What does it take to earn a Michelin star? Outside of Charlottesville, restaurants have wondered this for years. Both prestige and revenues can come from recognition by the French guide book, which is famously stingy with praise. When it released its first guide to Washington, D.C., last year, Jeremiah Langhorne’s The Dabney was one of just 12 restaurants to earn a star. It was “a lifelong dream come true,” says Langhorne, “but not something we ever anticipated.”
Still new to the U.S., Michelin seems unlikely to visit Charlottesville anytime soon. So, to test if our little city might be star-worthy, perhaps the next best judge is a Michelin-starred chef, like Langhorne. But where to go?
If anywhere in Charlottesville merits a Michelin star, it’s The Ivy Inn, the destination restaurant Angelo Vangelopoulos and his family have run for more than 20 years. Ask other top chefs to name the best in town, and they will usually say Vangelopoulos, a James Beard semifinalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic two of the past three years. And besides, Langhorne once did a stint as The Ivy Inn’s sous chef, so it seemed the obvious place to take him.
Vangelopoulos knew we were coming, and pulled out all the stops for his former employee, with an over-the-top tasting menu. I knew it would be excellent, but even by the restaurant’s high standards, the meal was extraordinary. Langhorne, an acclaimed chef who enjoys no shortage of great food, called it the best meal he had eaten in a long time. Me too.
It began with Vangelopoulos’ current favorite menu item: Virginia Oysters Rock’n Fella. A family trip to New Orleans last spring motivated him to bring some regional classics back to Charlottesville, like this Virginia twist on Oysters Rockefeller. “To fuse a little bit of Virginia’s pantry into the dish, I use Rock Barn bacon and Virginia kale,” says Vangelopoulos. The result was every bit as good as any version of the original.
Langhorne says Vangelopoulos’ greatest strength is consistency, a vital Michelin criterion. I’d add the related virtue of restraint—consistently resisting the urge to overcomplicate, overseason and overthink. “He has a lot of control and doesn’t overdo things,” says Langhorne.
This doesn’t mean his food is boring. Far from it. Even after a platter of gorgeous housemade charcuterie, we didn’t miss the meat in the dish that followed: roasted cauliflower and kale, with sun-dried tomato, pine nuts, yogurt and pasta made of charred wheat flour called farina arsa. Drawing on his experience at the legendary D.C. Italian restaurant Galileo, Vangelopoulos has a way with pasta, and here he shaped fresh dough into tiny, nutty shells called gnocchi sardi.
Next up was another meatless dish with pasta, and one of Langhorne’s favorites of the night: housemade chestnut raviolini in brown butter sauce with creamed spinach and slivers of crispy parsnip. “A simple, classic combination-—well executed,” says Langhorne, who studied every dish closely, lifting it to his face to inhale its aromas and listening intently to Vangelopoulos’ descriptions.
Wine pairings accompanied each course, and my favorite was with the next one, pepita-crusted flounder with heirloom beans, butternut squash and sweet potato salsa in a curry of coconut milk, madras curry powder, onions, garlic and ginger. Gewurztraminer with curry is a classic combination, and the 2013 Alexander Valley Vineyards Gewurz matched the perfume and spice of the sauce.
Even after all of these vegetable and fish dishes, there was plenty of meat. Vangelopoulos is Greek, after all. Sautéed breast of Free Union Grass Farm duck was a meaty delight, served atop “dirty rice”—Carolina Gold rice specked with andouille sausage, confit duck hearts and gizzards, and sautéed duck livers.
Bison short ribs are Vangelopoulos’ current favorite entrée, and it’s easy to see why. The ribs are seared and then braised with tomato, red wine, herbs and veal stock until nearly falling apart. Reduced braising liquid makes for a luscious sauce atop creamy, truffled grits and earthy sautéed spinach, kale and arugula.
Finally, Vangelopoulos’ gyros, which often appear on the menu’s Duet of Lamb, have become the stuff of legend, even winning praise from the Washington Post. For our meal, Vangelopoulos skipped his usual method for the gyro meat, and instead shaped ground beef, lamb and pork from Double H Farm into kefta on a massive spear, which he finished on an outdoor grill before bringing it to the table. The presentation was spectacular—“exciting” said Langhorne—with a spread of classic condiments and housemade pita. “You could combine the items to create your own perfect bite,” said Langhorne. “And, that’s some of the best pita I’ve had in a long time.”
For decades, restaurants have steadily trended downscale—faster, cheaper, more casual. All the while, The Ivy Inn has remained everything many of those restaurants are not: a place to be pampered, cared for and treated to a leisurely meal by a world-class chef.
“So, do you think The Ivy Inn would warrant a Michelin star?” I asked Langhorne after we’d finished.
“I do,” he said.