The Charlottesville 29

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

Tag: Will Richey

Introducing Kama

Kama logo

“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.

The Origin

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.

The Space   

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.”

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

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Photo by Kristen Finn

The Chef

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.”

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The Food

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.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

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Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel.

The Bar

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.”

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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:

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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.

Five Finds on Friday: Wilson Richey (2)

Richey2No good idea goes unpunished – as when the person who suggests a good plan is required to execute it. “Great idea! Now, do it.” A while back, Wilson Richey proposed that prior participants of Five Finds on Friday be permitted to do it again. The six year span of Five Finds on Friday has included hundreds of picks from area chefs and personalities, but never a repeat appearance. With such a long history, Richey contended, some picks may now be stale, while early participants have likely made new discoveries worth celebrating.

And so, today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Wilson Richey, the serial restaurateur who launched Ten Course Hospitality, founded The Alley Light, and currently owns or co-owns Revolutionary Soup, The Whiskey Jar, The Bebedero, The Pie Chest, and Brasserie Saison. Five years and several restaurants after his first picks, Richey’s second round of picks:

1) Meatloaf and Good Beaujolais at Bizou (b. 1996). “I wanted to say ‘Tim and Vincent at Bizou’ but I’m not sure everybody gets to see them when they go. I often do, and a friendly smile from Tim or a story from Vincent will make me feel better about my life and my day. There is perfection in simplicity and that perfection is delivered every service at Bizou. I could eat at Bizou every day. The dishes are balanced, never too heavy, always flavorful and with apparent attention to detail. Every time I eat there I remark at how crisp and well dressed every leaf of lettuce is. A quick conversation with Vincent will yield a tremendous wine selection and, more often than not, some really good advice about managing your restaurant. Like John and Lynelle from Mudhouse, Vincent has helped me grow and think about my business far more then I will ever be able to thank him for. There is always a great Bistro wine selection at Bizou that you will not find anywhere else in town. Often these are from my favorite fringe wine regions in France like Jura, Savoie or the often overlooked but not fringe region of Beaujolais. A good Cru Beaujolais and the classic Bizou Meatloaf is just good, unpretentious enjoyment, a perfect lunch for this time of year in the Fall when the patios on the mall are the best place to be in town.”

2) An Elegant Glass of Wine and Some Perspective at Tastings (b. 1990). “When I moved to town in 1997, I tried to get a job at Tastings because for me it was obviously the best business idea in town. I did not get the job but I bought a case of wine hand selected by Bill Curtis every other week for the next year to learn about wine. At the time I thought Bill was a grumpy, contrary, rough old dude. Twenty years later I still think that and I love it. Bill Curtis is one of the straightest shooters in the business. He and his business are among the most authentically Charlottesville things about Charlottesville. I always go to Tastings, and I send everyone I know to Tastings, to find a good bottle of wine with a little age or character to it. I try to stop and have a great glass of wine when I can (he is one of the few people to open exceptional bottles to pour by the glass), and listen to Bill’s perspective which can be more refreshing than the wine itself. I don’t get to do this often, but it is a personal goal for me to get over there more.”

3) Lobster Bisque and The Full Experience at Fleurie (b. 2001). “Back in those days, around the time when I was buying a case of wine at Tastings from Bill up the street, I would also take myself to dinner alone at the newly opened Fleurie, every other week or so, to learn something about food. I was waiting tables at the time and was single and in my early 20’s. I had money to burn and I burnt it on learning from the right places. I have always loved Fleurie for its classic French cuisine, but ever since Erin Scala took over the dining room and wine program she has added another layer of appreciation for this always excellent experience. And now, with Jose De Brito’s return, and an already complete experience is heightened, though seemingly impossible, to a level beyond. Think about it: Brian Helleberg’s Fleurie is a tremendous classic French restaurant, Erin Scala has brought the hospitality and wine program to an unprecedented level in this town and possibly in the state of Virginia, and now Jose de Brito is back in the kitchen . . . I mean Good Lord in Heaven . . . I really can’t put into words how good this is. Anyway, if I had to pick one dish from Fleurie it would still be the lobster bisque because it is exceptional and complex and excellent with a good White Burgundy. But really Fleurie is about the total experience and everything they do is of note.”

4) A Light Dinner Alone at TEN Sushi (b. 2007). “Going to Ten makes me feel calm and collected. I often go when I am trying to collect my thoughts or I want to feel particularly together as a person. This is also my favorite restaurant in town to go to alone. The cocktails are elegant and well made, there is always a good and reasonably priced Champagne on the wine list, and the fish is always of the finest quality. One bite of the rice and you know someone took the time to make sure it was excellent. I have many favorites here but I most often will order the Wasabi Roll and the Wasabi Wagyu Skewer together with a house recommendation of Sake. People think of Ten as expensive but it does not have to be. Like any great restaurant, you can make it a pricey splurge or you can order a few items that still fill your hunger (like the amazing tempuras). Even when you order light, like I usually do, you still feel uplifted and refined by the experience.”

