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Posts from the ‘Belmont’ Category

Belly Up to the Bar.

Don’t forget! My podcast, Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons, premieres ONE WEEK FROM TODAY! Friday, February 27, 2015. Right here, and on iTunes, and at my new podcast website. Which I will reveal one week from today ;) Cheers!

In this article, composed for his incredibly awesome magazine, Lucky Peach, Chef David Chang extols the virtues of sitting at the bar. He explains not only is it the best seat in the house, but you never have to call ahead.

I could’ve written this article in my sleep. In fact I did, for C-Ville’s Bites and Brews a few years back. The Hubby and I ALWAYS sit at the bar if we can manage it. Any given night if you walk into a restaurant where we are wolfing down food and gulping down cocktails you’ll find us at our perch, probably staring intently at the goodies coming from the kitchen, gazing longingly at the shiny bottles lined up like soldiers, and smiling endearingly at the bartender because he’s the one making our drinks, the coolest person in the place. I should know. I used to bartend. And it’s still the best job I’ve ever had.

The best reason is the view. You’re higher than everyone and can pretend you’re somebody even if you’re wearing dingy dungarees because you just finished weeding your garden. I love perching on a stool, legs crossed just so, like it’s 1977 and this is Studio 54. Plus, when you perch your gaze travels downward. Onto people’s plates. There’s no sneakier way to spy on what folks are eating, and thus make an informed opinion on what to order, than sitting at the bar. Not only that, the bar is usually somewhere near the kitchen, so you have a first-eye view (and smell) of the goodies coming out the door.

The first time Hubby and I discovered the virtues of bar-sitting was at Emeril’s in Las Vegas. We’d forgotten to make reservations and the place was packed. No matter two seats at the bar were wide open. Not only did we have a grand time, but the floor show of dishes emerging from the kitchen all night was more sexy than Zumanity. Granted, it’s not hard to be sexier than Zumanity but you get my drift.

Many people wrongly assume the bar is just for drinking. Not so. I’ve never been to a restaurant where they wouldn’t willingly offer you a menu. Most bars are full service. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s just good business. If you order something yummy and the drunk guy next to you finds it appealing, he might order something too.

The bartender often knows what to order. Become his friend. Talk to him or her. Ask the bartender to recommend a cocktail, a wine, an appetizer, or a main dish. They readily will. And I promise you it will be delicious. Quite often your bartender will have worked there longer than your server, especially in a town like Charlottesville where a good 80% are students hustling for beer money. It naturally follows the bartender will know more about what (and what not) to order.

It’s pretty cool to saunter past the hordes waiting at the door, flat buzzers clutched tightly in their hands, hoping at any minute they will start bleeping red lights madly signaling their table is ready. When you’re a bar sitter, you never have to make reservations. Decide at the last minute on a Saturday you want to go out? Head for the bar. Bar is full? No matter, do what you’d do anyway. Get yourself a cocktail at the bar and wait. I’ll bet you $20 you’ll wait less than other folks. Because they’re waiting for a table, and they have probably been waiting for a while.

Some of our best meal experiences have been at the bar. Downing vodka and caviar at Red Square in Las Vegas. The entire bar was topped with ice, making us feel like we were the 1% in the movie Snowpiercer. You wouldn’t get that experience at a table. Absinthe pipes imbibed at Sage in Las Vegas, and everyone who walked past stopping to ask us what in the hell we were drinking which resulted in some fine conversations. We’d never have had that in a booth. The Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Pittsburgh was a home away from home, and the conversations we had while watching baseball games all the while gazing at the THIRTY BELGIAN DRAFT taps down the beautiful wooden bar are precious memories. Whenever someone strikes out, we still yell, “Nice fucking swing you pansy ass!” because years ago a drunk girl yelled this at a Pirate. At the bar. Still my favorite bar.

Closer to home at Bonefish Grill I had one of the best gin martinis I’ve ever had in my life, which resulted in a long conversation with the bartender about his methods and the virtues of a great martini. At our first visit to Beer Run we sat at the bar and met the owner, Josh Hunt, who directed us toward the best drafts. Now we’d never sit anywhere else.

