Assuming his new post as executive chef of Glass Haus Kitchen this past fall, Ian Boden had big shoes to fill—but they were all his own. The Northern Virginia native who put his New England Culinary Institute degree to use for 10 years in the kitchens of top New York restaurants, opened Staunton Grocery in early 2007 as an ode to our embarrassment of locally produced riches. For the nearly five years that it stood, Staunton Grocery collected accolades as big as its fan base. When the doors closed in December 2011, mourners across Virginia kept their ears pricked to Boden’s every tweet for clues as to where he might land next.
To Charlottesville’s luck, his first perch was here, at Blue Light Grill last spring. It was an exciting, albeit totally unexpected, move, since the Downtown Mall establishment’s known more as a watering hole than a fine dining destination. That was the whole idea, of course, and while it certainly raised its reputation, the fit wasn’t right. The crowd still seemed more focused on bottle-to-glass drinking than farm-to-table eating.
No matter for a big fish in our relatively small pond though. In no time, Boden was snapped up by J.F. Legault and Francois Bladt, who were in the process of reconceiving the X-Lounge, which was nearing the end of its own more than five-year run. With the chef in place, the new restaurant had its concept (“inspired American cuisine”), and the décor (sleek, industrial metal warmed by Brazilian hardwood, dramatic light fixtures, and a 16′ photograph of lazing cows by Paul Goossens) and dream team (Mike Yager from Palladio and Todd Grieger from Maya among them) came together in just under three weeks. “X-Lounge was a sprint. This is a marathon, but we needed someone like Ian,” said Legault.
And since Glass Haus Kitchen’s November 1 opening, Boden’s shoes have grown even bigger. The evening I was there for a guest chef dinner with Aaron Silverman (a McCrady’s and Momofuku alum who is opening Rose’s Luxury in D.C.), the team was celebrating a rave, 2.5-star review in the Washington Post titled “A meal that makes up for the long drive.” I suddenly felt a sense of propriety over this new addition to our notable culinary scene. What if pilgrimaging D.C. diners make it impossible to get a table? Fortunately, between the horseshoe-shaped bar, the booths and tables downstairs, and the mezzanine tables upstairs, there are 70 seats to fill. And once warm weather’s upon us, a freshly preened patio will accommodate even more.
Dinner service begins at 5:30pm Tuesday through Saturday and a bar menu’s served until midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings (though that’s not to say that the $3 to $14 offerings shouldn’t usher in happy hour too). Ebullient might be a better description for any portion of time spent consuming Boden’s inventive takes on salty snacks (like fried mortadella sliders or truffle tater tots with truffle aioli) alongside one of bar manager Sally Myer’s handcrafted cocktails. I’m still dreaming of the pretty little vodka, St-Germaine, hibiscus, grapefruit, and sea salt foam number that warmed me after a commute across the tracks in a wintry deluge.
As expected, the dinner menu, with appetizers from $9 to $18, main courses from $22 to $32, and desserts for $9, reflects Boden’s commitment to sourcing locally, yet the preparations sometimes eclipse the ingredients themselves for no other reason than their impressiveness. When presented with “spaghetti & meatballs”—meatballs made from rabbit and pork fat, pasta made with parsnips, and a sauce made with rabbit stock and cream and studded with yellow foot mushrooms—I forgot to even wonder (or care) what came from our area farms. Boden believes it should just be a given that chefs use local products and that any chef who’s not is being irresponsible.
The five-course tasting menu with wine pairings has been immensely popular and Boden’s keeping inspired by inviting chefs he respects to cook with him for an evening or two. The top chefs get to geek out collaborating on the menu and guests get to swoon over the results of two culinary masterminds who, without a doubt, are playing a silent game of culinary one-upmanship.
Two more guest chef dinners are already on the calendar—one on February 27 with Jason Alley from Richmond’s Pasture and one on April 24 and 25 with Ed Hardy from Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Harlem. They’re a surefire cure for even the most jaded palate. Let’s just hope that Hardy doesn’t go back to New York with a tip for the Times critic.