You are what you eat

Charlottesville food from soup to nuts

Kristen Finn

So what if we didn’t grow up with a Southern grandma? We still know a good fried chicken biscuit when we taste one—like, say, the Ace Biscuit & Barbecue sandwich on this week’s cover. Southern cuisine may be having a moment in the national spotlight, but ’round these parts we’ve had an embarrassment of fried chicken, grits, and collards riches for some time now (page 23). And as you’ll see in the following pages, we’ve also got more than our share of Japanese (page 25), Italian (page 25), and standard American (page 27) fare. Every year around this time for our Food & Drink Issue, we take a great big bite out of the local food scene to find out what you should be eating and drinking, cooking at home, and learning about our edible landscape. There’s a whole tasty world out there, and we’ve got the goods on where to start off. Trust us. We ain’t just whistling “Dixie.”

Dorothy Shiflett. Rammelkamp Foto

Best-kept secret

Two years ago, at the insistence of a coworker, home chef and part-time Ash Lawn-Highland housekeeper Dorothy Shiflett entered an Italian cream cake into a contest at the Albemarle County Fair. “It won first prize and Best in Show,” Shiflett said. “This past year, I entered a carrot cake, and it won first prize and Best in Show. I made pickled squash, and they won first prize and Best in Show also.”

Like most apparent overnight success stories, Shiflett’s is anything but. She began baking as a teenager, studying her mother’s superlative skills and experimenting.

“As I got older, I would try to perfect my recipes, change them, and add or take away an ingredient,” she said. “For instance, I always add a half-teaspoon of baking powder in my pound cake—that makes it lighter. A lot of times if a recipe calls for a cup of oil, I’ll add a half cup and a stick of butter to make it less greasy.”

Her pursuit of culinary perfection is natural, she said, an effort born from a simple love affair with cooking.

“Fifteen years ago I did catering for small weddings with my sister,” she said. “I was always looking for new recipes, finding pictures, just trying to improve the look of my dishes and the flavors. But when I lost her in 1999, I didn’t do catering anymore.” 

Now her cakes are one of Charlottesville’s best-kept secrets. Though people sometimes call Shiflett and ask her to make a cake for a friend or a special occasion, she usually gives her tasty treats to coworkers because, she said, “I don’t eat a lot of sweets.”

Rammelkamp Foto

Food for thought

PVCC’s culinary arts program hits its stride

Location, location, location. Everyone knows it’s a realtor’s creed, but lack of a location was one of the reasons Piedmont Virginia Community College didn’t have a culinary arts program. Until recently, that is, when an anonymous donor provided the funds to outfit a professional-grade kitchen in the Jefferson School City Center.

That kitchen is now a hive of cooking activity, thanks to PVCC’s two-year culinary arts associate’s degree program that is currently preparing 36 first-year and 15 second-year students to be bakers, caterers, chefs, cooks, and food service managers.

“A lot of our students are already working in restaurants,” said Eric Breckoff, the program’s director. But in culinary school, they are introduced to skills they may not see in their current jobs, skills that will be useful later in their careers, such as menu planning, cost control, cooking sanitation, nutrition, and purchasing.

“We pack a lot in,” Breckoff said, adding that, in addition to classes like Principles of Baking, his students must take math, science, English, and CPR courses to graduate. An internship is also recommended, and Breckoff works closely with students and local businesses to find a good match.

“With education comes training,” he said, adding that working in the restaurant industry is a lot of hard work.

“It’s not a cooking show,” Breckoff said. “In addition to kitchen work, there’s academic rigor, taking quizzes, writing papers.” Classes last nine hours and combine lecture with hands-on kitchen experience in an attempt to prepare graduates for a typical day in a restaurant, which, Breckoff points out, is often longer than nine hours.

Then again, “nothing is work if you enjoy what you’re doing,” he said.

Maya’s pimento cheese fritters. Photo by Martyn Kyle

South in your mouth

Is Charlottesville a Southern city? Debatable. Does Charlottesville have chops when it comes to Southern cooking? Damn skippy.

If there were ever any doubt, certainly it skedaddled when Pasture dropped into the Shops at Stonefield last fall. Southern son Jason Alley might be a newcomer to the scene, but he brought with him a slew of down-home dishes that fairly scream pig sooie, like fried okra, chow chow, and pimento cheese on Ritz crackers.

Alley also has himself a solid fried chicken recipe, but that’s fallen into a corral full of good ol’ boys. Wayside Chicken’s been leading the flock with its ultra-crispy yard bird for more than 50 years, and the likes of Michie Tavern, Mel’s Diner, and The Whiskey Jar round out the selection of lard-cooked lagniappes.

If you like your chicken with a side of waffles, take a gander at relative newcomer Ace Biscuit & Barbecue or Brookville Restaurant. Both Brian Ashworth and Harrison Keevil get this mix of sweet and savory just right.

Up against Brookville in the hoity-toity Southern department is Maya, where chef Christian Kelly makes sure the pimento cheese fritters are crisp, the catfish is plentiful, and the side dishes look like they done come out of Memaw’s kitchen.

