We lingered long after we should have. Tables had been cleared, the swoosh of the dishwasher had replaced the sound of sizzling proteins, and the bar was quiet, apart from the occasional clink of ice in a shift drink. Still, after a meal like the one we’d had at Zinc, we felt an unspoken urge to stay and worship the site of such gustatory pleasure.
Vu Nguyen’s restaurant on West Main has weathered storms in the five years since it opened. When Nguyen bought the converted garage (previously occupied by The Station and Wild Orchid) with then-partner Thomas Leroy, they named it Zinc Bistro, channelled Paris, and served steak frites and croques madames. When the recession started rearing its menacing head, they reconceived the menu to small plates with price tags to match. Customers seemed confused though, and in mid-2010, Nguyen bought Leroy out, ditched the tapas concept, and hired a new chef.
Justin Hershey (right), a French Culinary Institute grad who’d been on the locavore fast-track under chef Ian Boden at the now-closed Staunton Grocery, took the executive chef gig at Zinc instead of moving to Chicago because “the place was kind of awesome.” Within months of Hershey’s arrival, his fresh and contemporary menu tightened Zinc’s focus into being “responsible” and “relevant”—two words Nguyen uses to describe his goal—and the restaurant got a tagline: Seasonally Inspired, Locally Acquired.
Our visit, which fell two months after the restaurant celebrated its fifth anniversary and two months prior to Nguyen opening his pho-devoted Moto Pho Co. in the Main Street Market Annex across the street, revealed that despite the double identity crisis and down economy, Zinc’s most definitely found itself—it’s a restaurant cooking some of the best food in town.
We primed our palates at the bar with cocktails expertly shaken by bartender Laura McGurn, who personifies the virtuosity of C’ville foodies by also tending the restaurant’s extensive patio garden and working at Market neighbor, The Spice Diva. Freshly plucked herbs and edible flowers float their way into cocktails and onto every pretty-as-a-picture plate of food that emerges from the open kitchen.
Seated on the patio with pearly cava percolating in our flutes, Hershey came out bearing a grin and a huge piece of pyrex covered in a rainbow of edibles not unlike a painter’s palette. Slices of house-made beef terrine, local cured meats and cheeses, deviled eggs, glazed walnuts, apricot purée, confited tomatoes, a quenelle of whole grain dijon, and fans of fruit made for dozens of heavenly combinations with warm baguette slices serving as our canvases.
We were fighting over sprigs of pineapple sage when four appetizers arrived that sung of the season and Virginia’s sources—from the well-known (like Caromont Farm and the Rock Barn) to the unknown (like the Mennonite farmer who comes by with handfuls of produce). There was a salad of baby beets, rosy strawberries, pine nuts, golden radishes, scoops of quince paste, and blue cheese, and a chilled soup of asparagus poured over sour cream, asparagus shavings, and Surryano ham chips. Buttery tuna crudo anointed with red onion and parsley sat atop a crostini spread with Meyer lemon-tarragon aioli; and duck confit, spring garlic, garden peas, and a coddled egg over fusilli was comfort food from another world. We created diversions and wielded forks to clear the decks for our entrées and a bottle of Provençal rosé.
Reverence overtook when Hershey came to introduce the glories before us. Perfectly cooked salmon shared a plate with dill, tendril-tipped snap peas, and tender, tangily-dressed potatoes. Seared scallops were joined by grilled spring onions, roasted dates, preserved lemon, and a chickpea-fava panisse that was light yet rustic and savory. Rib-eye, fingerling potatoes, and meaty trumpet mushrooms were baptized with a delicate quail egg that enriched an already serious sauce. A roasted pork shoulder yielded to the touch of a fork and shredded into its accompaniments —Parisian-style gnocchi and spring veggie fricassée.
I was marveling over a tiny roasted carrot still wearing its green top when Hershey noticed my awe and said, “Roasted carrots are soooo good, aren’t they?!” After getting nothing more than a cursory scrub, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt, they get roasted at 275 degrees for two full hours. Hershey can geek out over techniques with the best of chefs, but in the end, humble ingredients win his heart.
We decided that dessert would be gratuitous, so Hershey poured himself some Port and sat with us, his whites rolled up exposing arm tattoos as colorful as his food. It was the end of a long day and he was going to do it all over again the next, but his eyes still twinkled. “You have to have the discipline to keep pushing, eating, and cooking. To keep yourself inspired so that every day isn’t groundhog day,” he said. Of course, we wouldn’t mind reliving it.