A meal that makes up for the long drive
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Liver and oatmeal might not sound like a compelling case for plugging Charlottesville into your GPS, but in the hands of the chef at Glass Haus Kitchen, a beguiling new restaurant in the city’s Warehouse District, the combination of foie gras and toasted steel-cut grain is (trust me on this) magic.
The blend is a grace note in a main-course guinea hen, whose juices are used to cook the oats and give them more spunk. Diced pickled pumpkin and sour orange complete the winter wonder. Executive chef Ian Boden says the oatmeal base is derived from his childhood dislike for the cereal, which his babysitter forced him to eat.
Returning to foods he detests “forces me to understand ingredients and make them the best I can, so I want to eat them,” says the chef who made a name for himself at the late Staunton Grocery.
The suave presence at the door is likely to be Francois Bladt, the co-owner of Glass Haus Kitchen along with his partner, JF Legault. Their young dining room attendants go about their duties with a refreshing sense of pride and enthusiasm. With good reason.
Introduced in November, the loftlike Glass Haus Kitchen takes its name from its setting in Charlottesville’s Glass Building and gets some of its good looks from its predecessor, the X Lounge. The combination of concrete floors, steel walkways and wood walls makes a striking picture, more alluring thanks to the honeyed lighting and a soundtrack that is, like the food, anything but predictable. (Boden says he grew up surrounded by good music at home in Fairfax and later played drums for bands when he was slicing and sauteing in New York City, including at Payard and Home restaurants.)
Patrons who like to be on display should try for a seat on the main floor, its center dominated by a U-shaped bar illuminated by a giant cage of bare lights. Voyeurs will prefer the second-floor balcony overlooking the assembly below. Some folksiness comes by way of a larger-than-life photograph of grazing cows, but Glass Haus Kitchen ultimately trends more Berlin than bucolic.
This is a kitchen that likes to play with its food. When’s the last time you saw “Animal Crackers” in a grown-up restaurant? Boden’s snack, featured on the bar menu, celebrates fried pigs ears and chicken skin that are lightly sweetened with hickory-bourbon syrup. Brisket as a first course? The idea works for me here, where tender totems of beef rise from a shallow beet soup. “My take on borscht,” explains the chef, a self-described East European Jew. Comfort food with verve, the pillars of meat come dabbed with a speck of horseradish and fresh dill.
At one point in his career, Boden says, he was reluctant to use ingredients he hadn’t grown up with. Now he embraces fish sauce, miso and soy sauce in his cooking. Good thing he got over the issue, because one of his finest moments is an appetizer of julienned fried rabbit nestled with jalapeo slices and tiny Key lime wedges in a fluffy shell of bibb lettuce. Pop! go the taste buds every time you take a bite, as the racy heat and the electric citrus duel it out in your mouth. “Worth the trip,” says a dining companion who has driven from Washington to Charlottesville just for this dinner. If there’s one dish I hope Boden keeps on his menu, it is this brilliant take on tacos.
I take that back. Lobster tagliatelle deserves a return engagement, too. Boden makes his own long and supple noodles, which he scatters with sweet crumbles of blanched lobster, dusts with minced chives and finishes with sea urchin “froth” that melts into the elegant mound as you eat it and becomes an enticing, richer-by-the-minute sauce. Ask for another slice of walnut or whole-wheat bread from the nearby Newtown Baking in Staunton, prime artisanal creations that the chef picks up fresh on his way in to work.
When the restaurant slips, it’s in details that are easily corrected. Pastas, like one night’s stolid tortellini stuffed with cheese and tongue, need to stay in hot water longer. And for such a significant restaurant, the wine list is so brief, if you blink, you miss it. On the other hand, the bar is up-to-the-moment. Cocktails include the truly smoky rye-based SmokeHaus (ha!) and a ginger-ignited gimlet with a cap of egg white foam and lime zest, both priced to please at $11.
Dessert keeps this restaurant from seeing more stars, too. There are a mere four choices, and while I enjoy parts of them, they tend to taste like incomplete thoughts. “Fried milk,” a square of pastry cream that’s been breaded and fried, is beautiful and light one visit, homely and dense another. The only reason my spoon returns to the plate, which looks like a deconstructed cup of coffee, is the espresso gelato. In another composition, dense pieces of chocolate cake are pitted against orange segments. Such partial efforts make me long for the days when more chefs fully assembled dishes before sending them out to diners.
Charlottesville and I have spent some high-quality time together in recent months. Dinner at Zinc, in a converted auto service station, is always a treat. The best weekend grazing is at the Saturday farm market, where you can find superb tacos with tortillas patted by hand. And if your tastes run to brown spirits and fried Southern comforts, the convivial Whiskey Jar downtown is where belly should meet bar.
Glass Haus Kitchen is in a class of its own. Already the most exciting place to eat in Charlottesville, the young venture is poised to become an item on the punch list of restaurant enthusiasts near and far.