Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Jessica Fake, of award-winningSussex Farm. Read the amazing story of how winning Sussex Farm’s offering in The 2019 Charlottesville Restaurant Auctions eventually landed Fake a job there. Fake’s picks:
1) Spinach Saag, Sundried Tomato Oil, Cauliflower and Paneer Pizza from Pye Dog Pizza. “They regularly change their offering at each farmers market, so it’s always interesting, but also near impossible to pick a favorite. I have to call out their spinach saag pizza, which has spinach saag, paneer, cauliflower, and sun-dried tomato oil. Also, their mojo pork pizza, which has mojo pork, red curry bbq, pickled onion and queso fresco. It’s hard to go wrong with any of their pizzas, especially with their crusts, which are the true stars of the show.”
2) Greg Brady from Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint. “My favorite burger in town. This yummy comfort meal comes with wagyu beef, mac n’ cheese, and bbq chips to add the perfect crunch.”
3) Hazelnut Latteand a Pastry from Petite MarieBette. “I say Petite rather than the original, because both will blow you away with pastries, but Petite MarieBette makes their hazelnut lattes with real nutella and it is delicious. Add an everything pretzel croissant, pain au chocolat, or petite canelés to that latte order, and treat yourself.”
4) Fried Rice at Kama. “If you go to Kama on Sundays you’ll be treated to a chef’s special of fried rice. It’s everything you want fried rice to be, chock full of flavor and ingredients. The rice itself has a wonderful texture, somehow managing to be both soft and perfectly crisped. If you aren’t able to make it on Sundays, you can’t go wrong with their house-made udon noodles.”
5) Almond Dark ChocolateMacarons from Bowerbird Bakeshop. “They’ve completely converted me. I was not a particular fan of macarons before, but I think it is because I haven’t truly had good ones prior to theirs. My favorite so far was their almond dark chocolate ganache with sea salt macaron. I’m always looking forward to what flavors they are bringing to the market each week.”
Each December we celebrate the Charlottesville food year by asking: what was the best thing you ate all year? Here are the picks from 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 2019 Dish of the Year.
Dylan Allwood (Tavola)
Little Gem Salad at Oakhart Social. “I don’t think I’ve ever craved a salad, and I think about that one every day. The poppy seed dressing and everything bagel seasoning set it off.”
Jason Becton (MarieBette)
Beef Cheeks at Lampo. “Patrick and I have a weekly lunch date at Lampo, usually on Tuesdays, and one day Mitch happened to be there and was running a beef cheek special. So freakin good.”
Mitchell Beerens (Lampo and Prime 109)
Menudo from La Michoacána. “It might be the best thing I’ve eaten in Charlottesville ever. I love tripe and theirs has such a clean flavor, and there’s a piece of trotter in there for richness, and the broth tastes like a hug from someone’s abuela. It’s supposed to be a perfect hangover cure, so plan ahead and go nuts at the bar the night before for the full effect.”
Tim Burgess (Bang!, Bizou and The Space)
Grilled Cactus at Comal. “This is easy this year. Comal. Jesus, everything. I love the grilled cactus dish.”
Travis Burgess (Bang!, Bizou, and Luce)
Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup at C&O. “I debated in my head for about thirty minutes, but this is undoubtedly it. I can’t tell what it is, maybe it’s the gruyere cheese mix, maybe the the extra buttery perfectly crisped bread, or maybe it’s just the two Goosehounds I down before it. But anyways, it hits the spot every time. So, shout-out to whoever is working that late-night station and consistently crushing it.”
Spinach Saag, Sundried Tomato Oil, Cauliflower and Paneer Pizza from Pye Dog Pizza. “Always a tough question, because there are so many to choose from with all the talent in this town. So, I guess I will go with the first thing that pops in my head: Pye Dog Pizza. I believe Matthew and I made it to The City Market on the second week that Pye Dog was there and grabbed some breakfast. In typical form, we had to have a bit of everything — two different pies and a biscuit. Everything was fantastic from the pulled pork pie to the house made sausage, egg & Korean pepper jelly biscuit, but the big winner in my opinion was the curried cauliflower, spinach saag, and paneer pie. It was a huge surprise that this was our favorite, but all the flavors were perfect together and the crust was perfection. I’m so proud of my friends and colleagues, Anna and Kelsey, for pursuing their dreams.”
