The Charlottesville 29

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

Tag: Introductions

Re-Introducing Fry’s Spring Station

Fry's

Food lovers take note. Fry’s Spring Station has undergone a complete overhaul, including the injection of some serious culinary talent. First opened in 2010, the new incarnation opened Monday, and looks to be vastly improved.

Sure, there are interior renovations, like polished hardwood floors, fresh paint, and re-claimed wood community tables. The new setting is as handsome as it is welcoming. There is even an al fresco bar that sits half-outside and half-inside, offering an expansive view of the entire restaurant, which for seventy years housed an actual service station.

Bar

But, the real news is the kitchen talent in the ownership team. Founder of The Rock Barn, Ben Thompson is known in the industry as one of the area’s best chefs. A former cook at the much-missed Oxo, he went on to finish top of his class at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, with an award for “Excellence through Leadership.” That earned him coveted spots in two of the nation’s most acclaimed kitchens, Per Se and The French Laundry. When he returned to Virginia in 2009 to open The Rock Barn, it was a true gift to the Charlottesville food scene. As Fleurie’s Brian Helleberg once said: “To have Ben Thompson working his craft in Nelson County is a local foodie’s dream realized.”

Joining Thompson in overseeing the food is Tommy Lasley, once named one of Charlottesville’s rising stars. A culinary school classmate of Thompson, Lasley has cooked locally at Orzo, and also in the northeast at Sweetgrass Grill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, one of the nation’s groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurants. Thompson and Lasley first joined forces at Ivy Provisions, where owner PK Kamath brought them on board to revamp the place, with great results. They are now doing the same for Fry’s Spring Station, where Kamath is also a co-owner. The opportunity arose last year when former co-owner Robert Sawrey (Downtown Grille) decided it was time to retire and sell his ownership interest. As one of Sawrey’s partners, Kamath sought to replicate the success Thompson and Lasley have had at Ivy Provisions. And, as a former Fry’s Spring resident, Thompson saw it as a great chance to jump back into restaurants.

Trio

L to R: Ben Thompson, Tommy Lasley, and PK Kamath. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.

The concept behind the reboot is to bring the lessons of fine dining to a community restaurant. Thompson observes that many aspiring young chefs follow a standard path up the culinary ladder: moving from one restaurant to a better one, again and again, where “better” often means fancier. But, what happens once you’ve reached the fanciest restaurants of all, and find yourself serving food accessible only to certain palates and budgets? For Thompson, the answer was to return to what he views as a chef’s basic role: feeding people. “Our job here is to feed the community,” says Thompson.

And so, Thompson and Lasley aim to take the fundamentals of a well-trained chef at a sophisticated restaurant and apply them to food that is accessible, affordable, and nutritious. Fry’s Spring Station is “not about a chef blowing guests away with his skills,” says Thompson. Rather, it’s about being stewards of the Fry’s Spring community, offering “food that we would feel good about serving our families several times a week,” says Thompson.

But, it’s not just in the kitchen where Thompson are Lasley are applying wisdom from fine dining. It’s management, too. For that, Thompson looks to the example of a good friend, The Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos. At The Ivy Inn, says Thompson, Vangelopoulos is the paradigm of good restaurant leadership. He hires good people and treats them well. Over time, says Thompson, that breeds a culture of community and success. Thompson seeks to emulate the approach at Fry’s Spring Station.

The New Fry’s Spring Station

What’s the result of all of this? Well, you know those ubiquitous shopping mall Italian chain restaurants? Imagine one that doesn’t suck. If my initial visits are any indication, Fry’s Spring Station achieves the cheerful, casual, family-friendly ethos of the best of those restaurants, but upgrades the experience across the board.

The menu, after all, is not groundbreaking. It’s appetizers, pizzas, pastas, salads, sandwiches, and sides. But, the difference is the attention to detail, in cooking, sourcing, and service. Salad dressings are made in-house. Produce comes from The Local Food Hub, meats from The Rock Barn, and sandwich bread from Albemarle Baking Company. And, the kombucha is, of course, Barefoot.

The pizza has received an overhaul, too, with a new dough and a refined process, which recalled the earliest days of Thompson’s career. Before culinary school, Thompson started out making pizzas at several joints in Colorado, where he grew up. “That’s how I learned to cook,” said Thompson. And, Lasley was once Chef de Cuisine of a popular Connecticut restaurant known for its pizzas.

Pizza

Photo by Sanjay Suchak.

Drawing on his experience with pizza ovens, Thompson is excited about not just the pizzas, but also one slightly unusual menu item: manciatta, like a salad atop flatbread. They roll out pizza dough, top it with olive oil and herbs, and fire it in the pizza oven.  Then, they top it again with a little more olive oil, and your choice of three different salads. Thompson’s favorite is the steak version, where shaved lettuces are tossed in vinaigrette, with grilled steak, red onions, asiago cheese, and chilis. The dressing and salad flavors seep into the bread, which Thompson recommends tearing off one piece at a time to enjoy with the other ingredients. I tried one, and it was a delicious. A refreshing and satisfying weeknight meal.

