Despite its seemingly auspicious location next door to the high-traffic Main Street Market, the former gas station at 420 W. Main St. has proven a tough row to hoe for several restaurateurs. Station occupied the spot for a while; then White Orchid tried to make a go of it. As we reported a few weeks ago, Vu Nguyen and Thomas Leroy are the latest to tackle the challenge with the British gastropub/French bistro concept they call Zinc. The new spot is now open and the pair are wielding a sophisticated Euro menu in the battle with any “cursed spot” demons that might possibly be lingering.
The ship that is Zinc has embarked, with Vu Nguyen (left) and Thomas Leroy at the helm.
Not literally, of course: The atmosphere is actually rather serene. (It must be noted, though, that Nguyen recently got the periodic table symbol for zinc tattooed on his forearm—a kind of war paint, if you like.) We dropped by to take a look at the new spot, which—just as Leroy’d promised when we talked to him earlier—now layers a Gallic sensibility over the existing industrial-style building. (It was, after all, a gas station, and the roll-up doors are still part of its odd charm.) The center-island bar is now covered in zinc, and new granite-topped tables fill the other part of the L-shaped space. A big chalkboard lists the specials.
Menu: big on seafood, with a whole section devoted to mussels. Fish ’n’ chips are prominently featured, as is hanger steak with shallots and the classic French lemon/butter/white wine approach in general.
There were more employees than patrons in the house when we stopped by, but it’s much too early to say how Zinc will fare. If you long for moules mariniere, go by and fill ’er up.
That would be the mystery of why a straight-up Indian restaurant has a name that reeks of risotto and amore. Milan is not pronounced like the city in northern Italy, mi-LON. As owner Charanjeet Ghotra explained, it’s an Indian word meaning “meeting place” and is properly pronounced MILL-in.
We’re glad we cleared that one up, but Milan’s name wasn’t the main reason we met Ghotra for a recent chat. The real reason was we felt stupid for saying, stupidly, that someone else owned his spot (a stupid mistake we corrected the following week, as you may recall) and wanted to make it up to him.
This we did by asking a bunch of nosy questions about how frustrating it must be to serve one’s native cuisine to a bunch of uninitiated American yahoos. Ghotra was too graceful to take the bait—in fact, he praised Charlottesville’s great sophistication in matters of curry and tandoor. At least, we’re sophisticated compared to folks in Lynchburg (surprising, isn’t it?), where Ghotra and his partner Jaswinder Singh have run a sister restaurant to Milan since 2002. After fielding many a “What’s a curry?”-type question there, the pair were impressed with both the knowledge Charlottesvillians possess about Indian food and with our willingness to order the hottest sauces.
“I was surprised,” Ghotra remembers, “the day we opened [in 2003] it was packed. People were saying, ‘Do you have this dish? It’s not on the menu.’”
Like those of most Indian restaurants in the U.S., Milan’s menu is, primarily, descended from the foods of India’s northern regions. However, if you’re trying to replicate the authentic experience, save that mound of rice for the end of the meal, and eat your masala or vindaloo with bread instead—naan or pratha.
Ghotra and Singh will soon augment their established menu with specials, so swing on by. And don’t forget to say MILL-in.
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