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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!

Beyond the Flavor: Cardinal Point Green.

After a long summer’s bout with Lyme disease (don’t ask) I finally feel well enough, like the brain is firing on all cylinders enough – at least some of the time – to start writing again. I’ve got a few irons in the fire for posting in the next few weeks including pieces on The Virginia State Fair, Cookin’ Cheap (remember that show?), Pasture, and the wonderful potato salad at Sally Bell’s Kitchen. In the meantime, enjoy the new “Drink This” column I wrote recently for Beyond the Flavor. It’s all about the Green white wine at Cardinal Point Winery, and why it’s so unbelievably quaffable. In fact, with temperatures in the high 80’s this weekend, I predict I’ll be “going green” all weekend ;) Enjoy!

Nelson 151.

Growing up, my sister and I often visited my mother’s family, The Critzers, in Waynesboro, Virginia. We’d stay the weekend, eat too much, and sit on the seafoam-green porch glider sipping sweet tea and rifling through the Sears catalog. Pretending we were rich, on each page we were “allowed” to shop for just one item. Whoever pointed at it first, got it. The humidity made you feel like you were visiting Scout down in Alabama. Muddy’s marigolds smelled peppery, the boxwoods woody and sweet. Granddaddy would be out in the yard trimming his roses and their white Pekinese Fluffy would bound through the sun like a fuzzy butterball.

Inevitably, Granddaddy would stop trimming and come up on the porch to regale us with stories of “Down the Valley.” These stories were long and colorful, involving scrapes he got into, hardships the family endured, and descriptions of where he grew up in Nelson County. When we took Sunday drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Interstate 64, he’d even point out “Down the Valley” when we crossed Afton Mountain. The scenic overlook would go by and he’d point off in that direction absent-mindedly and declare, “That’s where me and your Aunt Ann grew up. Down the Valley.” Sometimes we’d stop at the overlook and gaze out across this expansive green space and imagine. To a child, it seemed a magical place, and very far away indeed.

We finally went when I was 12. Memaw died, Granddaddy’s mother. At her request, she was buried “Down the Valley” at Rose Church. I remember feeling confused. We were actually going to drive down there? That would take days! To a 12-year-old sitting in the back seat of our AMC Javelin in the late 1970’s, it did. Down the mountain, driving along 2-lane byways lined with fields and barns and houses. When we finally arrived at Rose Church, it seemed so far removed from anything else I’d ever known I thought I was in some English fairytale and this was a heath in the middle of nowhere someplace. A true country gothic church with a tiny cemetery. The funeral was small and sad, full of old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and the drive back took too long. Afterwards there were ham biscuits, potato salad, and cakes as high as your head. Like you do when there’s a funeral.

I grew up, lived my life, and forgot about “Down the Valley”. Occasionally I’d visit my grandparents and look off in that general direction on 64 and get wistful at how strange and surreal that part of the country felt, like an old-timey sepia photograph.

Eventually I married and we moved away. Every so often “Down the Valley” would come up like the time my aunt mentioned how she took Granddaddy back to his old country home. The man living there took them out to his barn and they found a huge cache of old framed portraits. Turns out they belonged to the Critzers and Granddaddy cried when he saw them. They hang in my aunt’s house now.

Fast forward eight years. We move to Charlottesville and I start writing about food. I start to hear some exciting things about Route 151 in Nelson County. Overnight it seems breweries, cideries, wineries, and farms chock full of produce have sprouted up like weeds along Route 151 from Route 250 just outside Charlottesville all the way down to Nellysford and beyond. So of course The Hubby and I had to check it out. Nothing better than a weekend drive through the country with tons of lovely food and libation stops along the way.

Our first visit was to Blue Mountain Brewery at the north end of 151 for Bratwurst Pizza and Bourbon Barrel Stout. We followed this up with a visit to Cardinal Point Winery for their Oyster Festival, Veritas Winery for their tasting room, and Devils Backbone Brewery for Saturday lunch, Vienna Lager on the side. Every trip felt like a journey back home somehow but I didn’t know why.

I’m not even counting the stops for side-of-the-road barbecue at Blue Ridge Pig, cider at Bold Rock, or peaches and strawberries at Critzer Family Farm. Sure I remember Granddaddy saying his grandfather and the original owner’s grandfather were brothers. But it still didn’t click.

It wasn’t until we’d passed Rodes United Methodist about a bajillion times that I had an epiphany. A real Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment. Rose=Rodes! In my 12-year-old mind I pictured Rose Church. Granddaddy’s roses melded with images of Memaw and funeral roses into a country church conglomeration of flowers and magical “Down The Valley” trips. When in fact it was Rodes Church.

It hit me like a blast of late-July heat. All this time, all those weekends, we’d been traveling “Down the Valley” for fine food and libation and didn’t even know it. How about that? Funny how life works. All this time I’d been traveling such a short distance to find topics to write about. And the whole time my spirit was turning my inner compass to true north. Toward home. Toward my past and toward the person I really am. The kid who’d imagined this magical country full of hills and hidden gothic secrets, instead of this modest little brick church that you could blink and miss on the side of a fairly busy 2-lane highway. Just goes to show you can travel great distances to get away from your heritage, but somehow something will always end up bringing you back.

With that realization, things in my life fell into place. I visited Rodes and found about a thousand Critzers buried there. Including my Memaw, Allie Cook Critzer. This renewed my interest in the family tree which sparked an interest in Southern food and in particular, my own Southern food heritage. As a result, my writing has taken a completely different direction, one that feels more personal, and certainly more profound.

The kicker? That came 2 years ago when I was at the funeral for my Granddaddy, David Henry Critzer. We’d just said our prayers at the cemetery, Waynesboro this time, placed roses on the coffin, and were reluctantly leaving to walk back to our cars in the early-summer swelter. I remember the heels of my shoes sinking into the soil. An elderly man approached, hand extended, to say he was a distant cousin of Granddaddy’s and was so sorry for our loss. I wasn’t surprised, if you live in the Waynesboro area, you know there are hundreds of thousands of Critzers.

This cousin just wanted to tell us about the huge Critzer family reunion that’s held every July 4th just off Route 151. How about that? After all these years Critzers are still venturing “Down the Valley”. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take days to get there. His directions? “Drive about 6 miles and take a right onto the dirt road just past the junkyard. Bring a covered dish and a lawn chair.” I laughed and he grinned. And just like that I was back home again.

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