New Close-Hart led kitchen to craft modern Mexican cuisine, Hamiltons’ Sandwich Lab whips up a locally sourced banh mi and more local restaurant news

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With clues to the menu unveiled at a recent dinner, excitement is building for Junction, Melissa Close-
Hart’s soon-to-open Mexican restaurant in Belmont. Photo: Jeffrey C. Gleason. With clues to the menu unveiled at a recent dinner, excitement is building for Junction, Melissa Close- Hart’s soon-to-open Mexican restaurant in Belmont. Photo: Jeffrey C. Gleason.

Junction’s function

Even chef Melissa Close-Hart seemed surprised when she revealed the concept behind the new Belmont eatery she’s opening with The Local owner Adam Frazier: It’ll be called Junction and serve up modern Mexican with a touch of “cowboy cuisine” thrown in.

Close-Hart said she’s never cooked Tex-Mex professionally—hence the surprise—but said it’s something she and her husband, The Local chef Matthew Hart, enjoy making at home.

“This is kind of new to me, which is not a problem,” she said. “Cooking is cooking.”

Close-Hart and her partners announced the name of the restaurant during a December 8 charity dinner held at The Local to support one of the restaurant’s catering chefs, Jerry Colgate. Colgate was the victim of a hit and run last month and was in a coma for several weeks. Proceeds from the dinner went toward Colgate’s recovery, and the fundraiser drew backing from Timbercreek Farm, Cavalier Produce, Standard Produce, Seafood at West Main and MS Events.

The event also served as a showcase of dishes that may appear on the Junction menu in some form. Close-Hart and her husband each conceived five dishes and let diners choose their favorites. “Matty beat me, but not by much,” Close-Hart said.

For the competition, Close-Hart put up an empanada of potato, grilled chayote squash and queso fresca; black bean soup with smoked chicken, cilantro crema and roasted poblano cornbread; cornmeal crusted trout with mango-jicama slaw and lime-Cholula vinaigrette; crispy ancho glazed pork belly, creamed corn johnny cake and orange-jalapeño marmalade; and coconut cake. Hart countered with a trio of ceviche; classic tortilla soup with crispy cactus strips; rockfish a la Veracruz, spiced black beans and Spanish rice; smoked beef brisket with tamarind glaze, potato-Mexican cheese gratin and lime braised collard greens; and dark chocolate pot de crème.

“It’s a good sampling of things that will be on the menu [at Junction],” Close-Hart said. “The food is going to be vibrant, accessible and affordable. Think creative tacos, big salads, cowboy steaks and such.”

Close-Hart said the restaurant will pair all that with small batch tequila and whiskey, an extensive beer list and “slow” handmade cocktails. The décor will be “rustic saloon, focusing on the original essence of the building, which was built in the early 1900s,” she said.

One thing she’ll have to get used to in her new job will be larger crowds. While the dining room at her current restaurant Palladio is small, she said Junction will be about the same size as The Local across the street. No date’s been set for the new restaurant’s opening, but Close-Hart guessed it would be sometime next summer.

Latest from the Lab

Did people lose their fire for Hamiltons’ Sandwich Lab in the two and a half months the mad sandwich scientists took off between sandwiches No. 5 and No. 6? Nope. The dozen sammies were spoken for in four minutes. Four!

Hamiltons’ at First & Main managing partner Greg Vogler said the Lab was still working during its hiatus, providing 50 sandwiches to TEDx Talks attendees on November 14. Fifty  Sandwich Lab sandwiches. Mind blown.

The latest concoction is a play on the popular Vietnamese banh mi, featuring Thai spiced Double H Farm turkey, local rabbit pâté, smoked jalapeño aioli, pickled apple, green cabbage slaw and cilantro on an Albemarle Baking Company demi-baguette. The sandwich will be served with curried shrimp chips and available for pick-up by the lucky few speed dialers on December 17. For the unlucky, there’s always next month.

College Inn changes hands

In the better late than never department, we’ve learned that the subtle changes you’re noticing at the College Inn are courtesy of Nook owner Stu Rifkin and former real estate broker Mike Berkoff, who purchased the popular 60-year-old Corner pizzeria from Terry and Mike Vasalos, who also own the Tip Top on Pantops, last summer.

“They turned down a lot of buyers until they found someone they knew would be successful with it,” said Rifkin.

Among Rifkin and Berkoff’s efforts at the historic eatery: a new website and a mobile app. “All our coupons and offers and discounts will only be online,” said Rifkin. In addition to adding breakfast seven days a week, an expanded delivery service now allows College Inn customers to get their pies delivered past Free Bridge into Albemarle County and up to Dunlora, off Rio Road. Pizza’s not the only thing College Inn will bring.

“We deliver beer, wine and ice cream,” said Rifkin.

Who can argue with that?

Have a cup of cheer

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or, depending on who you ask, the most stressful time of the year. For those who don’t have it in them to put together a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell dinner this year, at least a few restaurants in the area are willing to help out.

Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar and Michie Tavern are both closed on the 25th, but while some are at home hanging their stockings and setting out cookies for the big guy, they’re serving up Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas day, Fossett’s at Keswick is offering breakfast until 11am, a two-hour grand buffet at lunchtime and a four-course tasting menu dinner. At Boar’s Head Inn, you can pop in for holiday tea any day between now and December 30, or choose between roast sirloin, pork tenderloin and crab-crusted sunburst trout for a four-course dinner on Christmas. (The Christmas day brunch is already sold out.) On a similar note, Clifton Inn is offering a three-course dinner seating on Christmas day, with options like chestnut and black truffle agnolotti, grilled ribeye and eggnog panna cotta. 

On New Year’s Eve, you’ll have more of a selection. All of the aforementioned spots are serving dinner to ring in 2015, and other area eateries with prix fixe menus on December 31 include Horse & Hound, The Ivy Inn and Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar. You can also make New Year’s Eve reservations at Fleurie, or head over to Parallel 38 for all-you-can-eat small plates and champagne after 7pm. And if you’re planning on sticking around downtown after treating yourself to a fancy end-of-year meal, Zocalo is serving dinner until 10pm, then pushing the tables and chairs aside for a late-night DJ.