A rosy glow shone through windows high on the façade of the former service station. As my dining companion and I approached the building, the oaky smoke aroma grew stronger. We turned the corner onto West Main Street and the source of both the light and the smoke revealed itself through tall walls of glass—big sliding doors that once enclosed car-service bays.
Little Star—the Charlottesville restaurant that people were buzzing about even before it opened nine weeks ago—creates atmosphere even from a distance. And after the frosted-glass front door swung open, a sense of warmth and comfort greeted us like a hug from an old friend.
So it began, my first dining experience in Charlottesville meant to produce a review. Although I relocated to the area less than two years ago, I’m familiar with the city’s restaurant scene, having visited for more than 20 years to spend time with my sister, a UVA professor. I’m also experienced at writing about food, which has been a passion of mine since I was a kid, planting and tending the family vegetable garden in suburban New Jersey. As a teenager and throughout my college years, I worked in restaurants and catering.
When I became a writer, I covered food for daily and weekly newspapers, including the late, great Boston Phoenix, and magazines, including Food & Wine and the industry publication Plate. Now, I edit the Living section here at C-VILLE Weekly, along with magazines like Knife & Fork, and reviews feel like a natural fit. I believe a restaurant critic can and should be an important part of the local food culture. His or her role is to explore, explain, and ultimately elevate the art and craft of cooking and serving food.
That’s exactly what Little Star is doing for Charlottesville. Executive chef Ryan Collins arrived at the restaurant by way of Madison’s Early Mountain Vineyards, where he landed in 2016 and created a menu of small plates and sandwiches made with local ingredients. For Collins, Early Mountain was a waypoint between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., where for eight years he was protégé of José Andrés, a Spanish-American and one of the more influential and acclaimed chefs in the world. Collins spent three of those eight years in the kitchen at Oyamel, where he learned to love Mexican cuisine. In Charlottesville, Collins teamed up with Oakhart Social’s Ben Clore and Tristan Wraight, whom Collins had met while at Early Mountain, to open Little Star. It is here that Collins expresses chef Andrés’ influences, blending Spanish and Mexican flavors.
After my dining companion and I objected to being seated at a table near the foyer and bar, the host graciously led us through the dining room to the long row of tall tables and a banquette along the east wall. The high perch provided a view, to the right, of the chefs preparing food in front of the blazing wood-fired oven, and to the left, of West Main Street through the big glass doors. On a Tuesday night, the room was packed and humming with conversation; old-school hip-hop provided a faint backdrop.
We started with cocktails. I thought I had heard incorrectly when the bar manager said the margarita ($16) would be served with the glass’ rim dusted with salt, red pepper, and smoked, ground gusano, a grub found in the roots of agave. It sounded gross, but tasted rich and earthy, playing off the brightness of the lime juice and the smokiness of the mescal. A second cocktail, the Star on Main ($14), was a twist on an old fashioned, with bourbon, Calvados, orange bitters, and a sweet touch of Lillet Blanc. Both drinks introduced complex, unexpected flavors, which apparently is Little Star’s mission.
The wait staff circulated throughout the room, stopping to attend to diners when necessary and then moving on. They knew when to be present and when to disappear, creating a relaxing rhythm to the evening. While our server said that most of the menu consisted of small plates, the portions turned out to be right-sized for the prices, from $8-24. (The outliers are a pork short rib and ribeye steak, at $70 and $100, respectively.) The price of a meal can escalate quickly, but two plates per person ended up being plenty of food.
Little Star encourages not only a leisurely pace (we spent two hours over dinner), but also the sharing of dishes. The bitterness of the charred endive ($10) was mellowed by a buttermilk-based dressing, and the dish gained complexity with a topping of poppy seeds, slivered scallions, chili, and bottarga, a salted, air-dried fish roe. Mojo sunchokes ($12) were served as a salad, with shaved apple, caramelized onion, and frisée. This was the only off note of the evening. The sunchokes—a sunflower tuber—were cooked to the point of mushiness, and traces of sand or soil in the dish brought an unwelcome grittiness.
Looking over the wine list, I was disappointed not to see more bottles in the $30-50 range. Out of 40 offerings, 31 were priced between $52 and $520. We ordered by the glass and, on the general manager’s recommendation, went with a Spanish white, Gramona Gessami ($12 glass)—a blend of sauvignon blanc, muscat, and gewürztraminer that had the body and ample fruit to stand up to our next two dishes, beef tartare ($14) and pork loin ($18).
Little Star pushes the tartare definition, with grilled cactus, tartar sauce, radish, whole-grain mustard, and a heap of freshly grated parmesan on top. Is it a salad or a meat dish? It’s sort of both, and it’s outstanding and inventive. Sourced from Autumn Olive Farms, near Waynesboro, the pork loin was a generous cut, more than an inch thick, presented with crispy sweet potato and mole manchamanteles, a reduction of pork and chicken stock infused with a paste of dried and fresh fruits (raisins, plantains, charred pineapple), toasted nuts, herbs, and chilis. It was a resounding note to finish the meal.
But wait—dessert! A traditional end to a very untraditional meal (at least for Charlottesville) seemed like a good idea, so we went for the apple pie ($8). It was actually more of a strudel or galette, served with little apple spheres poached with cinnamon, apple caramel sauce, and ice cream richly flavored with vanilla bean.
All in all, Little Star is a significant addition to the local restaurant scene and, hopefully, will provide a strong culinary anchor on West Main as it becomes a dense commercial and residential corridor.
Monday-Thursday 5-10pm, Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm. 420 W. Main St. 434-252-2502. littlestarrestaurant.com