The Charlottesville 29

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

Tag: Dish of the Year

2016 Dish of the Year: Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo

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I have this thing.

Whenever I come across an extraordinary dish, I have an impulse to share. If I’m dining with others, I’ll give it to them. If I’m alone, I’ll blurt about it on social media, or even offer it to strangers. The aim, I imagine, is to bring to others the same human-created joy I am experiencing, as if to say: “look what we are capable of.” I used to think this was a universal part of human nature, but years ago when I told a friend about it, he said he has the opposite reaction: hoard the good stuff. Alas, universal or not, the strength of my impulse to share a dish has become a trusty indicator of how much I enjoyed it.

In choosing my 2016 Dish of the Year, then, a place to start was recalling dishes that caused me to share. Not surprisingly, the most common place for this to happen was Lampo, the Belmont steakhouse pizzeria where chef-owners Mitchell BeerensLoren Mendosa, and Ian Redshaw never stop dreaming up delicious specials to complement an already stellar menu. And, sure enough, the standout among all of the year’s impulse-triggering dishes came from Lampo’s kitchen. It was one I enjoyed so much that, after tasting it, I took to social media to tell as many people as I could, emailed friends I hadn’t seen in months, and even forced it upon the stranger sitting beside me at the bar.

My 2016 Dish of the Year is Lampo’s Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo with burnt corn aioli, Brussels sprouts slaw, Schnebelhorn cheese, and ramp kimchi.

Panuozzi are essentially sandwiches made from pizza dough. At Lampo, they all start with the same foundation: a beautiful, warm, soft, oval of dough, irregularly charred with spots of enhanced flavor by the extreme heat of the wood-burning oven. That heat allows Lampo to cook the bread to order, in a matter of seconds. What didn’t take seconds is the time and effort Lampo’s chefs spent perfecting the dough, yielding an ideal building-block for a sandwich. Hot out of the oven, the bread  is sliced open and stuffed with any of the menu’s variety of combinations. Last year, three chefs named one – the porchetta – as the best thing they ate all year. This year, a chef named another one – the polpettine – as best of the year.

My choice for dish of the year was a special panuozzo created by Ian Redshaw, and drew on two of his great strengths as a chef: a passion for meat and a knack for combining flavors. A devotee of charcuterie, Redshaw became inspired to make pastrami in April after learning that Katz’s Deli – NYC’s temple of pastrami – survived a possible closure. So, he tracked down the finest brisket he could find, from Sherwood Farm, and set to work. More than two months of work.

First, he dry-aged the brisket for sixty days. Next, he brined it in equilibrium for a week. After that, he dried it overnight in a coating of Szechuan pepper, fennel pollen, and Aleppo pepper. Finally, he smoked it with wood from leftover bourbon barrels. That’s just the meat.

To assemble the sandwich, he drew on other inspirations at the time. “I had been obsessing about corn aioli, and it happened to burn, creating another layer of flavor,” he says. Though he initially imagined sauerkraut with the pastrami, “on the fly” he switched to Lampo’s popular Brussels sprouts salad. As for the cheese, Redshaw had recently received a sample of one he thought would work well from Nadjeeb Chouaf, the national cheesemonger of the year. And, finally, the most assertive ingredient of all was a kimchi of ramps Redshaw had arranged to be made by Sussex Farm.

As a home cook, I can follow recipes, and I have even reached the point of adding my own riffs to techniques I have come to understand. But, only a gifted chef like Redshaw, who also created the 2015 Dish of the Year, has the mental palate to “taste” combinations of flavors in his mind without even putting them in his mouth. Combinations that trigger the sharing impulse.

“Shake-my-head good,” I wrote on social media. “I can’t believe how good this is,” I emailed a chef I hadn’t seen in months. When he asked where, I responded: “Lampo. Sorry for the random email, but when I enjoy something this much, I inevitably have an irresistible impulse to share.” And, share I did. I sliced off a quarter of the sandwich, and slid it down the bar to the unsuspecting man beside me. Lucky guy.

The next day, I went back and had it again. Did I enjoy it just as much? No.

More.

