “I hope and believe he has the joy of hospitality in him,” said McGann. “It is not a job, it is a lifestyle.” Raskin’s institutional knowledge was also a plus. “Ryan knows the rhythm,” McGann said. “He understands it.”

But, most of all, it was his love of the same people who mean so much to McGann and Power. “It’s in the right hands,” said Raskin. “Everyone who works for me is family.”

Now custodians of a legend that has improved the lives of thousands of people, the Raskins’ goal is simply to preserve it. “We want to concentrate on what we are doing right, and make sure that continues,” Raskin said. Though the Raskins — all in their 30s — bring youthful energy to the restaurant’s ownership, don’t expect them to go chasing trends. “People come here to create memories,” Raskin said. “That’s what Sam and John were so good at, and it never goes out of style. They’re as cool now as when they were 30.” The duty of carrying the torch means so much to Raskin that he chokes up when talking about it. “To have the responsibility to preserve The Blue Point is a tremendous, tremendous honor,” said Raskin, “I am still pinching myself every day because of how much I care about that.”

In pursuit of that responsibility, the Raskins are refocusing on the restaurant’s roots: classic Southern, locally-sourced food. They even brought back the original “The Blue Point” logo, as scribbled on a piece of paper by co-founder Power in 1989 just to get the doors open. Raskin says that the timelessness of that classic logo embodies the timelessness of the hospitality on which the restaurant is built. “It meant a lot to us,” said McGann of the reintroduced logo.

But, while the Raskins are committed to preserve what makes The Blue Point special, they won’t stand still. After all, The Blue Point itself is the product of changes, evolving from a single diner-like room in 1989 into what today is a 100-seat destination restaurant with a separate outdoor bar and dining. The Raskins have already updated the cocktail menu, and also plan to allow cooks more freedom to flex their creativity with nightly specials. Other changes could come down the road, said Raskin, but all consistent with the restaurant’s ethos.

Never for Money, Always for Love

Staff weren’t the only people on the mind of McGann and Power as they prepared to sell. “It’s the people who work there, yes, but also the people who enjoy it and their families,” said McGann. “Generations have come through those doors.” And, then there’s the people of Duck, the once quiet beach town that The Blue Point calls home. When McGann’s thoughts turn to them, his voice breaks, and it sounds like legacy may weigh on his mind after all.

“We have grown up with the town,” said McGann. “I want to see that restaurant there for the rest of my life. I want to be as proud of that restaurant as I ever I have been. It does matter.”

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.

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