At the Table: Revamped restaurant shows off Virginia’s riches

Leni Sorensen, retired African-American research historian for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, says Virginia cuisine is a melting pot of influences. Commonwealth Restaurant's ham hock meatballs "scream Virginia," says chef Reggie Calhoun. Photo by Eze Amos Leni Sorensen, retired African-American research historian for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, says Virginia cuisine is a melting pot of influences. Commonwealth Restaurant’s ham hock meatballs “scream Virginia,” says chef Reggie Calhoun. Photo by Eze Amos

Is there such a thing as “Virginia cuisine”? It’s an old question, and one I found myself revisiting after learning that Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar has a new motto: “modern Virginia cuisine.” What is Virginia cuisine—modern or otherwise? And, is Commonwealth’s any good?

To help answer these questions, I called Dr. Leni Sorensen, who may know as much about Virginia food history as anyone alive. The retired African-American research historian for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello is a Virginia food historian who has cooked her way through much of Mary Randolph’s definitive 1824 cookbook, The Virginia House-Wife.

Commonwealth’s renewed focus on modern Virginia cuisine comes via Will Richey’s company, Ten Course Hospitality, which the restaurant’s owners hired this fall to revamp and manage the Downtown Mall eatery. For the menu that Richey envisioned, he could think of no better consultant than Harrison Keevil, an area chef well-versed in Virginia food. Now the co-owner of Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen, Keevil sourced almost every ingredient from Virginia at Brookville, his former restaurant. Together, Keevil and Commonwealth chef Reggie Calhoun developed a new Virginia menu.

Over a dinner of the fruits of their labor, Sorensen and I dove deep into the question of Virginia cuisine, starting from a premise that, at first glance, might seem tautological: Virginia cuisine is whatever people in Virginia typically cook and eat. But, to follow the logical consequences that flow from the premise is to reach several key insights. First, while history matters, it is not the only thing that matters. Yes, culinary tradition is worth preserving and informs what we eat today. But, to the moniker “true” Virginia cuisine, no period of time—not the 1700s nor the 2000s—can lay sole claim.   

Relatedly, there is no concept of “pure” Virginia cuisine unadulterated by outside influences. From its earliest days, our commonwealth’s food has been a melting pot of other cultural influences, applied to Virginia produce. “What we are really looking at,” Sorensen said, “is a tradition, at any given time, of including what’s available.” In early days, influences came from Europe and, through slavery, West Africa. More recently, our state has seen a burst of immigration of people from El Salvador, India and Mexico, among other places.

Commonwealth’s new menu reflects these concepts well. Keevil’s favorite menu item, for example, pork rinds with spicy pork dip, puts a modern twist on a classic Virginia ingredient. Traditionally prepared rinds, fried until puffy and crisp, are vessels to scoop ground Autumn Olive Farms pork, spiked with punchy flavors from Virginia’s more recent Asian cultural influences: fish sauce, cilantro, chili peppers and ginger. “Brilliant,” says Sorensen, who confesses to being “gobsmacked” by the dish.

Calhoun’s favorite dish, ham hock meatballs, “screams Virginia,” he says. After boiling hocks in chicken broth for four hours, Calhoun binds the picked meat with ground Autumn Olive pork, Timbercreek Farm beef, egg, panko, Parmesan, oregano, parsley, fennel seed and some of the broth. The delicious, plump meatballs were served atop blistered field peas, a classic Virginia crop, says Sorensen.

So too are cabbage and Brussels sprouts, which joined forces in a wintry cruciferous salad. A slaw of raw cabbage leaves and sprouts adorned charred slices of heart of cabbage, in a rich but balanced butter walnut vinaigrette, with crumbles of bacon and more walnuts. “Delicious and complex,” praises Sorensen.

Rockfish is another Virginia staple, and Calhoun gives it the royal treatment. Together with several mussels, a flaky, white filet of fish is bathed in a fumet made by reducing a broth of rockfish bones, onion, fennel, carrot and rosemary. “This is marvelous. Absolutely marvelous,” Sorensen says afer one bite.

And, finally, there was more pork, of course. This is Virginia, after all. The cut of the day was a grilled Timbercreek Farm pork chop that was so full of flavor that Sorensen and I were both astounded to learn it had not been brined. Instead, it had been simply grilled with salt and pepper. “We want the flavor of the pork to really shine,” Keevil says.

So, what to make of Commonwealth’s new take on Virginia cuisine? “If this is what they mean by it, I am impressed,” Sorensen says. “I expected it to be good, but this is better than good. It’s excellent.”

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