Ryan Collins (Little Star)
Tostones Rellenos at Guajiros. “Favorite thing I ate in Cville this year is the tostones with pork at Guajiros. They are sweet, savory, sour and rich. Pair it with a colada, and it’s a great lunch. Love that place.”
Jose de Brito (Fleurie and Petit Pois)
Mole Negro con Pollo at Comal. “So I went to dine at Comal with curiosity, having heard that it was authentic. And decided that the mole negro con pollo is my favorite dish this year. The chef at Comal made a sauce with the spirit of chocolate, lightly seasoned with spices and peppers. It was restrained. The use of chocolate and spices was austere but elegant and generous, deep in flavor, lifted up with a hint of acidity. Christine, my wife, who has much deeper knowledge of Mexican food, having traveled in Mexico, agrees. Comal is a wonderful, authentic small Mexican restaurant, and the kitchen is talented. The pork ribs guajillo were a very close second. Vive la cuisine Mexicaine.”
Kate Collier (Feast!)
Chicken Katsu from Mochiko. “When we are dog tired after a long days work in specialty food retail, nothing tastes better than the chicken katsu take home dinner from Mochiko. We love the light and crispy panko fried chicken cutlet with steamed sushi rice and sides of macaroni salad and sautéed watercress with sesame seeds. It’s our go-to place for take out.”
Bolo from Luce. “All three pastas that we tried were amazing, but I especially liked the Bolo.”
Laura Fonner (Duner’s)
Oyster Mushrooms at Little Star. “The best thing I ate all year was the oyster mushroom dish from Little Star. Oyster mushrooms, cinco chiles salsa, avocado, lime dressing, Mahon cheese, and chicharrones. I like to be surprised by food, and I will be the first to admit I am just not the biggest fan of oyster mushrooms. So when this dish came out, I simply thought: ‘Ehhh, I will try it.’ The layering of textures and flavors is amazing. It hits all of the important aspects of a wonderful dish. The citrus, heat, salt, and crunch complement the meatiness of the oyster mushroom in a beautifully harmonious way. Well done Little Star.”
Craig Hartman (The BBQ Exchange)
Tarta de Santiago at Quality Pie. “The best thing that Donna and I ate in 2019 in Charlottesville was the Tarta de Santiago from Tomas Rahal and Quality Pie. This Almond cake named after St. James is super revered in Spain and is one of their national dishes. The Tarta at Quality Pie is so good that we could not stop going beck for more. It literally draws us to Quality Pie. Pair it with one of the sherrys from Tomas’s collection.”
Brian Helleberg (Fleurie and Petit Pois)
Banchan at Sussex Farm (at Sussex Farm’s The Charlottesville 29 Auction dinner). “Jen’s banchan was clearly the plate of the year for me. The flavors, colors and textures framed a fascinating collage that helped make a memorable evening at Sussex Farm. As Jen spoke and revealed herself and her values to us, I realised that the foundations of hospitality were on on display:
Hard work – “If it is not earned, it is not valued.”
Family – “Everyone here on the farm is my daughter.” (Including her actual daughter.)
Cuisine – Not only does her aunt still send the peppers for her kimchi, but her mother taught her how to cook.
Love of the land – “I love this country.” Not only did Jen feed us persimmons from her property and delicious fried quail eggs from her birds, but she showed us what it looks like to realise a dream of having a family farm.”
