Jason Alley cusses. A lot. It comes naturally. Even during an invite-only event bringing journalists and development execs to his new restaurant in the Shops at Stonefield, that’s who he is. A guy who cusses. A lot.
“I’m a redneck. It is what it is,” he said over cocktails at Pasture, which officially opened its doors last week. “Well, maybe not a redneck, but country at least.”
With his ruddy complexion and stocky build, Alley’s clearly a guy who was raised on cornbread and collards. He didn’t earn a degree from a culinary institute; he picked up his cooking chops somewhere along the way from frying burgers at Hardee’s to landing his first executive chef job at 22. He plays in rock bands. He probably couldn’t be pretentious if he tried.
That’s what makes the restaurant Alley’s opening in Charlottesville so inviting. A sequel to his successful Richmond spot of the same name, the latest installment of Pasture hopes to offer fine food without all the fine dining nonsense. The 60-seat dining room and 40-seat patio were designed to complement the locally sourced cuisine by Alley’s wife, Mercedes, and business partner, Michele Jones, who focused on a clean, no frills aesthetic. The result is a good looking shirt that doesn’t cut into your neck.
“We all have these fine dining backgrounds and this wine appreciation and everything, but we want to take the pressure off the guest,” Alley said. “We don’t want them to be threatened or intimidated by anything on the menu.”
Charlottesville’s version of Pasture is the third restaurant venture for Alley and his second launch with Jones, another lifelong restaurant rat. Jones got on board with Alley while working at his first restaurant, Comfort, and the two decided to open a place where they could do composed small plates, rather than the Southern favorites they were cranking out family-style. Sure, Jones said Southern food and small plates (tapas, even) might seem like an odd combination, but the Pasture crew makes it seem as natural as frying a green tomato.
“I wanted to do Southern small plates and so did Jason because that’s the way we like to eat,” Jones said. “If you get it, you get it.”
The concept manages to walk the fine line between trendy and contrived. While almost everything is made in-house—pickled veggies, pork pastrami, smoked ginger syrup—Alley serves his addictive pimento cheese spread on a Ritz cracker because that’s the way it tastes best. Other standouts to look for at Pasture are the chili grits and the fried okra with Comeback sauce. The creamy grits are set off by a tongue-stinging acidity and spice, and Alley slices the okra lengthwise rather than on the bias. He says that technique, with some help from a light and well-seasoned batter, makes the spears eat like French fries. And, more importantly, it keeps them from being slimy.
“To nerd out a little, every time you move your knife back and forth, it’s rubbing against the cell walls, and that’s where all that mucus gets released,” he said. “We use two cuts to keep them relatively dry and a bit tighter.”
Brad Dumont, a representative of EDENS, the development group behind Stonefield, admits Pasture is probably the most unique dining option that will land in the complex. Nearly all the other eateries are carefully selected to fill a marketing angle—the fast casual, the burger option, Italian, Mexican, and Mediterranean. Pasture seems to have been selected more from the soul.
“Jason is just a chef that we really believe in,” Dumont said. “They are really good people and all about creating the right environment in this space. You want to have something that is not cookie cutter.”
While Alley is renting an apartment in Charlottesville for the time being, he won’t be in the restaurant all the time, so there is some concern it won’t be as consistent as the original Pasture. But he believes his handpicked executive chef, Pete Evans, understands his vision (a word he’d prefer not to use), and Alley’s committed to doing what it takes during the first few months to make sure his C’ville outpost doesn’t become the equivalent of a Wolfgang Puck’s at the airport.
“We want to be fucking perfect—we want to be all local and we want to do all these things—but we know we’re never going to be,” Alley said. “So what we really strive to do well is be on brand all the time. Until this place has its own identity, we want to make sure that when you come to Pasture, you’re at Pasture.”