Course if’n it’s side dishes you want, Eppie’s is likely your place, with collards cooked till they’re floatin’ off the stem and grits creamier than a baby’s behind.

The one thing that’ll burn your tail worse than a kitty cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs? Most of these boys ain’t even got a Southern accent. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, y’all.

We’re craving fries at…

Fries and Commonwealth Restaurant and Skybar. Photo by Martyn Kyle

Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar
Sleek golden spikes topped with a perfect balance of salt and truffle flakes.

Five Guys
Hand-cut, speckle-skinned, and fried in peanut oil.

Citizen Burger Bar
Finger-sized sweet potato fries that are crispy and slightly sweet.

Petit Pois
Geometrically perfect frites, deep fried to a golden salty bliss.

Takoyaki at Kokoro. Photo by Martyn Kyle
Takoyaki at Kokoro. Photo by Martyn Kyle

Plenty of fish

Yes, the sushi’s swell—but what else is on the menu at Kokoro, Charlottesville’s newest Japanese restaurant?

Former TEN sushi chef Yoshihiro Tauchi and his wife Yukiko opened Kokoro in late 2013, and the tucked-away restaurant in downtown’s York Place is starting to get its due as a place to go for the real thing: carefully sourced, perfectly presented nigiri and sashimi.

But there’s a lot more to explore on the menu besides traditional sushi. With a little help from the waitstaff, we tackled some of the options an inexperienced American palate might find, well, weird. Branch out, and thank us later.

Hakutsuru Sayuri sake. First things first—booze. If your exposure to sake is still limited to carafes of hot, jet fuel-like liquid, this is where your re-education starts. Served chilled, this delicately flavored, coarse-filtered rice wine has a good deal of suspended particulates, making it cloudy and almost creamy in texture.

Hijiki seaweed salad. No, not a tangle of translucent green stuff. Hijiki is dark brown and spiky, with a nutty, earthy flavor and a firm texture that sets it apart from many other types of seaweed. Kokoro serves it with thin slices of red bell pepper and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

Umeboshi roll. You have to look pretty closely to even see the ingredient of honor in this little vegetarian roll. Umeboshi are intensely salty-sour preserved plums, so powerfully tart that even the memory of them will get your mouth watering. Tiny slivers paired with cucumber and sushi rice and wrapped up with nori make for a refreshing palate cleanser.

Takoyaki. Say it with us, now: “fried octopus balls.” These savory fritter-like snacks are popular street food in Japan, and at Kokoro, they arrive piping hot and topped with a rich sauce and a sprinkling of light-as-air panko. 

Ankimo. The piéce de résistance to a meal of off-the-beaten-path Japanese small plates, this dish consists of sake-washed monkfish liver rolled into a cylinder, sliced, and served with light ponzu sauce, green onion, and daikon radish. It’s rich, decadent, and packed with intense—but not overwhelming—fish flavor. Kanpai!


A life of pie

Americans eat about 100 acres of pizza per day—that’s 350 slices a second. We’re guessing a lot of those are consumed here in Charlottesville, given that there’s no dearth of options—by the sliver or the whole cheesy pie. Don’t roll the dice on your next slice. Here are eight of our current obsessions.

Anna’s Pizza No. 5, 977-6228
Anna’s hams it up with this pie, where large slices of Canadian bacon take center stage.

Pear & Gorgonzola
Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, 245-2040
A little bit sweet, a little bit savory, a lotta delicious.

Fry’s Spring Station, 202-2257
Three meats and two cheeses overwhelm Fry’s Spring’s signature wood-fired crust. The more the merrier! 

Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, 245-0000
Country ham, arugula, lemon vinaigrette, and aged Parmesan give this margherita a fresh twist.

Harvest Moon
Crozet Pizza, 823-2132
Peanuts on a pizza? It’s not as nuts as you’d think. With squash and garlic, it’s downright cozy.

College Inn, 977-2710
A classic pepperoni is just what we want for a lazy night in. Who’s got the six-pack?

Sal’s Pizza in Crozet, 823-1611
Piled high with vibrant vegetables, this slice is meaty enough for even carnivorous eaters.

The Rougemont
Belmont Pizza & Pub, 977-1970
Belmont’s answer to the margherita: fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. 

It’s in the neighborhood

Fry’s Spring Station. Rammelkamp Foto

Pizza, patio, and pups

With the Downtown Mall and the Corner nearby, it’s easy to overlook the neighborhood joints central to Fry’s Spring and Fifeville. So when you don’t feel like dealing with downtown parking or college students, you have your pick of spots right at the corner of Jefferson Park Avenue and, well, Jefferson Park Avenue. 

Catty corner from Wayside Chicken and Durty Nelly’s sits Fry’s Spring Station, a neighborhood spot that’s been serving up individual-sized pizzas since 2010. Owned by Robert Sawrey of the Downtown Grille, the old Fry’s Spring Service Station houses a brick oven that can cook more than 20 pizzas at once, and a giant patio seating area with year-round heat lamps. The bar features beer from local breweries like Three Notch’d, and happy hour specials include half-off pizzas.