Christian Kelly (Maya)
Pan Fried Chicken Dumplings at Duner’s. “There were lots of memorable dishes this year. Cville is definitely full of talented chefs and dining establishments. True to form, my choice goes back to a Cville classic, Duner’s. Chef Laura Fonner and her crew continue to plate some of the best food this side of the BRP. My particular favorite came out of her kitchen only a few weeks ago when my bride Jennifer and I were at Duner’s for an impromptu date night. The place was packed as always. We lucked out with a small table that had just opened up. We were not there ten minutes when food was on the table. Chef Laura sent out pan fried chicken dumplings with pickled Asian pear slaw and ginger aioli. Bam! So good! Chef John Haywood used to describe dishes that he could not stop eating ravenously ‘like a fried egg and cheese sandwich. You eat it and want another.’ (Imagine Yorkshire accent) Jen tried to act like she didn’t want to wrestle me for them but it was obvious when she rolled up her sleeves that fork jousting was about to go down. All silly comments aside, Laura is a very talented and hard working chef. Her dumplings were incredible, as are all of her tasty creations on her menu. Well done Laura!”
Loren Mendosa (Lampo and Prime 109)
Masa Gnocchi in Mole at Comal. “Emily and I were so pleasantly surprised to find so many veggie options on that menu that we ordered everything. The tamales, the tacos, everything was great, but the crispy gnocchi in mole was the best thing I ate this year. We’ve been back several times and each time that dish is a must order for us.”
Jenny Peterson (Paradox Pastry)
Dark Chocolate Wedding Cake from Paradox Pastry. “Best thing I ate all year? No question. A dark chocolate cake with whipped ganache and Amarena cherries made by the Sugaristas at Paradox Pastry. Yes, it ‘may’ have been our wedding cake. It was delicious.”
Ian Redshaw (2019 James Beard Semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year)
Pizza Dough from Pye Dog Pizza. “Even for just starting, you can tell the crumb structure is proper. Those ladies do it right.”
Ivan Rekosh (Zocalo)
Prime 109 Burger at Prime 109. “After work, sometimes I walk across the street to Prime 109 and have an aged burger with fries. In that moment, with jazz in the background – it’s the best thing I’ve eaten all year. On Sundays I sit down for dinner with my kids. No screens, all together, and we talk. In that moment, whatever is on the plate, it’s the best thing I’ve eaten all year. I could go on and on. We are all fortunate to be able to have food when we want it and even be picky about it. This said, every meal I’ve actually taken the time to stop and enjoy and be grateful for is the best I’ve eaten in 2019.”
Wilson Richey (Ten Course Hospitality)
Cacio at Luce. “Soooo good. This is the sort of pasta you would pay $30 for as an entree at a fine dining restaurant. The best part is the quality of the pasta itself but the classic sauce is also done to perfection here. I’m so excited that something this good has become the street food of downtown Charlottesville. I could eat a cup of this every day.”
Merrill and Peter Robertson (Cote-Rotie)
Double Bacon Cheeseburger at Riverside Lunch. “In our honest opinion, it’s the best food in town. Only place we really go. We love everything about it.”
John Shanesy (Commonwealth Restaurant)
Peach from Manakintowne Specialty Growers. “The peach was so perfectly ripe and juicy I don’t know how it even held its mass. Texture like ice cream but still warm from its life void of refrigeration. I promptly did the opposite of what a chef should do in terms of margins and gave all of my kitchen staff one and we all enjoyed those peaches in perfect quiet for the next few minutes. Barring the ahhs and incessant slurping.”
Hunter Smith (Champion Brewing Company)
Queso Frito at Guajiros. “So hard to pick, but the queso frito at Guajiros caught and kept my attention. So simple, and so sublime. I find that amazing execution of simplicity always wins me over novelty.”
Angelo Vangelopoulos (The Ivy Inn)
Grilled Avocado at Kama. “Chef Dave Morgan cooked a tasting menu for me and my family on my birthday this year. One of our opening courses was his wood grilled avocado. I’ve never eaten grilled avocado or even thought to grill one myself so I was very curious about it. It’s grilled over his custom blend of hickory, white oak, and applewood until well charred, filled with ponzu sauce, and finally sprinkled with togarashi spice. It’s creamy and delicious, and it feels like culinary decadence even though it’s not — one of those unique creations where humble ingredients and technique combine to make something sublime.”
Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)
Smoked Mushroom Toast at Common House. “The smoked mushroom toast from Matt Greene at Common House was the best thing I ate in Charlottesville in 2019. Super yummy and comforting. Cured and smoked mushrooms sautéed with tons of sherry, caramelized shallots and a deep mushroom stock. Real Frenchy and cheffy but totally unstuffy. The different varieties of mushroom (lions mane, cremini and oyster) provided great textures and flavors. The house made sourdough got all gooey with jus, and that’s what I like.”
“I’ve never been more excited about opening a restaurant.”
That’s a big claim from someone with a resume like Will Richey, who has launched some of Charlottesville’s most beloved eateries. But to be fair, he says this every time.
This is not to accuse Richey of insincerity. Richey genuinely loves creating new restaurants, and is never more excited than about the next one. Plus, Richey’s projects are worthy of excitement. From conception to execution, no one has delivered as many stellar, novel food concepts to Charlottesville.
His latest is his most unusual yet: an “improvised Japanese” restaurant in a movie theater. Kama celebrates its grand opening this weekend at Violet Crown. Unusual as it may be, Kama has the bones of a place that could rival Richey’s past hits like Brasserie Saison and The Alley Light, a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.
Props belong to Bill Banowsky, the Austin-based owner of theater mini-chain Violet Crown, with locations in Austin, Santa Fe, and Charlottesville. Eschewing the cookie-cutter food offerings of many theaters, Banowsky wanted to do something different at Violet Crown. And, he had the good sense to contact Richey, whom he offered full creative license to overhaul the theater’s restaurant.
As luck would have it, Richey had recently been in discussions about working with chef Peter Robertson of Côte-Rôtie – three-time winner of Charlottesville’s Best Food Truck. “I liked Peter immediately,” Richey said. “Within minutes of meeting him, you know that he is a no nonsense, straight shooting guy who knows his craft.” But, after trial runs at two of Richey’s restaurants, Robertson told Richey that his heart was really set on a dream of opening a Japanese restaurant, rather than any of Richey’s existing places.
This conversation sprung to mind months later as Richey toured the Violet Crown space with Banowsky. “As we stood in the dining room, I couldn’t help but notice the clean and simple lines, and a large fabric print with a duck pattern on it on the back wall,” Richey said. “This made me think of an Asian influenced restaurant, which made me think of my conversation with Peter.” Richey contacted Roberston, who leaped at the opportunity – and they were off and running.
Richey’s role was to design, build, and staff the restaurant, and Richey beams about the team who helped execute his vision. “The chefs and restaurant people often get all the glory,” Richey said, “but the very talented artisans in our area who build these restaurants deserve every bit as much credit.”
For design, Richey called on architect Stephanie Williams, who helped design Prime 109. “Our goal was to design a cohesive aesthetic that was respectful to the existing theater architecture,” said Williams. “We employed mainly darker neutral colors with shou sugi ban (Japanese burnt wood) accents and added pops of bold color.” KB contractors did the build-out, and Lost Mountain Woodcraft handled wood finishes, bar and table tops.
The result? “The restaurant came out far better then I had imagined it could,” Richey said. “It is beautiful – an elegant place to repose in.”
Photo by Kristen Finn
Photo by Kristen Finn
Photo by Kristen Finn
Photo by Kristen Finn
Côte-Rôtie fans will be thrilled that Richey has given a brick-and-mortar home to Robertson. Even from a tiny food truck kitchen, the Culinary Institute of America graduate and former owner of an acclaimed Hamptons restaurant was already one of the most creative chefs in Charlottesville. Now that he has a full kitchen, all kinds of new equipment, and a expanded budget for exotic ingredients, look out.
“Bigger kitchen, new toys, and top tier ingredients, like Japanese uni, are what make this job fun,” says Robertson.
Aside from brief stints helping to launch two Charlottesville restaurants, Robertson has worked for no one but himself and his wife since 2006. So, while reporting to a boss may be an adjustment, Robertson actually cites the chance to work with Richey as one of the reasons he took the job. “His ability to problem solve creatively is something I really admire and enjoy being a part of,” said Robertson. “Building restaurants is extremely stressful but also incredibly gratifying, so the opportunity to learn from Wilson [Richey] was a big part of me taking this job.”