5) Coupe Maison late night at C&O (b. 1976). “I used to go to C&O’s basement bar late night all the time. It is classy, warm, and comfortable. C&O for late night is another standard bearer for living in Charlottesville. This is where my wife and I would go when we were dating, for late night ice cream and champagne. Often I would order some sort of Campari based drink and sit long into the evening. This is where I first heard The Olivarez Trio and was blown away by Rick, Dave and Jeff’s rendition of some of my favorite music. I love the C&O for many reasons. The sweetbreads with greens peppercorns is another favorite dish, but the Coupe Maison, late night, at the bar, with Champagne, with a beautiful woman (like my wife) and a few late night Campari based cocktails hopefully with the Olivarez Trio playing in the back ground, is a perfect Charlottesville moment to be enjoyed. We still get out for this ritual every chance we get.”

Introducing Brasserie Saison

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Will Richey is at it again. And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a restaurant.

Since jumping into restaurant ownership in 2005 with Revolutionary Soup, Richey’s passion has evolved to the point of being a full-fledged addiction. He even now has a parent company — Ten Course Hospitality — to oversee his many projects, which also include The Whiskey Jar, The Pie Chest, The Bebedero, and The Alley Light, a 2015 James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant in the country.

Richey admits that the creation phase is what appeals to him most. Just as those of us with a passion for food are planning our next meal during our current one, Richey is thinking about his next restaurant before his latest is finished. The creation is the fix.

To make that work, the chronic creator knows he needs a stellar team. And, he always has one, thanks in large part to longtime business partner Josh Zanoff, a trained chef who spent years in management at Whole Foods, and has been instrumental to every Richey project. To explain their management approach, Richey likes to cite a Steve Jobs quote: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

The Concept

Richey’s reliance on collaboration begins at the earliest stage of a restaurant. As with his other projects, the idea for his latest venture — Brasserie Saison –, though his initially, was molded significantly by input from others. In this case, the “others” include an impressive pair: Hunter Smith of Champion Brewing Company and Tyler Teass, former Sous Chef of Rose’s Luxury.

Richey’s concept was simple: good beer food. A hard-core oenophile who co-founded The Wine Guild, Richey has a soft spot for beer. “I always think of wine in terms of the food it would go best with,” says Richey. Beer is the same way, he says, but as much great beer as we have in the area, there’s a shortage of classic beer food to pair with it. “So I began to imagine a beer concept that would serve European style beers and common beer foods from places like Belgium and Holland but also Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Poland, Alsace and more.” He even drafted a menu.

One problem. While Charlottesville brews lots of great beer, little of it is in the classic styles that would pair well with Richey’s menu. So, the restaurant would need to brew its own. For that, he knew just who to call. “I had always admired Hunter’s beers at Champion,” says Richey. As luck would have it, when Richey called to pitch his project, Smith, who has no restaurant at his brewery, was already considering the very same thing. “We both got very excited to brew and cook in collaboration on this old world inspiration,” says Richey. In perfect synergy, they thought, the beer would drive the food, and the food would drive the beer.

The Beer

To enhance the harmony between beer and food, brewing will be done at the restaurant, located on the downtown mall at 111 E. Main St., in the former Jean Theory location. “Brewing onsite means we can work in tandem with the kitchen – brew seasonally and with flavors in mind,” says Smith. Richey agrees. “We are brewing beer specifically to match the cuisine we are working with,” he says. “With the brewery in the restaurant, the brewer can be working the same hours as the chef, tasting the food, and smelling the smells.”

So, what types of beer?  Smith’s favorites are the namesake Brasserie Saison and Brasserie Dubbel. “They were written by our Lead Brewer Josh Skinner, and they are just as we want them,” says Smith. “Fruity and complex, but also super dry and begging for food pairing.” The Saison has lively carbonation with aromas and flavors of bubblegum, pear skin, spice, and the classic herbal funk of Belgian yeast. The Dubbel, meanwhile, boasts a huge nose of spice and dried dark fruits, flavors of plums and fig from Special B malts, and a spicy, clove finish.

View the full opening beer menu here.

The Food

In the kitchen is Tyler Teass, who worked at l’Etoile and Clifton Inn before becoming Sous Chef at Rose’s Luxury, Bon Appetit’s 2014 Best New Restaurant in the country. This marks one of the only times a sous chef of such a nationally acclaimed restaurant has come to Charlottesville to help start a restaurant. (Restaurant Daniel’s Francis Reynard coming to Fuel more than a decade ago was perhaps another.)