And hey, if you’re already in the neighborhood and you’re planning on walking, you might as well bring the dog—especially on Mondays, when Fry’s Spring Station holds Yappy Hour on the patio from 5-8pm.

La Taza. Photo by Melody Robbins

‘The Cup’ runneth over

Spanish for “the cup,” La Taza serves up coffee, lunch, brunch, and dinner, all with an authentic Latin American flavor. But we maintain that all that’s on offer at the pint-sized Belmont joint is made even more charming while enjoyed on its outdoor patio. Take a seat under a green umbrella or on an adirondack chair by the firepit (bonus points if it’s just gotten dark and it feels a little chilly out). Now that the sun’s gone down, it’s time for a drink at the outdoor tiki bar. Sit under the string lights and watch the world (or, at least, the locals) go by.

Timberwood_Melody Robbins
Timberwood Grill. Photo by Melody Robbins

At Timberwood, chef’s choice

From a trading card-inspired beer menu to idiosyncratically named dishes, Timberwood Grill infuses a little fun into what would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill casual dining experience. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that the restaurant, located across 29N from Hollymead Town Center and best known for its eclectic and vast beer menu, radiates good time vibes from the kitchen.

Timberwood’s menu offers typical American-style fare, with a twist. The dinner specials, which change biweekly and sport locally sourced ingredients, include dishes like “Jimmy Graham Bell’s Saucy Telephone” and “Cam Newton’s Gravity Gumbo.” The quirky names always center on a certain theme, but kitchen manager Jon Gordon admits there isn’t always a method behind the madness. “I don’t even have a clue of what they’re about,” Gordon said. “We just want to make it fun for the guests as they’re ordering.”

The enjoyment doesn’t end there. Timberwood’s menu is partially determined by contests held among their chefs. In the first Burger Wars three years ago, Gordon’s “Clint Eastwood” mesquite burger with tequila-infused chipotle BBQ came out on top, and is now one of the restaurant’s best sellers. “It keeps the monotony away,” Gordon said.

The imaginative menu, friendly atmosphere, and open recipe-sharing policy reflect Timberwood’s perfect balance between work and play. As Gordon put it, “When we work, we work hard. But we like to have fun as well.”

Photo by Melody Robbins

Just desserts

Pastry chef Jenn Riesman never saves the best for last

Pink peppercorns, sweet bay leaf, crispy corn, and green pea powder are not typically ingredients that come to mind when considering dessert, but these savory influences all appear on a menu crafted by Jenn Riesman, Keswick Hall’s executive pastry chef.

If there’s such a thing as an urban dessert format, the Austin, Texas native is on the leading edge. Pairing black pepper with ginger cake, or strawberry and cherry cobbler with rye streusel and roasted fennel ice cream, or garnishing a peanut butter parfait with celery sounds like a mix of courses, which was intentional.

“It keeps things interesting for someone who eats sweets all day long,” said Riesman, who got her training in Little Rock, Arkansas, at Pulaski Technical College, but claims her love of the culinary arts began at an early age. “I used to put on my own cooking shows for my stuffed animals,” she laughed.

Along with her edgy approach to sweets, the soft-spoken Riesman has a beaming smile, is about “40 percent covered” with tattoos, and gets a genuine thrill from pulling off a fondant masterpiece. Her way with the beautiful language of pastry—crushed coffee bean feuilletine, cardamom semifreddo, frozen strawberry cremaux—casts a Wonka-like spell as she discusses her work. And it may be Riesman’s love of graffiti that allows her to see her own art in unusual forms, such as the topsy-turvy wedding cake that presents an optical illusion with a custom cake topper designed so the newlyweds are sliding off the edge, or her semi-legendary fox groom’s cake that is so much like folk art it gets her “excited just talking about it.”

While it seems risky to mess with traditional dessert preferences, Riesman stays anchored by comfort food in menu offerings like chocolate pudding with Three Notch’d IPA ice cream, pumpkin butter, and toasted pepitas or jasmine tea panna cotta with roasted peaches, plum and hibiscus sorbet, and benne sesame beignet.

Despite ingredient combinations that seem startling at first, it’s when you taste them that Riesman’s style of genius becomes clear: She’s crazy like a fox.

Calendar photographyer: Kristen Finn
Calendar photographer: Kristen Finn

Soup made sexy

You know those goofy, outlandish ideas that get passed around among coworkers when everyone’s so tired they can barely see straight? A couple managers at Revolutionary Soup turned one of theirs into a fundraiser for a local charity.

Armed with aprons, giant ladles, and cooking pots big enough for a grown woman to sit in, the Rev Soup staff teamed up with a local photographer and held a pin-up-style photo shoot. To justify going to the trouble of creating a 12-month calendar with the photos, they decided to sell them to friends, family, and local businesses, and donate all the proceeds to The Haven.

“It was really just an inside joke that gained levity,” downtown Rev Soup employee Michael Babus said. “When we decided to make it a charitable cause, people actually really liked it.”

The 2014 calendar was the first one they’ve put together. We don’t know if we’ll see a 2015 version, but the next time you order a large lamb curry, let whoever’s behind the register know he’d make a fine Mr. January.