Then there are those restaurants who don’t take reservations in the first place, like Tavola, so you end up at the bar waiting anyway. These folks hold a close, dear place in my food-seeking heart. I LOVE never having to plan to eat, and waiting at the bar is never a problem because we love it there. One of my biggest pet peeves is walking into an empty restaurant and having the hostess ask, “Do you have a reservation?” then giving me the stink eye when we say no. Not requiring reservations makes me love you more. And sitting at the bar removes that stressor entirely, making the meal an even more enjoyable experience.

Sit at the bar people! The minute you walk through the door, saunter past the crowd, inform the hostess of your lack of reservation and indicate with a wave where you’ll be dining. Take in her look of relief, her warm smile (she loves you already) before walking toward the far end of the bar nearest the kitchen. Find yourself a comfy spot. Perch on that stool as if you own the place. Ask the bartender for a menu. And prepare to have fun because you’ll be drinking and eating long before anyone else. Plus there’s no time limit. As long as you’re eating or imbibing, no one will ask you to leave! What could be better than that on a crowded Saturday night?

Red flashy buzzer things are so 2000’s people. Plus, I bet they’re germier than a Grand Central Station toilet seat. Forego them. Do what the cool kids do. Sit at the bar.

Best of 2014.

It’s that time again. Since 2008 I’ve handed down golden forks to the best dishes in and around Charlottesville. But first, a few announcements. While I have your attention.

I’m published! In at least one other place beside this blog ;) Deep within the pages of the 2015 Virginia Travel Guide, page 22 to be exact and distributed in January, you’ll find an article about hidden food gems. Places serving incredible eats that don’t necessarily look “gourmet” from the street. Who did I write about? You’ll have to visit your friendly neighborhood Virginia Welcome Center to find out. Or check back here when I get my copy and crow a bit more. I will tell you this. I fought like hell for Sally Bell’s Kitchen but they wouldn’t allow it because Sally Bell’s has no seating area. Whatever. They’re still number one in my book.

Second announcement. This is major folks. I’m creating a podcast! Over the years I’ve been interviewed for a few (you can listen here and here) and I did several food segments for the Cville Podcasting Network. I miss it. A lot. From your emails I gather you’d like to read more about what’s happening in the Cville-area food scene. More food news, gossip, events and the like.

Well, I don’t want to write about that. But I’ll sure as hell talk about it. Loudly and with views. Until the cows come home drunk and repentant. I’m sure I’ll ruffle some feathers, wouldn’t be a good podcast otherwise. Where we live and what we eat is important. Folks got opinions. In fact my goal is to sound as LITTLE like an episode of SNL’s “Schweddy Balls” as possible. I want people laughing but not because I sound like a loaf of white bread served with plain rice, weak tea, and melba toast. Terry Gross I ain’t. Look for my new podcast, edacious, to debut here and on iTunes, Stitcher, and all the regular hangouts in February 2015.

Without further ado, here are my Best Dishes of 2014 in alphabetical order. Let me state, as I do every year, these are my opinions and you will probably have different ones. Variety makes the world go around. It’s like the Rock Hall of Fame. I’m pissed Green Day got in, but other people think Billie Joe is gold. We can still coexist. What we eat is important but in the end, it’s just food. Every December I sit at my desk and reminisce on what I ate. What I remember goes on the list. The very best dish I ate? The Chicken Congee at The Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, which might say something about the state of my stomach slash appetite in 2014. But what were the dishes I remembered in Charlottesville? My 14 for 2014 are below.

Best Charlottesville Dishes of 2014

Barbecue Exchange – Fried Chicken
Chef Craig Hartman’s establishment seems to hit my list in some form or fashion every year, probably because he’s always trying out new ways to smoke, fry, and barbecue. This year it’s the fried chicken, only served at the yearly Porkapalooza gathering in February. Now, I’ve tasted every fried bird Charlottesville and its environs has to offer, even judged a contest, and this is hands down, the best. Crispy on the outside, juicy beyond belief on the inside. Plus it passes the “next-day” test by tasting even better cold. Grace Kelly would be proud to offer up a leg or breast to Mr. Grant.

Bizou – Crab Cakes
I ate this dish outdoors over the summer when the humidity was high and all I could think about was the beach and boat drinks. Bizou’s crab cakes took me right there. Delicate and sweet these crab cakes transported me to the Outer Banks. Instantly I’m in a lounger on vacation and the biggest decision I have to make today is what to eat for dinner. Easy! An entire bowl of the fried polenta bites they serve alongside. Now if I could just convince the chefs to put that on the menu.