Manciatta

Consistent with the community feel, much of the food is intended for sharing. Sides like red beet agrodolce, sautéed seasonal greens, or, Thompson’s favorite, shaved Brussels sprouts with Pancetta, come in regular and family sizes. Salads likewise are available small and large, and include crowd-pleasers like Caesar, a Wedge, and Butter Lettuce with strawberries and goat cheese. And pastas, too, offer size options, including penne with tomato and basil which my children declared among the best in town.

There is even a a wide selection of large format bottles of beer, also intended for sharing, which Thompson says were chosen to pair well with the food.  Other libations also appear well-curated, included a nice slate of local beers on tap, and approachable wines like a Vina Galana Verdejo for which the menu predicts: “Try a glass, you’ll soon order a porron for the table!”

Pizza, pasta, paninis, and porrons. We can work with that.

Introducing The Bebedero

Bebedero

Will Richey is at it again.  The owner of The Alley Light, Revolutionary Soup, The Whiskey Jar, and The Pie Chest is set to open yet another restaurant.  This time it’s a family-friendly Mexican restaurant in the former location of Glass Haus Kitchen, called The Bebedero.

Richey sounds almost giddy when describing what he calls the “magic team” behind the project’s food and drinks. In the kitchen will be Cesar Perez, longtime sous chef of The Whiskey Jar, and his girlfriend Yuliana Perez Vasquez, most recently of Keswick Hall. They will be assisted by Yuliana’s mother Francisca Vasquez, whose family recipes from their native Veracruz form part of the menu, which will also draw on Perez’s home state of Puebla, known for its moles and chiles rellenos.

“We hope to bring a Mexican cuisine to Charlottesville that has not yet been experienced here,” says Richey. Indeed, it has long been a dream of Cesar and Vasquez to open a restaurant that they say is difficult to find – one that, as Vasquez puts it, “actually has the flavors that remind us of home.” By this, she means their grandmothers’ and mothers’ cooking, whether in Puebla or Veracruz.

As an example, Vasquez cites Chuletas de Puerco en pipian verde – pork chops in a sauce of spicy green chili peppers and pumpkin seeds, ground together with spices and seared green tomatillos.  Another is Del Mar Stew – a stew of mussels, white fish, scallops, and shrimp in a tomato base with a touch of fresh epazote, an aromatic Mexican herb.

There will also be more familiar fare like guacamole made-to-order (mild, medium, or hot), tamales, and fresh ceviche, with shrimp, baby scallops, white fish, and pico de gallo.  Vera Cruz is on the coast and known for its seafood, which will be a focus at The Bebedero, like whole grilled snapper with fresh ground Mexican spices. Richey’s aim, he says, is for a lighter take on Mexican food, so people can come several times a week.

Behind the bar will be another Whiskey Jar veteran, River Hawkins, who is half-Mexican and brings eighteen years of barkeep experience. Hawkins plans a cocktail lounge focused on mezcal and tequila, which he views as under-appreciated.  “I’ll be offering tasting classes to inform the public of the rich history, fascinating processes and unique beauty in a liquor most associate with questionable decisions made late night at some poorly lit dance club,” says Hawkins.

Hawkins recently returned from a year in Yelapa, Mexico, managing the bar of Verana, a boutique resort. While there, he toured mezcalarias, tequila distilleries, and agave fields, and says he can’t wait to share with Charlottesville what he learned, as well as unusual ingredients discovered in his travels.  One is Sal de Gusano (Salt of the Worm), which Hawkins uses to rim the glass for his “Pico De Gallo” cocktail – Mezcal with muddled pineapple, serrano peppers, cilantro, and lime juice.  Hawkins will also offer flights of tequila with traditional accompaniments like salted orange wedges and Sangrita – a mixture of tomato juice, orange juice, and real pomegranate grenadine, which cleanses the palate between sips of tequila.

Helping to oversee it all will be Josh Zanoff, Richey’s “life long friend and culinary mentor,” who also helps with Richey’s other venues, in particular The Whiskey Jar.

The Bebedero should open mid-March.

paint

 

 

Introducing Spice Sea Gourmet

shrimp

One of the many conveniences of food trucks is that they allow owners to relocate food business with ease – whether down the street, across town, or to event venues.  How about across the country?  Spice Sea Gourmet, a popular and award-winning food truck, has just moved to Charlottesville all the way from San Antonio, Texas.  Advantage: Charlottesville.

Chef Whitney Matthews is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and it shows.  In February, readers of San Antonio Magazine said that her truck serves the Best Seafood in all of San Antonio.  The seafood-dominated menu veers towards the South, with items like Virginia crabcake salad, a catfish po boy, and, Matthews’ personal favorite, the shrimp po’ boy.   A hoagie roll spread with spicy mayo cushions fried shrimp, lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage slaw.  It is stellar — and would go great with a cold beer.  (Paging Hunter.)

Sure is a good thing Matthews decided to return to her native Virginia.  Follow her truck’s Facebook page for locations and times.