In a pickle

Whether they’re buried inside a sammie or front and center on Grandma’s Thanksgiving table, we can’t seem to get enough of ’em. Just ask Pickle Packers International, which reports that Americans consume about 20 billion pickles every year.

Which comes as no surprise to the folks at The Barbeque Exchange, where you have your pick of 10 different varieties, everything from pickled green tomatoes to pickled sweet peppers or mustard pickles (right).

“Craig’s a pickle fanatic,” said Catering Manager Jaclyn Conlogue, referring to owner-chef Craig Hartman. “And since we all eat here all the time, it’s fun to play with the different flavors.” One of the restaurant’s bestsellers is a sweet pickle, which Conlogue enjoys with the pork sausage sandwich. And then there’s the horseradish pickle-brisket combo, another favorite of both the staff and customers.

But The Barbeque Exchange doesn’t have a corner on the area’s pickle market. Citizen Burger Bar’s fried pickles are must-eats, while The Whiskey Jar’s pickled disks are impossible to resist, and Red Pump Kitchen’s pickled ramps, chanterelles, and green beans are staples.

For those who prefer their pickles in liquid form, The Alley Light’s Micah LeMon recommends a pickle back: a shot of whisky followed by a shot of pickle juice. Here’s pickle juice, er, mud in your eye!

Rammelkamp Foto

Let it bee

Four years ago, Charlottesville resident Ellen Hickman watched an alarming documentary on the plight of honey bees and the looming ecological disaster posed by their dwindling numbers.

“The only way to prevent colony collapse is through small local beekeepers,” said Hickman, who started talking about honey bees so much that a friend bought her the Beekeeping for Dummies book. Although Hickman had never been too interested in science, she was bitten by the beekeeping bug and started attending meetings of the local beekeeping club. Today, Hickman’s Mulberry Avenue back yard hums with the buzzing of 60,000 bees in two hives, and she’s hardly alone in her hobby. The Central Virginia Beekeepers Association has more than 200 members, and Hickman says Albemarle County’s beekeeping class, offered every February, fills up fast.

“If you want to get in, you have to show up the day registration opens with your check in hand or you won’t get in.”

While Hickman’s neighbors may have initially had some reservations about swarming honey bees living nearby, she insists the risks are minimal since the industrious insects forage in a three-mile radius from the hive.

“The least likely place to get stung is in my next-door neighbor’s yard,” she said. “In four years, no one’s gotten stung other than me, and that’s only when I’m doing something stupid. They’re not yellow jackets, they’re not interested in your picnic, they’re not interested in pollinating your bushes.”

And, of course, there’s the sweet honey payoff.

“I got 90 pounds this year,” said Hickman, who gives jars away as gifts. “So many people listen to me go on and on ad nauseum about beekeeping, maybe they’ve earned it,” she laughed.

Botanical - Tree - Chestnut-583x1024

An old chestnut

Bringing back the native nut 

A hundred years ago, the slopes of the Blue Ridge were dominated by American chestnuts. They were gorgeous trees, and could be huge; their girth and height gained them the moniker “the redwoods of the east.” They also produced vast quantities of tasty nuts, making the trees a critical part of the Appalachian diet and economy.

Then they were wiped out. A fungus introduced from Asia in 1900 killed some 4 billion trees in the U.S. in 40 years—an ecological disaster of epic proportions.

But that’s not where the story ends. For decades, researchers have been steadily working to crossbreed hybrid trees that have just enough Chinese chestnut genome to make them blight resistant, but have all the outward characteristics of our pure natives. A lot of that work is happening in Virginia, in part because the American Chestnut Foundation’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is based here in Charlottesville. The ACF carefully tends to orchards of hybrids and especially healthy pure natives, and, says Regional Science Director Matt Brinckman, the foundation estimates it’s about a decade away from producing viable, hardy, almost-pure-native trees on a large scale.

If you want chestnut trees of your own before then, you could buy a different sort of hybrid from a local nursery—one with a lot more Chinese chestnut DNA in its heritage.

But there’s another option: Plant pure natives. The ACF makes it easy for you, as it can supply nuts and even seedlings for free. It’s true that many will die before they become towering trees, said Brinckman, but if carefully tended, the trees can grow for years and produce good crops. And you’d be helping out a good cause. Upping the number of American chestnut trees growing in the species’ native range is important, Brinckman said, because it increases the species’ gene pool, and provides opportunities to grow it even more. More natives means more genetic variety for the ACF’s breeding program, too.

So it’s ecologically sound, you say. But how do those American chestnuts taste? They’re the best, said Brinckman, any bias aside.

“American chestnuts are kind of sweet, and while they’re smaller in size than Chinese and European chestnuts, the flavor is much better.”

Get growing

Visit for more information about the American Chestnut Foundation’s breeding programs. Want to find out how you can get some local nuts of your own? Call the ACF’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, located in the Fontaine Research Park, at 906-9312.