Bodo’s Bagels – Pastrami & Swiss on an Everything Bagel
This one HAD to go on the list because I inhaled one at least 3 times a month the entire year. My go to “feel-better-lunch-because-the-day-has-been-shitty” sandwich. Four dollars and eight cents plain, and just a little more with lettuce, tomato, and mustard. Tender meat, melty Swiss, on a perfectly boiled and baked New York Everything. Half for lunch, the other half for dinner and my day goes from shitty to stellar.

Crozet Pizza – Hero Pizza
“What’s the best pizza in Charlottesville?” is a volatile question around here. My assertion, and I’m willing to argue this until end of days, is a good slice holds its toppings. When you lift a slice, there should be no avalanche of cheese and sauce onto your plate. Avalanche = soggy crust. Crozet Pizza delivers. The housemade sausage on this pie is super, the peppers offer great acid and heat, and the crust holds its own, a nice thin crust with some crispiness and a good chew. Damn, now I want some.

Eppie’s – Pimento Cheese Grits
I’ve been a huge fan of Eppie’s since the day one. Their 3-veggie plate with a side of cornbread is a lunch staple. The ham on pumpkin bread biscuits are to die for. But this year they added pimento cheese grits and I heard an angel’s choir. I’ve eaten these before many places, but something about the grits at Eppie’s is just better. It’s like they took that machine Jeff Goldblum used in “The Fly”, threw some grits and pimento cheese into it, and created a new yummy organism. It’s not grits, it’s not pimento cheese, they are actually, irrevocably melded into one cheesy, creamy concoction. And the human race is all the better for it.

Kokoro – Sushi
When the former sushi chef from TEN opens a new restaurant with wife in tow, you go. Kokoro is less upscale, but only in price. Sushi portions are generous, tasty, and the menu so extensive I find myself torn with each visit. Will it be the omakase (chef’s choice), or some of my favorite rolls? Maybe a chirashi bowl? Or maybe this visit I’ll forgo sushi entirely in favor of their wonderful ramen (9 different kinds!), yakisoba, or kushikatsu skewers? Half the fun is trying to decide.

Mellow Mushroom – Holy Shitake Pie
A new pizza has usurped the Buffalo Chicken pie we usually get. The Holy Shitake is a glorious amalgamation of three kinds of mushrooms, three kinds of cheeses, sweet-like-candy caramelized onions, and a garlic aioli so luscious I want to stick my head in the bowl. It passes the “even better cold” test and all those shrooms play against the sweet onion and tang of the aioli to create something I find myself craving when I think “pizza”. Get you some.

Parallel 38 – Wine
This restaurant is fast-becoming a “to go” spot for our date nights, not only for its amazing food, but because owner Justin Ross knows wine. Really, really well. As an admitted beer fanatic I am woefully ignorant on wine’s language. But the first time I ordered a glass, the blinders on my eyes were lifted. My tastebuds opened up and declared a tiny hallelujah. THIS is what properly decanted wine is supposed to taste like! Ross and his staff have invested countless hours to make sure each glass of wine you order tastes like the cork was just popped from the bottle. He has ruined me for any other wine bar.

Pasture – Smoky Thai Whole Wings
Holy crow were they amazing! Served as a special for a few weeks last summer, these wings tasted of smoked birdy goodness through and through, fried golden, then topped with a sweet hot sauce I still dream about. Maybe if I close my eyes, click my heels together three times, spin around and wish really hard, Chef Jason Alley will make them at PastureQ sometime.

Red Pump Kitchen – Squid Ink Tagliatelle, Clams, PEI Mussels, Bay Scallops, Uni Butter
This dish was just stunning. Squid ink pasta? I can take it or leave it, but the combination of briny, sweet shellfish with the lovely umami of the pasta and uni butter is magic. The Hubby ordered this dish, and I spent the entire rest of the evening coveting his plate. And dipping my bread into the buttery sauce. It made uni butter my new favorite thing. Apparently a lot of folks agree. The waiter told us they tried to take it off the menu with the season’s change, and there was an uproar.

Rocksalt – Lamb and Clams
This was a dish I had heard about weeks before I tried it. Such a weird combination I was all set to hate it. I love when I’m wrong. The spicy chew of the merguez sausage blends wonderfully with the sweet mineral quality of the ale-roasted clams. The green harissa provides nice acid and bite and the grilled bread sops up all the good juices left over. As always, I requested seconds on the bread to soak up every last drop. Great with beer! I anticipate ordering this every time I visit.

