Dr. Ho’s is its own little universe down there in North Garden. It’s packed, for example, on Tuesday nights, and one gets a sense of a close-knit world that embraces both sides of the counter. We stopped in after work for takeout—nothing fancy, just a large pizza with garlic, tomato and beef—and were comforted not only by the feeling of warm-pie-on-lap as we drove home, but by the genuine and cheerful atmosphere that seemed to prevail inside the shop.
The other night, we learned from our friends, Continental regulars, that saying “one with” will get you “one house margarita with salt.” We then deployed this new knowledge repeatedly. Somewhere amid the ensuing mayhem, we also ate about half of a spinach and mushroom enchilada—the other half made for delicious leftovers for next day’s lunch—and half the beans and rice that came with. The regulars’ pumpkin muffins came home for breakfast. Everybody felt bueno.
Poking around the elegant new foyer of TJ’s house—the visitor center, that is, which recently opened—we got some education, browsed some souvenirs, and topped off the afternoon with a hot coffee and a chocolate chip peanut butter bar from the cafe, which is run by your buddies at Brix. They’re still doing their gourmet thing at the foot of the little mountain, and the new setting is just as appealing as the old funky one on the bend of Rt. 53—a fine place for lunch, even if you don’t knock on the president’s door.
In a hurry at breakfast, and not wanting to spend a fortune, we finally clued in to the fact that every Downtown worker and her mother lines up to buy $1 pastries from Blue Ridge Country Store. Hello! At that price, our apple scone suddenly seemed to need an accompaniment, and we found a worthy one in a container of yogurt and granola from the back fridge case. It’s not the fanciest breakfast we’ve ever had, but it’s tasty and affordable.
For a solitary dinner at dusk, Basil turned out to be a nice choice: solicitous waitstaff and a menu big enough to make the meal feel like an occasion, even sans company. It wasn’t easy to choose, but we were happy with our belly dancer salad, a typically Greek combination of tomatoes, red onions, and feta, pushed over the top by the addition of two fluffy falafel balls. (Why did we never think of this before?) A cup of tea finished off the meal with a flourish.
Some like it hot, but we think that even spice-conservatives will find Mas’ sautéed Padron peppers just right for one-bite popping. Charred and sprinkled with a hint of grey sea salt for that savory kick, the peppers had just enough heat to keep us on our toes. Meanwhile, the jumbo Catalan shrimp, grilled in-shell and dipped in aioli, were good enough to make us lick our fingers. Oh, and the chorizo on brick oven bread? A carnivore’s dream.
Call us saps for dubbing this the star of an already star-studded meal, but the shrimp and mussels Romesco appetizer blew us away. Spicy, tomato-y, and absolutely divine, the Romesco sauce, drizzled with garlicky aioli, found itself dipped, spooned and scraped into non-existence within seconds. Bites of grilled chorizo were delicious but all too scarce; next time we’ll order double, with extra orders of bread for better dipping.
Not your ordinary hoagie, Cubano’s Cuban sandwich, from the specials menu, is a winning combination: thin-sliced ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard are piled between slices of soft Cuban bread and pressed until they all become one. Another case of the whole being much more than the sum of its parts. Served with tortilla chips and salsa, it made for a two-meal deal that kept our lips smacking.
A Corner newcomer but by no means new to the game, Rita’s dishes up a delicious version of gelato with layers of thick, luscious custard and a variety of Italian ice flavor options. Whether for top-to-bottom tunneling or layer-by-layer excavation, we found this a tasty alternative to the standard ice cream cone. Some of our favorites: mango, lemonade, and a limited edition Pumpkin Pie.
We feel like we ate our way through Europe in sandwich form. Layered generously with fresh avocado, Cafe Europa’s Black Sea felt decadent, but avoided over-richness with the bite of black olives, thin slices of red onion, tomato, sprouts, and a bright lemon dressing. Everything was both fresh and refreshing at this Corner hideaway, including our Greek side salad and the quick service.
You know, some dishes come and go and others really earn their stripes. Such is the bazaar salad served at the more-than-half-a-decade-old-by-now teahouse. This thing has been one of the most reliable healthy meals Downtown for quite a while, and so we salute it: From the sheer volume of its greenery and the distinctive notes of its dressing, to the fact that some toppings are pure Americana (tomato, cucumber) while others hint at the exotic (feta, candied walnuts), this is a salad to come back to. And believe us, we do.
Well, my goodness—a little takeout lunch from Downtown Thai turns out to be a feast and a half! A basic red curry, sure—long julienned strips of something crunchy, maybe bok choy, with carrots, green beans and tofu, and enough steamed rice to soak up a copious portion of light but fiery sauce. Maybe it was the two delicious chunks of deep-fried plantain on the side that kicked the whole plate up a notch. This is a lot of food, and elegantly prepared.
Poking into a familiar espresso bar with a new location—Milano, of course—we considered getting something all European and sophisticated to go with our tall Americano. But in the end it was something very homegrown that earned its place as our afternoon pick-me-up: a “chewy chunky blondie,” reminiscent of a seven-layer cookie with its coconut/chocolate chip/walnut/toffee flavors, and substantial as a brownie. In other words, an all-American sugar fest. Bellissimo!
Rabies shot in hand, we ventured into a restaurant everyone passes by on their way to the library, or court. But Il Cane Pazzo restaurant was nothing to be scared about. Quite the contrary. After the idylliac homemade bread with olive oil (a la pinzimonio) we decided to go for something traditional. The homemade pappardelle with Bolognese sauce and Bechamel arrived fast and steamy and utterly satisfied our experienced palates. So we say run, Il Cane Pazzo, run!