The cutting edge

Hand-crafted in a small Charlottesville studio, this Saba Titan kitchen knife is made from high carbon stainless steel, which means it’s non-corrosive and won’t rust. And thanks to its ergonomic Cut Out handle, your mitt is safely and comfortably positioned for maximum chopping and cutting control and precision. According to company owner Les Gonda, “that’s because the blade is right under your hand instead of being forward of the handle.” The Titan retails for $259.95 at The Happy Cook in Barracks Road Shopping Center.

We’re craving Macaroni and Cheese at…

Photo by Michael Johnson

…Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar

Italian twist on the classic, with the addition of fennel, corn, sausage, and tomato.


Classic elbows, drenched in cheddar.

…The Downtown Grille

Elbows bound by a cheesy beschamel delight.

…Mel’s Café

Just like mom’s, served as a side, but it steals the show.


The quintessential offering at every proper Southern picnic.

Photo by Melody Robbins

Adventure Farm keeps it all in the family

Airports don’t usually make good neighbors. But if you’re in the grape-growing business, they’re a dream come true.

“The consistent breeze the planes create helps dry the fruit after it rains,” explained Andrea Matheson, manager of Adventure Farm, a family-owned operation started by her grandparents nearly 65 years ago.

Grapes are one of the 500-acre farm’s most recent additions, planted eight years ago on 12 acres of an Earlysville hilltop, where the expansion of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport shaped the terroir, leaving behind sections of undisturbed ground that contain well-drained, fertile soil where the vines thrive. Until recently, though, the fruit of Adventure Farm’s labors was used only in other vintner’s wines. 

“Other people were getting a great response and winning awards for the wines they were making with our grapes,” Matheson said. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we use our own grapes and put our own label on them?’” With some help from Virginia Wineworks’ Michael Shaps, Adventure Farm has bottled a chardonnay, viognier, and a red blend of chambourcin and cabernet sauvignon. Next year, a rosé, a sparkling wine, and a Bordeaux will be available in the Farm Shop, where, in addition to Thursday through Sunday wine tastings, visitors can find local beef, chicken, eggs, cheese, and grains.

And every wine bottle’s label will continue to come with a family story, like the Red Blend, named Gigi for Matheson’s 88-year-old grandmother: “a city girl from Kentucky” who fell in love with “the boy next door, visiting from a distant Virginia farm…”

Photo: John Rammelkamp.
Rammelkamp Foto

Water works

Wine, beer, cider—Central Virginia’s made a name for itself when it comes to drink. But what about the most basic beverage of all? We turned to Tim Brown, environmental compliance specialist at the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA), which oversees the public water supply, for some answers about the stuff coming out of your tap.

What’s that musty smell? If you live in Charlottesville or Albemarle and are supplied by the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (as opposed to your own well), your water comes primarily from five reservoirs scattered throughout the county, and it’s quite clean, said Brown. Soft, too, unlike a lot of the local groundwater. But have you ever poured a glass from the sink, taken a sip, and realized there’s an earthy or slightly moldy taste and smell to your water? You can thank the algae that grows in those reservoirs, said Brown.

The algae cells are killed and filtered out before they reach you, he said, “but they release a chemical while they’re alive and dying and falling down in the water column that give this musty odor.” The compound is harmless, Brown said—it’s called geosmin, and it’s what gives beets their distinctive flavor—and typically it’s not detectable. But occasionally when there’s a bloom, the water authority might add more activated carbon to the water, which counters the plant presence.

How do they know when to act? Residents can call in odor alerts (the number at the Albemarle County Service Authority is 977-4511), and Brown joins other officials on a monthly “flavor panel” that samples tap water from around the area. That’s right. Your water is officially taste-tested every few weeks.

What about contaminants we can’t taste or smell? Like any water that’s surface-sourced, it needs disinfecting before you can drink it. Right now, that’s done with chlorine. The upside is that you don’t get giardia. The downside is that the meeting of organic contaminants and chlorine creates chemical byproducts that Brown called “the No. 1 concern with water quality in all our systems right now.” Long-term exposure to high levels can lead to liver, kidney, and nervous system damage, as well as increased cancer risk. In Charlottesville’s urban ring, levels of the byproducts haven’t exceeded EPA-mandated maximums, said Brown, but at times, they’re close—around 80 percent of the threshold. 

Which is exactly what launched a massive community debate over water purification in the area in 2012. After a lot of heated discussion, officials voted to install a costly but highly effective filtration system, as opposed to switching to a new disinfecting chemical. Until it’s fully installed in 2017, said Brown, the water authority is using other measures to tamp down organic contaminants, and thus keep byproduct levels as low as possible.

Where can we learn more? Every month, 70 samples of drinking water are taken at 35 sites in the city and county, Brown said. The results, along with detailed explanations of quality standards and contaminants, are compiled in the ACSA’s Annual Drinking Water Reports, available online at

Photo: Kristen Finn.
Photo by Kristen Finn

Foraging for their supper

Themed dinner club transforms tastes and spaces

When Megan Kiernan and Justin Stone started Forage, a semi-annual, themed dinner club, in January 2010, they knew they wanted to explore. “It’s a chance to be creative in a culinary and decorating and craft sense, and it just allows us to enjoy a sense of community,” said Kiernan. 