When Teass joined the team last year, Richey sent him the menu he had created nearly five years earlier. “A week later,” says Richey, “he sent me back a menu that blew my mind.” While it still followed Richey’s initial focus on Benelux, Teass gave it a modern American touch “that made the entire idea come to life,” says Richey.

Yet, despite all of his success as a chef, Teass never takes food too seriously. When I sent him background questions about the restaurant, his responses used the word “fun” six times, which reflects his positive temperament and unpretentious approach. Asked about his philosophy for cooking, he said: “I like really bright, seasoned food, lots of vegetables and meat that’s cooked nicely. And nicely cut chives. Is that a philosophy?”

And so, while the cuisine is inspired by Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Teass is no stickler for culinary tradition. “Their food culture is really interesting and using that as a basis for the food we make is important,” he says, “but at the same time focusing on delicious, fun, well-executed food.”

The vegetable-focused opening menu includes dishes like fried and raw Brussels sprouts with tomatoes, shallots and parsley; roasted sunchokes with creme fraiche, horseradish and trout roe; and, crispy scallops a la meuniere, with celery root and benne.

With all the focus on pairings, I asked Richey which excite him most, and he named the Moules Frites with Brasserie Saison, which, he says, “will be an essential experience for anyone coming through the door.” Another favorite is the Brasserie Dubbel with either smoked beef bitterballen or roast beef “carbonnade.” Finally, Richey likes the Tripel with housemade duck sausage. “That is magical,” he says.

Teass is particularly fond of a dessert he has made for his wife for years: buttered popcorn pudding, with lime and creme fraiche. “It’s essentially a curd with popcorn puree, topped with a creme fraiche mousse, lime zest, candied lime segments, and popped sorghum, which look like little pieces of popcorn,” says Teass.

Joining him in the kitchen are two seasoned sous chefs. Morad Sbaitri, who recently moved from Morocco, has “skill way beyond what we could have hoped for,” says Richey. And, Nick Moon spent time at The Whiskey Jar before honing his skills at MAS Tapas. “There are few better kitchens in this town to learn and grow than the one at MAS,” says Richey.

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Citrus-poached shrimp with lemongrass sauce

The Bar

“Beer is a main focus,” acknowledges Leah Peeks, a veteran of The Whiskey Jar and The Alley Light who now is the Beverage Program Director for Ten Course Hospitality. But, there is lots of other goof stuff, too. “Leah’s artistic talent fuels her inspiration behind the bar,” says Richey, “and keeps it interesting and dynamic.”

The restaurant’s focus on Benelux means that gin abounds, including Peeks’ all-time favorite liquid: a 50/50 martini of Plymouth gin and Dolin Blanc vermouth with orange oil and orange bitters. “I can’t wait to drink one with oysters. And mussels. And beer. All of the things, really,” says Peeks. The rest of the cocktail menu is “classic, clean, crisp, and bright,”she says. As with the beer, “I let the food be my guide on cocktail choices.”

THE KITCHEN COCKTAIL – market price – rotating chef’s choice of seasonal flavors

THE BRASSERIE SAISON COCKTAIL  – 9 – Bombay, lemon, pink peppercorn, Saison – up // balanced // refreshing

THE 50/50 – 10 – Plymouth, Dolin Blanc, orange oil, orange bitters – up // smooth // clean

THE MARTINEZ – 11 – Tanqueray Old Tom, Carpano Antica, Luxardo, mulberry bitters – up // smooth // fruited

THE VESPER ROYALE – 11 – Aviation, Ketel One, Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, Carpano Antica – up // balanced // refined

THE ROUGETTE – 11  – Navy Strength Gin, Lillet Rouge, grapefruit, hopped grapefruit bitters  – rocks // citrus // bright

THE 23 SKIDOO – 12 – Bulleit Rye, Aperol, amaro, lemon, charred lemon bitters – up // balanced // bright

THE ALPINE – 14 – Tanqueray, Chartreuse, honey, ginger, lemon, champagne – long // citrus // complex

THE BIG KID COCKTAIL – 9 – Flor De Cana, Licor 43, Lone Light Chocolate, milk, soda – long // chocolate // foamy

THE LITTLE HEAD BUTT – 10 – Champion Shower Beer Pilsner and Gin – Beer and a shot

The wine list, she says, is “smart and concise” with several offerings by the glass joining bottle options “that will make wine nerds delight.” They are even pouring a glass of Champagne for what Peeks says is half of what it should cost “because Wilson just loves it and wants to serve it.”  In charge of the wine is Will Curley, former manager of Chicago’s Balena, who recently moved to town and quickly became Wine Steward for Richey’s restaurant group. “His palate is so correct,” says Peeks.

The Details

Brasserie Saison opens Thursday, February 1, and will seat 45 inside and 30 outside. Open seven days a week, it will serve lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m, and dinner from 5-10 pm. A midday menu will be offered in between.