2015 Dish of the Year: General Tso’s Sweetbreads

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Of food at The Alley Light, one top area chef recently told me: “everyone else in town is a distant second place, myself included.”  Jose de Brito’s food does indeed continue to dazzle.  In 2015, I had dozens of dishes at The Alley Light that would warrant consideration for my favorite of the year.  But, meals at The Alley Light inevitably become such a blur of deliciouness that it’s difficult for one dish to stand out. When friends ask me to recommend what to eat there, I become one of those unhelpful waiters who essentially reads the menu back to them.

My choice for the 2015 Dish of the Year is the one that stands out most in my memory: General Tso’s Sweetbreads at Lampo.

Chef Ian Redshaw has a passion for what some call Silk Road cuisine, celebrating the flavors of Italy, China, and the historic trade route in between.  There is some debate, for example, over whether pasta came East from Italy to China or West from China to Italy.

Today, chefs are discovering that the flavors of regions along the Silk Road marry well.  For General Tso’s Sweetbreads, Redshaw uses ingredients from Italy to create a sauce evoking the sweet, salty, and umami flavors of the famous Hunan sauce which originated at the opposite end of the Silk Road, more than 5,000 miles away.  Redshaw combines honey, Calabrian chili, garlic scapes, and a fermented fish sauce called garum, which bears some resemblance to the fish sauces of Southeast Asia.  Redshaw lightly coats morsels of sweetbreads in a batter of egg and cornstarch, fries them and and then tosses them in the sauce.

The result is wow-inducing.  When I first had General Tso’s Sweetbreads in June, I called the dish “stunning” and said to my dining companions that it was the “clubhouse leader” for dish of the year.  A crisp exterior, glossy with sauce, encases tender nuggets of rich, yet delicate, sweetbreads.  While I’ve had many outstanding dishes since then, none stands out as much as Redshaw’s sweetbreads. I look forward to many more plates of them in 2016.

 

 

 

2014 Dish of the Year: Bone Marrow and Escargot at The Alley Light

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The food-obsessed among us relish the moment.  It’s when a dish is so well conceived and executed that it slaps you upside the head and forces you to take notice.  You shake your head at it.  Or, you might even laugh out loud at its splendor.

There need not be many of these moments.  To insist that every meal be spectacular would be a tiresome distraction from life’s responsibilities.  Food is sustenance.  We consume roughly one million calories of food each year, so not every one need be riveting.  Food that is merely very good is still, well, very good.

In fact, the rarity of dazzling food moments makes them all the more special. It often helps for stars to align — being in the right place, at the right time, in the right mood.  The moments are unlikely to occur as you scarf down a take-out sandwich on your lap in the car.

In the case of my favorite dish of the year, the stars aligned just so.  One mild August evening, my wife was away at the beach with the children. So, after work, I treated myself to a quick stop at The Alley Light.  As is often the case, The Alley Light was packed, but I managed to tuck into the sole available seat at the bar.

I knew exactly what I wanted.  I had coveted it ever since I saw it on the online specials menu weeks earlier. Roasted Bone Marrow, Parsley Crust, Braised Escargot.  Fond memories of a dish with bone marrow and parsley at London’s St. John restaurant had lingered in my mind for years.  Here was my first chance since then to sample something similar.

Owner Will Richey was on hand, too.  Another star aligning.  One of the most reliable wine resources in the area, Richey co-founded the outstanding wine buying club The Wine Guild.  I asked him to suggest a pairing with the bone marrow dish.  I presumed he’d choose a red. I presumed wrongly. Instead, a Macon La Roche Vineuse – a chardonnay with bright acidity and deep minerality.

Wow.

Perfect.

The dish blew me away.

Taste is said to be our weakest sensory memory, so I cannot recall exactly how it tasted or how it made me feel.  But, I do remember the dish having such an effect on me that later I felt embarrassed by my reaction.  I kept shaking my head and smiling at the way the flavors harmonized.  I kept telling anyone around me to order the dish.  I even tried to tell folks who were not there about the extraordinary dish.  I wrote on Twitter:

“I can’t believe how good this is. Food nirvana. Bone marrow, braised escargot, parsley. Glass of Macon La Roche Vineuse. The Alley Light.”

It was my food moment of the year.  And, it does not surprise me that it occurred at The Alley Light, which opened in February, and is already one of Charlottesville’s best restaurants.  There were many other dazzling food moments at The Alley Light this year, more than at any other restaurant. Simply put, Chef Jose de Brito is making the most exciting food in town.

Here’s to more dazzling food moments in 2015.