Sedona Taphouse – Fish Tacos
Bright, bright, bright. That’s how I describe the taste of these wee beauties. I get two for dinner with a beer and it’s enough for me, but hungrier types might enjoy them as an appetizer. Broiled tilapia topped with avocado and pineapple/mango salsa. A tiny taste of summer. Sedona’s huge beer selection is just an extra added bonus.

Tavola – Pappardelle Bolognese
I found myself craving this comforting dish Christmas Week, when it seemed every day I had to pull on my waders to venture out, and the grey, rainy skies seemed like they’d never end. House made pasta, cooked to al dente perfection with some nice hearty meat sauce wrapped around it. Deep beefy flavor with just a touch of game from what I guess is organ meats. It reminds me of the best ragu I ever had at The White Boar in Florence, Italy. It reminds me that although the weather isn’t perfect, some dishes are.

The Shack – Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Greens, Chick Peas, Green Garlic
I’ll admit it. The Shack is my favorite restaurant right now. Not only does it fulfill my “diner” sensibilities by being a restaurant you can visit in jeans, and having the prerequisite mismatched dishes, chairs and tables, it fulfills the need for a fancy “Chef’s Tasting” gourmet experience on the few occasions I crave what I like to call “tweezer food”. Chef Ian Boden has created something special in Staunton, and every time I visit I send him good restaurant success juju for many years to come. Soft shell crabs are one of my absolute favorite dishes, and it’s rare they’re prepared right. The Shack’s version is beyond fresh, light and crispy on the outside, meaty and sweet on the inside, and the soft notes of the green garlic blend nicely with the creaminess of the chick peas and the light bitter of the greens. Delightful.

Honorable Mentions
Barbecue Exchange – Brunswick Stew
Comfort – The Appalachian Memoir Dinner at Comfort (not in the Cville area, but I’ll be remembering this meal for a long time)
El Tepeyac – Pupusa Con Loroco
Horse & Buggy Produce – Purple Sweet Potatoes
Kokoro – Tonkotsu Ramen
Now & Zen – Tonkotsu Ramen
Pasture – Black Bean Falafel (I miss them! * Sniff *)
Public Fish & Oyster House – Smoked Trout Dip
Red Pump Kitchen – Sourdough Bread
The Virginian – Reuben & Fries

Drool-Worthy Hall of Fame (3 or more golden forks)
Barbecue Exchange – Smoked Turkey

For the first time ever, I’ve decided if you earn three golden forks you get into my own little hall of fame of deliciousness. I’ve said it before about this turkey, and I’ll say it again. If I can help it, I will never cook another bird. Because it won’t be as good. The smoke permeates this bird so completely it’s as if each bite is infused with a cabin-in-the-woods homey quality that makes you want to snuggle in your flannel pajamas. And so sweet! Gah! Kept looking at the meat wondering if he used maple wood because I swear I tasted maple syrup. Definitely drool-worthy.

Disagree? Let me know in the comments. What did you eat that was memorable? Cheers, many thanks, and be edacious in 2015!

Friendsgiving.

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with potluck suppers. I do love the surprise. There’s no set menu. You arrive to find an entire buffet of homemade food, but you have no idea what each dish will be. Like Golden Corral without the spectre of salmonella.

But I hate them too. Because of the self-imposed pressure to perform. Whenever I’m invited to a potluck two thoughts come into my head: What can I bring that’s tasty. And what can I bring that takes almost no effort? While I realize these two things are not always compatible, they end up important because invariably I’m invited to a potluck during a week when I have a dentist appointment, three deadlines, two visitors, a dirty house, and I feel a cold coming on. My head understands no one is standing behind me with a “You Did Good” clipboard to check off. Still, a part of me wants to drop off a gorgeous golden-crusted concoction oozing deliciousness and have everyone exclaim, “You brought that?! Wow!” A part of me wants to win the potluck game.

Potlucks weren’t always so cutthroat in my head. When I was a poor college student and the larder was bare, I went to a few potlucks, not many, as my friends cocktailed, never cooked.* The ones I did attend were Stone Soup affairs. Folks brought what they had and we made do. Usually with cheap jug wine or Milwaukee’s “Beast”. I recall a special New Year’s Eve Gumbo Potluck in particular where everyone got drunk on sangria, then watched “When Buildings Collapse!” on Fox.