Improvised Japanese is how Robertson describes the menu of primarily small plates, with a few larger options as well. Why “improvised”? Well, as much as Robertson has eaten, cooked, and studied Japanese cuisine, he has never actually been to Japan or trained under a Japanese chef. “We are basically trying to cook the food we love with as much respect and honor to the cuisine that has inspired us,” says Robertson, who regularly included riffs on Japanese food in his truck’s ever-changing menu.
And yet, despite the bigger kitchen and new toys to play with, Robertson says that the beauty of Japanese cuisine is keeping it simple: “taking great ingredients and manipulating them as little as possible.” King Salmon Teriyaki, for example, is simply grilled over wood and served with steamed rice and bok choy.
That said, there are manipulations, too. Ever heard of tsukudani? Here’s how it works. Start with kombu, a type of seaweed most commonly used to make dashi, the stock for many Japanese soups and noodle dishes. For tsukudani, Robertson takes leftover kombu from making dashi, slices it thinly, and slowly simmers it again in shoyu, mirin, and red rice wine vinegar. The result he uses as an umami-rich garnish for a trio of sashimi.
When pressed for personal menu favorites, Robertson balked. “The menu changes almost every day so typically the new dishes are what I’m excited about,” said Robertson. “We get fish and different produce almost every day, and it’s those products that excite me.” During the soft opening period, Robertson says, guests really seemed to enjoy Kama’s handmade udon, noodles made from a dough with organic flour, which is kneaded for a long time to give it its chewy texture. The noodles are served in broths of locally sourced beef and pork, and topped with a local egg.
Sous chef David Morgan, who was Executive Chef of Tavern & Grocery before cooking at Prime 109, sounds like a kid in a candy store in his new environment.”I’m just excited to be learning a new cuisine and techniques,” said Morgan. “And I love that we are working with the best ingredients available,” like Bluefin otoro from Spain, kanpachi from Hawaii, uni from Japan, and wild king salmon from Washington.
Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.
Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.
Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.
Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.
Manning the bar is Mike Stewart, a Nick Crutchfield protege who got is break at age 25 when, as an electrician looking for a career change, responded to a Craiglist ad for a new Charlottesville restaurant called Commonwealth. Looking back, he can hardly believe his luck in stumbling upon a mentor like Crutchfield. “25 is a late start to make a career shift from tradesman to barman and really could have only been facilitated by a talented-beyond-belief mentor and friend like Nick,” said Stewart. “I soaked up every bit of knowledge I could from him, and got hooked on the quest for knowledge, history, tradition and all of the wonderful things that make being behind the bar a great privilege.”
Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.
At Kama, Stewart says, his focus is hospitality. “Passion without pretentiousness is contagious,” said Stewart, whose main aim is that everyone feel welcome, not intimidated. A novice in Japanese food and culture, Stewart has enjoyed being a student again, learning a new cuisine, and how to build a bar program around it. “I’ve taken everything I have learned and adapted it,” said Stewart. “Like notes in music, the tradition of crafting a cocktail is the same. With those notes you can play blues, jazz, country or whatever. That’s how I’ve approached this new palate of flavors.”
Take the “Tokyo” – a blend of a Boulevardier and Manhattan, with Japanese inspiration – combining the “familiar with the unfamiliar.” Stewart blends Suntory Toki Whisky, Aperol, Cocchi Rosa, grapefruit bitters, and St. Elizabeth allspice dram. His favorite way to serve it is two versions side-by-side – one made fresh and the other aged for 28 days in a charred oak barrel, where, he says, flavors become a well-rounded sum of their parts.
On the left, a barrel-aged Tokyo. On the right, an un-aged Tokyo:
Kama’s Grand Opening is this Saturday, August 31. The restaurant is located at 200 West Main St, in Violet Crown. Hours are 5 – 10 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations here.