Inspired by a comment in this year’s Best Of writeups (see “Best Frozen Treat”), we marched into time-honored Timberlake’s to partake of a pleasure so classic there’s practically a glow around it. We speak, friends, of the chocolate milkshake. Served in a heavy glass by been-there-forever waitresses, the shake is thick enough to stand up a straw and, speaking frankly, to resist our efforts at sucking it down. But we persisted. The chocolate payoff was well worth it—all the way down.
Patrick Critzer’s Hamdingers cart is a seasonal pleasure, so we bellied up to make the most of it. Almost as good as the roast vegetable sandwich was the pleasure of watching Critzer put it together, armed with the tools and ingredients of his tidily arranged cart. The meal itself was savory and warm, a sub bun filled with tofu and veggies and topped with avocado and cheddar. Like summer, it didn’t last long.
We considered a mere take-out pastry to fuel up on a recent Wednesday morning, but instead went for the gold: a real sit-down breakfast in which we stuffed ourselves to the gills with Bluegrass’ Number 5. It’s a groaning plate of scrambled eggs generously stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, green peppers and cheese, accompanied by good coffee and potatoes with the skins still on. The real star here, though, are the biscuits. We’ll mention the cakey texture and earthy whole-wheat taste, but we can’t truly explain how good, good, good those biscuits are.
We hesitate to call the fare at The Flat slow food (as opposed to fast food), but we don’t mind a bit waiting on one of the benches outside the diminutive crêperie, sucking in the exhaust fumes from Water Street, because we know that whatever we’ve ordered is lovingly prepared and fresh. Take the spinach, mushroom, tomato and feta crêpe. With its bursts of ’shroom flavor and overall essence of perfectly tasty pancake, it’s like a Greek salad on steroids—a sure winner.
We’ve become pretty big fans of Sublime since it opened: Anytime we’re on the Corner, we find ourselves tempted by the abundance of fresh produce that packs the menu. The salads treat veggies like central players, not afterthoughts, and the rainforest redemption shake we had last time we stopped in was the most complex concoction we’ve ever known to carry that moniker: sweet, chilly, nutty and earthy all at once. What a perfect and sophisticated treat on a heavy summer day.
We’d picked up a raisin pastry at Cannelle Café at an odd time in the afternoon, and now it was 6pm. We were wary about the inappropriateness of this pinwheel creation as an after-work snack—wouldn’t it just be a big shot of sugar?—but our fears were unnecessary. There was depth here, in the dark color of the glaze, the fleshy raisins nestled among folds of buttery dough, and the breadlike structure of the pastry. Evening or no, a pastry can be perfect.
So what to eat at Bizou? There are the salmon cakes, which indeed was the choice of our companion, and there is a burrito and there is, of course, the meatloaf. But we were quite happy with our beet salad—it was a hearty (yes, hearty!) mix of beets, walnuts and various shredded veggies with succulent goat cheese and something—what was it?—distinctly hot lurking here and there. It’s a beautiful thing when a restaurant offers a salad that can stand up to the rest of the menu. Especially when said menu includes meatloaf.
This week’s treat: a meal prepared by Toliver House chef Jonathan Hayward and entirely built around local meats, produce, cheeses and wines—and whiskey! Yes, local single-malt whiskey, produced by the Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville. Owner Rick Wasmund muddled mint (which grows behind the distillery) for summery cocktails and talked about how he gets all his barley from a single, nearby grower. We savored its forward flavor, an excellent lead-in to an all-local feast.
Decadence, thy name is pâté. Such melt-in-your-mouth paste of animal parts can only be extravagant at best and overindulgent at worst, no? Well, not so when it’s made of sustainably-raised local rabbit at the hands of Keswick Hall’s executive chef and locavore Craig Hartman. We guiltlessly devoured Hartman’s luscious rabbit mold at a recent stop at Keswick’s daily lunch buffet. It was a savory puree of heaven with just a hint of gamey sweetness, and we had not a tad of remorse relishing it.
A $13 hamburger would normally stretch our bank accounts too thin (we are writers, after all), but Hamiltons’ has one topped with cheese, bacon and fresh greens that proved irresistible. To start with, the ground beef was from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm and was so tender when we bit down that it was like sinking our teeth into a feathery pillow. Our taste buds awoke as we bit down on a few thinly sliced sweet potato crisps and they slowly melted over our tongue. Still, they were a mere garnish to the velvety burger that stoked the fire of our inner carnivore. Gr-r-r-r.
“Delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” That’s how Mark Twain described a piece of fish he once ate while overlooking Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans. And it’s not a bad turn of phrase to apply to the beer called Mandolin out at Blue Mountain Brewery—a golden-colored brew with a pleasing enough taste to inspire some animal-type noises from us on first sip. Just as at Twain’s meal, the view sure didn’t hurt either.
Mmm, quesadillas. They’re pretty much always good, but the veggie quesadillas from La Taza are really, really delicious. The cheddar is sharp and studded with black beans and corn and tomatoes, and the tortillas are top-notch, but the real charm is this: You can add pineapple—sweet, surprising pineapple—for free. Friends, there is no reason to hold back. Get the pineapple. Groan with pleasure.
The teahouse has long outlived the coolest-new-thing luster it wore when it opened—what, a half decade ago?—and long since settled into the comfy, self-assured position of an established scene. Fortunately, the food is still just as good. Along with a pot of tippy south cloud (served with an encouraging “This is a really good steeping”), we ordered up the hummus platter: a generous dollop of super-garlicky hummus drizzled with oil, warm pita slices and chunks of carrot and cucumber arranged with simple care—as comforting as the broken-in chairs we occupied.