Now, the pair sets out to transform spaces as well as palates, developing immersive, often outdoor events that connect table to tales told by the chefs. Every dinner offers a meal infused with local and foraged ingredients served in an immersive, imaginatively decorated space populated by thrift store décor and artful furniture. Attendees who RSVP to e-mail announcements from the group even dress up. 

Kiernan, who works as the chef of the café at Feast!, explained that she, Stone, and new partner Kate Lynn Nemett welcome the challenge of themes like Moroccan Affair and Cleaver’s Cookout. “I’m forced to do different kinds of food for each dinner, and I enjoy the challenge,” she said. A former pastry chef, she makes two dessert courses for every dinner and uses locally farmed or sold ingredients in every dish. For their upcoming dinner, Kiernan said she hopes to forage and use autumn olives, wild mushrooms, wild greens, and day lily root.

The painted teacups and Mason jars that make up the experience are local, too. “The name Forage refers to both our second-hand thrifting and trying to use those things that are out there in the wild,” she said.

Because of the group’s dedication to creativity, each community dinner reaches far beyond one meal. “It starts to feel like a part of my life,” Kiernan said. “Really, what did I do before I was making pasta and looking for Italian pottery?”

Photo by Melody Robbins

The new school lunch

Rubbery pizza. Soggy French fries. Ketchup as a vegetable. If you’ve been out of school a while, that might be what comes to mind when you hear the words “school lunch,” but today’s students in Charlottesville City and Albemarle County public schools have much tastier—and healthier—choices.

Eight of the nine city schools have gardens, according to spokesperson Beth Cheuk, and students can order custom salads every day with spinach or romaine lettuce, various meats and cheeses and six different vegetable toppings. The city schools’ efforts to source food locally, and to increasingly prepare foods from scratch, helped earn them a Trailblazer Award from the Virginia Department of Agriculture in 2011.

Kids in the county are also eating better than their parents did at school, said spokesman Phil Giaramita. The popularity of Chipotle restaurant prompted a twice- a-week Burrito Day this year in the high schools, and the “Make it Mine” salad plan lets vegetarians or health-conscious kids pile their salad plates high with a variety of toppings, ranging from low-fat cheeses to chick peas.

Sound good to you? If you have a kid or a grandkid in the public schools, you can join them for lunch for just $3.15.

Open and shut

Restaurants that have come and gone in 2014

We all know that Charlottesville eateries come and go, and we see dozens of openings and closings every year. This year alone, a number of spots have closed their doors for good (goodbye Peking), new restaurants have popped up all over the place (hello Zzaam!), and a few have even shuttered their doors and reopened elsewhere (we’re looking at you, Savour). Between now and the end of 2014, we’re anticipating the opening of at least three new restaurants.

Firefly: The Woolly Mammoth space changed hands earlier this year, and new owner Mark Weber wants to turn it into an adult arcade with an extensive bar and local menu. Weber and his consulting manager Ben Quade have been revamping the space, meeting with beer distributors, and stocking up on games since August, and they’re hoping to be open for business later this month.

Yearbook Taco: Richmond-based restaurateur Hamooda Shami is transforming the downtown El Puerto space into a “Mexican-inspired dive bar,” which will feature a simple menu of tacos, quesadillas, and burritos, plus an extensive tequila list. He doesn’t have an official opening date yet, but his goal is sometime this month.

Lampo: A giant brick pizza oven has arrived from Naples, and a team of local chefs are gearing up to serve Neapolitan-style pizza. Former tavola kitchen crew Loren Mendosa, Ian Redshaw, and Andrew Cole have teamed up with former MAS cook Mitchell Beerens to open Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria, a 24-seat restaurant on Monticello Road where The Farm Cville used to be, before the end of the year.

Chris Newman takes care of the chickens. Photo by Melody Robbins

Mr. and Mrs. fix-it

It’s all about permaculture at Sylvanaqua Farms

A little more than a year ago, Annie and Chris Newman were firmly planted in Washington, D.C., working way too many hours and not seeing enough of one another.

What a difference a year makes.

On a recent dreary Thursday afternoon, Chris could be found under a tent at the Earlysville farmers market, where he’d just told a disappointed customer he’s fresh out of eggs. “But we make home deliveries,” he said.

The software engineer-turned-farmer and co-founder of Sylvanaqua Farms still works plenty of hours, although he’s not entirely sure what day of the week it is. “I know it’s market day,” he said with an easy smile, adding that he no longer suffers from the Sunday night blues or dreads Monday mornings. In addition to being happier, he’s healthier—and he sees a lot more of his wife and business partner.

The couple originally talked about starting a bison ranch when they retired, “but we didn’t want to wait that long,” Chris said. Unfortunately, raising bison is expensive, “and they can kill you, so we decided on livestock that we can outrun,” he laughed, adding that they currently raise pigs and chickens, and hope to add cattle to their farm, where visitors are welcome between 10am and 5pm, when meat, eggs, produce, and baked goods are available for purchase.