The competitive spirit creeped in the older I got. Maybe it was some twisted leftover childhood trauma from how I used to brag excessively about my mother’s cooking, then for our French dinner in middle school she dropped off a sad-looking green bean casserole. I recall a Christmas party in my twenties where I made chocolate paté from the “Great Chefs of San Francisco”. It took hours. And it made a shit-ton. I was eating chocolate paté in July. Not that’s a bad thing. Then there were the neighborhood picnics where I sweated and slaved over massaged kale like it was an Olympic hopeful before saying, “Fuck It!” and making a cold semi-Asian chicken salad from my Dinner Doctor cookbook.

I blame Food Porn, or what I lovingly call “Food Pron”. Ever since food became fetish it has to be camera ready. Dripping in delicious succulence and ready for its closeup. Which means it probably has to be fancy. Or at least involve bacon or tweezers. Because comforting casseroles and deviled eggs don’t scream, “Do me now! Do me hard!”

Case in point. The Friendsgiving event I attended a few weeks ago hosted by Our Local Commons. Now I love this event. I look forward to it every year. Local food purveyors, restaurant folks, and enthusiasts gather with their potluck offerings to give thanks, to drink local cider and beer, to gorge, and to collect funds for a local charity. And every year I sweat what to bring. Because these guys are professionals. And I’m just a scribbler who aligns herself with the professionals and hopes they’ll allow her to join the party.

And every year the food is stunning. Just Bon Appétit meets Gourmet magazine stunning. Without the benefit of food stylists. This year was no exception. Sizzling bacon-wrapped dates from Mas Tapas. Mushroom Tarragon Pithivier from The Spice Diva. Succulent roasted goat from The Ivy Inn. Buttery cauliflower paté, yes foie gras tasting stuff made from cauliflower! Gorgeous Pumpkin Cake with Salted Caramel Cream from Maliha Creations. Perfectly fondanted (fondant? seriously?) Hummingbird Cake. Just to name a few. And the taste? So good I want to give up.

So what’s a poor scribbler to do? Give up. Well, okay not give up, but settle for dishes I know at least taste good. They may not win any food stylist awards, but they’ll make your tummy happy. Last year I brought Cathy Fields’s Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding which doesn’t look like much but is guaranteed to add 5 pounds to your frame. This year I brought my Muddy’s Pound Cake. With some fancy schmancy apple butter from Paul Virant that I got from Fire, Flour, & Fork to slather on top. He’s a Michelin-starred chef from Chicago. I figured a little highbrow butter on some homespun cake couldn’t hurt.

How did the Friendsgiving turn out? I ate my weight in succulent bacon-wrapped dates and drank about a gallon of bourbon apple cider. Marveled at how gorgeously delicious a mushroom tarragon pithivier can be. Roasted mushrooms marry themselves with the licorice of the tarragon and the flake of the pastry (pithivier is a puff pastry pie, yes, I had to look it up) and make your tummy happy.

The ultimate chagrin? I went to cut a slab of Muddy’s Pound Cake to find only one thin sliver missing. But the apple butter was GONE. G-O-N-E gone. Sigh. Fancy-schmancy wins again. Sure, Muddy’s Bundt is homely. But in taste? It’s fucking gorgeous. Buttery, light, with the best part the chewy-browned outside layer. Like the best Blondie you ever had. Even better topped with the last vestiges of the apple butter. It added about 5 pounds to my frame. Which seems to be my new criteria for a good potluck addition.

So sure, the good-looking cakes cleared out pretty quick, while once again my homely contribution sat on its Dixie paper plate. That’s fine. Because at the end of the night there was more for me to take home. You can have your fancy cakes. I’ll pick my Muddy’s recipe every time. Not only is it a way to remember and honor her memory, in my humble opinion, it just tastes better.

Thank you to Our Local Commons, and all of the folks who made Friendsgiving possible this year. I truly enjoyed it. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Remember, whether your dishes are gorgeous or homely, no one is standing behind you with a clipboard. You’re fine. As long as the dish tastes good, everybody wins. Cheers!

*Ironically, one is now a chef while the other owns a restaurant. Go figure.

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