As tightly knit as Charlottesville is, newcomers are likely to feel intimidated—especially so in our food world, which is as inextricably linked an industry as any. Evermore daunting would be taking the helm of a restaurant that’s collected a massive following in the five years it’s been open. But more now than ever, the connections between farmers and chefs are crucial, so when there’s a new chef on the block who’s unwaveringly committed to sourcing locally, he’s welcomed with open arms.
Tommy Lasley came in July via upstate New York to take the executive chef post at Orzo after Bryan Szeliga moved to Philadelphia. A North Carolina native, Lasley attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park (graduating in 2007 and meeting The Rock Barn’s Ben Thompson along the way), then stayed in the area to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. This particularly ambitious farm-to-table restaurant that’s also a year-round working farm crystallized Lasley’s desire to be a seasonal chef taking Mother Nature’s lead, and a local chef buying farmers’ products.
Getting a hard sell on Virginia every time he spoke with Thompson led the earnest 31-year-old chef here—and diners are only beginning to experience what Charlottesville has gained with his arrival.
Respecting the loyal customer base built by owners Charles Roumeliotes and Ken Wooten, Lasley’s been gradual and studied in his approach to change. He spent the first month working with his staff and Szeliga’s menu. By early September, he began running his own dishes as specials, and even though the menu’s now his, he gauges the interest (and resistance) of guests at every service. Comforting pasta dishes had always been a cornerstone of Orzo’s menu, and since Lasley recognizes the potentially mutinous implications behind taking away a regular’s beloved baked penne, he’ll happily make the old favorites by request.
On the other hand, we eagerly accepted Lasley’s invitation to leave us in his hands. And, welcoming the opportunity to abandon all decision-making, we even asked Roumeliotes to pair our wines.
Piquing our palates with cava and baguette dipped into lemony hummus, we noticed that while the scene on a chilly Wednesday night was as warm and lively as it always is at Orzo, the diners seemed decidedly more focused on their food—admiring, discussing, and Instagramming. And then a slate dotted with petits fours-like canapes stole our attention. Smoked trout on farro flatbread anointed with roe and chives and a pork croquette dipped in beer mustard were both glorious. Olive oil cornbread with squash and goat cheese looked like macarons, and the square of pork terrine between two crackly chocolate crisps looked like fluffy nougat.
Butternut squash soup with hazelnut oil and toasted hazelnuts arrived piping hot from just enough time spent in the oven to melt the cranberry marshmallow on top. It invoked (yet far surpassed) the sweet potato casserole that’s a requisite on Thanksgiving.
Roumeliotes came by with a tropical and briny Albariño to accompany seared scallops with sweet potato, Brussels sprout leaves, and a golden beet emulsion. And a crispy farm egg atop porcini, chickpeas, pecorino, and roasted rapini leaves was a Scotch egg gone gourmet.
We hadn’t looked up once—and the delights just kept on coming. Crispy rounds of chicken mousseline took to a plate strewn with roasted baby beets, walnuts, arugula, and ginger yogurt; and satiny discs of butternut squash joined fried cubes of squash, mizuna, and pumpkin seeds. Variations on an earthy theme that sang between sips of white Burgundy.
Pasta was next, and though the butternut squash ravioli with crispy amaretti, pear mostarda, crispy sage, and brown butter was far more refined than Orzo’s former pastas, it was no less comforting. Half moons packed with peppery, prosciutto-braised greens and mascarpone then studded with crispy chicken sausage met their match with an herbal and juicy Ruché from Piemonte.
When the black wine of Cahors was poured, we were warned that the end was in sight. And the grilled octopus with merguez, potato gnocchi, chili oil, and crème fraîche, plus the Rock Barn pork with Brussels sprouts, apples, and rutabagas, made for quite a finale.
We were still digesting the sheer glory of it all when Lasley came by. We couldn’t help but gush. While he hasn’t had time to dine around town much, he visits local farms every day. It will be a while before he can cook his locavore heart out, but he’ll still work with plenty of farmers throughout the winter, because as he puts it: “We only cook what we can get.” Well, we’ll take it.