At Sylvanaqua, which means woods and water, the Newmans adhere strongly to the principles of Austrian ecological farmer Sepp Holzer’s brand of permaculture, with the aim of making “responsibly produced food affordable enough for most people to eat most of the time.”

They also want to improve the quality of the land and encourage communities to take control of their local food supplies. “Annie and I,” Chris said, “we want to fix agriculture.”


Good enough to eat

Tim O’Kane turns groceries into high art 

The sizzle of butter, a viscous drizzle of honey, the scent of cinnamon and sugar: cooking elevates the everyday to a multisensory experience. Fine artist Tim O’Kane takes foodstuffs one step further, using oil and graphite to create photorealistic still lifes in which groceries become high art.

For the last 50 years, O’Kane has taken a “Renaissance-like” approach to painting, with a primary focus on large-scale cinematic works. One day, he took a break and painted a stack of Spudnuts donuts and his love of food painting was born.

“You take half a Tubby’s sub, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to paint,” O’Kane said. “In some way it’s probably therapeutic from the other work that I do.” He called his high-end, polished painting of a Dairy Queen ice cream cone “an homage to [pop artists] Wayne Tebow and Donald Rover Wilson.” The latter, he said, “does whipped cream like nobody.”

From empty brown eggshells to a plastic carton of strawberries, bowls of green figs to curly eggplant, O’Kane lavishes care on the things we take for granted. And he does it with pleasure akin to his viewers’. “These bags of donuts and ice cream cones,” he said, “it’s hard to find a more lighthearted, fun, and sensual subject matter.” 

Whisk us away

There’s something positively appetizing about watching a good-looking man wield a spatula over an open flame. Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the anticipation of tasting what’s about to come off the grill. All we know is, it’d be hard to kick these local cuties out of bed for spilling a few crumbs, #amirite?

Loren Mendosa, Lampo. Rammelkamp Foto
Christian Kelly, Maya. Photo by Justin Ide
Christian Kelly, Maya. Photo by Justin Ide
Curtis Shaver, Hamiltons’ at First & Main. Photo by Justin Ide

Jefferson Vineyards. Photo by Michael Johnson
Jefferson Vineyards. Photo by Michael Johnson

Reaping what they’ve sown

Let’s talk about wine grape harvest. You know, the time of year when the grapes growing on the vines are ripe enough for picking and fermenting into wine. Of course there’s plenty more that happens, but the harvest typically finishes around this time every year —depending on the weather. And it truly is All. About. The. Weather.

Ask any farmer: Weather plays the most important role in the quality of wine. Each wine-growing region is affected by weather differently, and the wines from that region are expressive of these differences from vintage to vintage (or year to year). Since our wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are so large and spread out, the climate and weather can be vastly different, depending on where the vineyards are located.

In the Shenandoah Valley, for instance, some growers lost almost their entire harvest due to a harsh, cold winter and early April frost. Some parts of the region were hit with hailstorms, wiping out part of their grapes, which can happen in an instant and without warning.

At Charlottesville’s Blenheim Vineyards, winemaker Kirsty Harmon describes 2014 as being an “overall great vintage and much drier than in years past.” This year’s harvest has been “slower paced, with grapes trickling in over time rather than all at once.”

Jake Busching, general manager, winemaker, and vineyard manager at Grace Estates Vineyard & Winery in White Hall, said 2014 is shaping up to be a “relatively normal vintage, with some early season wet spells balanced by a drier and cooler late season.” This year’s vintage, he added, is “balanced, aromatically powerful, and the slightly lower sugar levels will result in brighter acidity and more European-style wines.”

And while the 2014 harvest isn’t completely wrapped up, Harmon, Busching, and other area winemakers are hopeful that it’s far enough along that they no longer have to expect the unexpected.

We’re craving chocolate at…

Chocolate extravaganza at Hamiltons’. PHoto by Michael Johnson

Hamiltons’ at First & Main
Any way you slice it, Chocolate Many Ways is always a good idea.

Part cake, part batter, the Warm Chocolate Cake is entirely worth the wait.

The Mississippi Mud Pie is easy on the eyes and smooth going down.

C&O Restaurant
Elegant and sexy, the Coupe Ellery is mostly just plain ol’ delicious.

Blue Moon Diner
No better, more delicious reason to linger than the Chocolate Brownie Sundae.

Photo by Melody Robbins

Hidden patio

Ever wish you could meet someone for a quick drink somewhere downtown, have a private conversation, and not run into everyone you know? A block off the Downtown Mall on Water Street, Escafé is a hidden gem for secret plotting over an after-work beverage. And if you stick around long enough on a Friday, you can grab dinner and get your late-night dance groove on, too.

Wining and dining

We pride ourselves on being a foodie town, and it doesn’t just stop at restaurants and bars. All year, Charlottesville and the surrounding counties host a number of annual food- and drink-related events. Here’s a handful of them that you don’t want to miss.

Chocolate Festival 

Hosted by the First United Methodist Church, the mid-October chocolate festival kicks off with a 5K run and walk, and includes chocolate vendors, live music, a silent auction, and kids’ activities.

