When Melissa Close-Hart was in her mid 20s, she was studying to become a high school psychology teacher and worked in the kitchen at Birmingham, Alabama’s acclaimed Bottega Café to help pay for her tuition.
One night, she says she perfectly plated a chicken scallopini—the positions of the components, the garnish, everything—and it hit her. “This is what I should do. I shouldn’t teach high school psychology,” she remembers thinking.
And it seems as though Close-Hart, a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist, was correct: Cooking is her calling. And on Thursday, January 26, she’ll be opening Junction, the long-anticipated modern Mexican/TexMex spot on Hinton Avenue in Belmont, with owner Adam Frazier (of The Local Restaurant and Catering and The Local Smokehouse).
Close-Hart, who cooked at Barboursville’s Palladio restaurant for 14 years before leaving two years ago to join forces with Frazier, and sous chef Amber Cohen, formerly of Continental Divide, will cook up a broad, but not overwhelming, variety of dishes for Junction diners. The yet-to-be-priced menu features grilled shrimp, roasted corn and sweet potato empanadas with roasted jalapeño-cilantro crema and queso fresco; Texas cowgirl chili with 7 Hills Food Co. braised beef, tomatoes, housemade chili powder, sour cream, aged cheddar and corn bread; oven-roasted chile relleno with roasted poblano peppers stuffed with marinated Twin Oaks tofu, sweet potatoes, grilled corn, fire-roasted peppers, seasoned beans, fresh herbs, pineapple-cilantro salsa and lime crema; plus buffalo burgers, cowboy (i.e. very large) steaks, a variety of tacos, guacamole and queso dips; plus tres leches cake, Kahlúa flan and churros with chocolate mole sauce for diners in the restaurant’s four dining rooms.
Close-Hart is aware of the Mexican food boom that has hit Charlottesville in recent years—we have a bunch of taco joints, like Brazos and Cinema Taco, plus our share of traditional Mexican places such as Los Jarochos and La Michoacana. It’s part of why she chose to focus Junction on locally sourced, freshly prepared TexMex. Plus, she says, “I’m a girl from Alabama, so me cooking traditional Mexican is a stretch.”
Junction will offer a wine program, a variety of beers and cocktails developed by bar manager Alec Spidalieri (of The Local). There’s a selection of margaritas, like the simple JCT Marg made with blanco tequila, Cointreau, citrus, agave, cilantro and salt, and the Carpintero, made with fig-infused reposado tequila, Licor 43, hickory syrup, acid-adjusted orange, charred cedar and Szechuan peppercorn bitters; and house cocktails like the Texas Hold Me, made with coffee-infused bourbon, Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur, roasted walnut, brown sugar and lemon, and a take on horchata, made with Vitae Spirits golden rum, Pedro Ximénez sherry, long-grain white rice, cinnamon, toasted almonds and milk.
The restaurant’s four bright dining rooms, with plenty of windows, copper lighting and exposed brick walls, can accommodate 169 diners and honor the integrity of the building’s late 19th century/early 20th century origins. In one of the downstairs rooms, there’s a large, well-preserved Pepsi-Cola advertisement that was painted on the exterior wall of the grocery store that once inhabited the space.
The blond wood booths in another dining room came from the trees that were cut down to make Junction’s parking lot, Close-Hart says, and other tables can seat parties of varying sizes. The two upstairs dining rooms can be reserved for private parties and events.
Getting Junction off the ground has been “a labor of love…and licensing,” says Close-Hart. She’s been cooking for The Local’s catering operation for the past two years, and she’s excited to get back to a restaurant kitchen to keep doing what she loves. With food, “I get to nurse the soul and the body,” she says.
Mezze to pizza
As reported by Charlottesville 29 blogger and C-VILLE’s At The Table columnist C. Simon Davidson, Mediterranean mezze spot Parallel 38 will close its doors after service on Sunday, January 29. According to Davidson’s blog, after the original owners of The Shops at Stonefield sold the shopping center last year, Parallel 38 and the new owners could not agree on a new lease, which led to the closing.
A small California-based chain, MidiCi, The Neapolitan Pizza Company, will open in Parallel 38’s spot in late spring or early summer. Its Charlottesville franchise will house two 7,000-pound wood-fire ovens imported from Italy, a live olive tree and plenty of art.
MidiCi is about bringing friends together over high-quality pizza, and franchise owner Maurice Kelly chose to open a MidiCi here in Charlottesville (instead of Washington, D.C.) because of the city’s focus on local, community food. “In D.C., people might meet over cocktails, but in Charlottesville, they meet over food,” Kelly says.
Taste of home
Attendees at the 2017 Inaugural Luncheon on Friday, January 20, had a taste of Charlottesville. Seven Hills Food Co., led by butcher Ryan Ford and based here in town with an abattoir in Lynchburg, provided the meat used in the luncheon’s second course: grilled Seven Hills Angus beef with dark chocolate and juniper jus and potato gratin.