Garlic Festival 

Every October, Rebec Vineyards in Amherst hosts a two-day garlic festival, which features a garlic cook-off, a garlic queen contest, tastings from local wineries, and dozens of booths with food and local artisans (but you’ll have to bring your own gum).

Apple Harvest Celebration  

Each October weekend, Carter Mountain Orchard holds its biggest celebration of the year, with hayrides, pumpkin-picking, and all things apple.

Top of the Hops  

It’s only been around for a few years, but the late-September beer festival has already become a Charlottesville staple. General admission gives you a two-ounce souvenir stein, which you can fill (and refill and refill) with beer from more than 60 breweries.

Meet Yer Eats Farm Tour 

Every summer, about a dozen local farms team up to host a family-friendly farm tour. Kids and their parents are invited to get up close and personal with the operations of a small farm. And don’t forget to bring cash and a cooler, so you can go home with fresh produce, eggs, meat, and cheese.

City Market 

Beginning in April and running through December, the Charlottesville City Market is home to dozens of local vendors, ranging from farmers and cooks to juice-makers and artisans. The market sets up shop in the First Street parking lot every Saturday from 7am to noon.

Taste of Monticello Wine Trail Festival 

Can’t get enough local wine? Every spring, Central Virginia’s industry leaders team up to host a three-day event, including the Monticello Cup Awards, wine dinners, and tasting events. Dozens of nearby wineries and vendors participate each year, including Afton Mountain Vineyards, Trump Winery, and Virginia Wineworks.

Restaurant Week 

Every summer and winter, C-VILLE sponsors Restaurant Week. Restaurants all over town create three-course menus at a price point of $16, $26, or $36, and $1 from every meal goes to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Keep an eye on for 2015 dates.

Chili cook-off 

James River Runners in Scottsville hosts a chili cook-off every May to benefit the Scottsville Volunteer Fire Department. For $20, adults 21 and up get free samples of craft beer, plus all the chili they can handle. There are only 20 spots available for competitors, so be sure to act fast and sign up if you have a killer recipe.

Strawberry Festival 

Just before summer starts, Stanardsville United Methodist Church hosts its annual strawberry festival. The event includes lunch and plenty of berries, including cakes, pies, crepes, and jams. (And if you want to pick your own strawberries, check out Chiles Peach Orchard in Crozet.)

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello

Hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange each September, the Heritage Harvest Fest at Monticello boasts plenty of food-centric events: garden tours, hands-on demonstrations, and, of course, samples for tasting.

Vegetarian Fest

The oldest and most well-established festival of its kind, this September event combines cooking demos, presentations, and plenty of meatless treats for taste-testing.

Montpelier Wine Festival

Get a taste—literally—of the community at this annual spring fest, held on the grounds of James Madison’s home, Montpelier. Take a sip from more than 20 local wineries, try a few specialty foods, and let the booze move you—there’s live music, too! There’s entertainment for kids all day, so bring the whole family.

Photo by Melody Robbins

Pop into Brazos for a taco

Charlottesville has no shortage of lunch spots, but that doesn’t mean locals don’t have a hankering for something new and different. That’s what Peter Griesar discovered when he launched Brazos Pop Up Taco Shop inside the Al Dente pasta restaurant at the Ix property on September 24.

“The first week was humbling,” said Griesar, adding that response was so strong for the authentic Austin-style tacos in the first few days that he ran out of food and had to close early. After regrouping—and hiring extra staff—he reopened on September 30 ready to keep the tacos rolling until the planned closing date of Sunday, November 23.

The idea for the pop-up restaurant was hatched last year when Griesar, a musician who was also an original member of the Dave Matthews Band, lived in Austin for a few months, staying with DMB’s original manager Charles Newman. The two decided to open a restaurant serving Austin-style breakfast tacos in Seattle, but when they struggled to find the perfect location in that city, Griesar decided to hone the concept here in Charlottesville while continuing the search for a perfect spot in the Pacific Northwest.

“The intention was never to be busy,” said Griesar, who partnered with Al Dente owner Karim Sellam, as a way to test his concept and perfect his recipes while bringing new customers to the Ix property to try out Sellam’s pasta bar, which is still open and serving during the pop-up.

“Most of the people who come here have never seen the Ix property,” he said, noting that he hopes to find a similar “nice and chill” location in Seattle. “It’s one of the prettiest parts of downtown,” he said. “It has parking, it’s kid- and dog-friendly, everything you’d really want.”

The Brazos menu has six breakfast tacos, many featuring eggs, mashed potatoes and beans, and 13 lunch tacos with various meats and vegan options all prepared by Austin chef Chris Hallowell, who’s receiving support from former Zinc and Moto Pho Co owner Vu Nguyen and former Miller’s and Camino’s manager Sean Thomas. Brazos is open Tuesday-Friday from 7:30am until they run out of food (around 2pm, Griesar estimates) and Saturday and Sunday from 8:30am until the tacos are gone.

Could Griesar change course and make Charlottesville Brazos’ new permanent home?

Probably not, he said. “I’m methodical,” he explained. “We’re going to close when we say we’re going to close.”

So get those tacos while they’re hot!