If It Tastes Good, It's in Charlottesville
Thanks to inventive chefs, a commitment to quality and a local focus, this is one college town with all the makings of a food lover's destination

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Revolutionary Soup looks like your average student joint. A bit grungy but cheerful, with a menu of comforting and, more important, cheap soups and sandwiches.

Besides the prices, there's nothing cheap about the food at Rev Soup, as the locals affectionately call it. The tofu in the signature spicy Senegalese peanut soup is organic and local, made just 30 miles away in Louisa. The wheat for the homemade biscuits is grown in Virginia and ground at Byrd Mill in Ashland. And diners can pick from an impressive selection of wine bottles for sale at retail prices -- and then open and drink the wine at one of the cafeteria-style tables at no extra cost. "It hurts my margins," admits chef-owner Will Richey, who worked for five years as a sommelier around town. "But I love the idea of people drinking a nice Burgundy with a paper cup of really good soup."

That way of thinking is typical in Charlottesville. And that's why the food here is far better than it should be in a place with about 40,000 year-round residents and 20,000 broke college kids. True, college towns tend to have a disproportionate number of educated, affluent residents, but even by that standard Charlottesville's food scene stands out. In a city best known for Thomas Jefferson's architecture, there's sushi worthy of Nobu in New York (the chef, Bryan Emperor, trained there), rustic but transcendent tapas, plus all the other things a great food town requires: standout bread, real espresso, artisan chocolate and locally brewed beer. The vibrant city farmers market supplies ambitious local chefs and the community, which, thanks to restaurateurs like Richey, is used to food that's a cut above.

On summer Saturdays, the farmers market is the city's food hub. But the year-round anchor is the Main Street Market, a former car dealership now home to a bakery, fishmonger, butcher, gourmet shop and cafe, chocolatier and cookware store. Its first tenant was Albemarle Baking Co., a good first stop on a Charlottesville food tour.

Company founder Gerry Newman is one of Charlottesville's food pioneers. He trained as a baker and pastry chef in California and moved to the area in 1991 "because even back then, San Francisco was an expensive place to live." For five years, he worked as pastry chef at the local Boar's Head Inn. Encouraged by a vocal group of university professors who tired of driving to Washington or New York for good bread, in 1995 he set out on his own, first in a dilapidated storefront, later at the Market.

Albemarle turns out five kinds of bread daily, including a crusty baguette that won first place at last year's National Bread & Pastry Team Championship and would put many a Parisian baguette to shame. The oatmeal date bread, available on Saturdays, is dark and earthy and is great toasted or served with cheese. The yeasted corn bread, enlivened by whole corn kernels and mixed with Parmesan cheese and chipotle peppers, is more thoughtful than the usual loaves studded with jalapeños.

I tasted two pastries on my first visit, and they were so good that on my second I ignored the No. 1 rule of food writing: Never eat the same thing twice. One was an Alexander, whose delicate, sweet crust was filled with pastry cream, apricot preserves and frangipane. (The pastry is a twist on a traditional Swedish tea cake that Newman learned to make in California.) The other was the Harvest Basket, croissant dough mixed with apples, raisins and cinnamon and baked in a tiny wooden basket. I couldn't help thinking that, stale, it would make an unbelievable bread pudding, though letting it go stale would be both impossible and arguably a crime punishable by a lifetime of Wonder Bread.

All the shops in the market are worth a look (in particular, I like perusing the Japanese seaweed and rice crackers at Seafood@West Main and picking up a box of Earl Grey truffles at Gearharts Fine Chocolates). But the shop I spent the most time at was Feast, a gallery of exquisite artisan food curated by wife-and-husband co-owners Kate Collier and Eric Gertner.

The shop's original emphasis was cheese and cured meats, but it has since expanded to include produce, organic oils, varietal vinegars, condiments and the inevitable but admittedly fabulous cupcakes. (Try the clementine with citrus cream.) Most of the products come from local producers, which keeps the quality high and the selection far more intriguing than what you find in the chain gourmet stores: There is Caromont Farm goat cheese, made by chef-turned-cheesemaker Gail Hobbs-Page; wine jelly thumbprint cookies from Jim and Diane Welsh's company Wine-ohh; pickled beets from MeadowCroft Farm. "At least once a week, you find a new person making something," Collier says.

Though the focus is local, Feast applies the same effort to sourcing outside the area. I picked up honey-roasted figs from Italy, La Salamanca dulce de leche from Argentina and a pricey bag of homemade saltines from a baker the Colliers discovered in Boston. I'll never think of saltines the same way again.

The same goes for tapas after I tasted the ones at Mas, a neighborhood joint that is without a doubt my favorite Charlottesville restaurant. Mas has a slightly worn-in feel, with the requisite exposed brick walls and industrial pipes and a long, black bar. Though it's chic, it doesn't take itself too seriously. The napkins are paper and dispensed from diner-style chrome boxes. The night I visited, the line of cooks at the grill wore shirts that read, "Tapas, not Topless."

Spanish food, of course, is the latest "it" cuisine, and it seems there's hardly a restaurant left on Earth without some "small plate" of bland patatas bravas or a rubbery tortilla. One dinner at Mas makes clear why this food has captured so many great chefs' imaginations, including that of chef-owner Tomas Rahal.

The long menu is divided into tapas (for two) and raciones (for four). The wines and cheeses are all Spanish, but the ingredients are, as you might expect, mostly local. Without trying too hard, you'll find something made in Mas's brick oven. Rahal bakes delicious country bread (it's made with a four-year-old starter of local grapes) that's available plain or, as I had it, transformed into a grown-up grilled cheese sandwich: brushed with wild chestnut honey and toasted in a cast-iron pan in the oven with Bica, a mild, buttery Portuguese cheese.

Many of the main dishes are made in the oven, too; as it cools, Rahal roasts suckling pigs or baby Vidalia onions that he tops with garlicky romesco sauce.

Dishes grilled "a la plancha" also impress. I tasted the gambas alla parilla, enormous and flavorful wild Gulf Coast shrimp that are grilled in the shell to keep them juicy, then sprinkled with gray sea salt and served with a smooth, piquant aioli. The broccolini, a regular fixture on the changing menu, goes into a very hot pan with sherry, garlic and olive oil, a combination that brings out the sweetness.

Back downtown on East Main, the town's pedestrian mall, I visited Ten, a tony sushi bar with soaring, mirrored ceilings and a poured concrete bar with fiber optics looped through so that it sparkles.

Even if it didn't look this good, Ten would be worth a visit. Chef Bryan Emperor, who will represent the United States at the international Sushi Awards competition in London this October, goes beyond the usual tuna and salmon. He offers more-intriguing selections such as escolar, Japanese snapper, ankimo (monkfish liver) and three kinds of shrimp.

I'm such a sucker for sushi that I rarely stray beyond it, but Ten makes cooked Japanese entrees worth a detour. Emperor's signature tempura is the calamari, for good reason: crisp batter outside, chewy inside, drizzled with a spicy sauce that danced across the back of the throat. The kushiyaki, or skewered items, were delightful, and the one bargain on the menu. The chicken, just $4, was not only juicy (sadly, too rare in grilled skewers) but also exciting, thanks to the earthy sour plum sauce and grassy-flavored micro-shiso.

Almost right across the street is Hamiltons' at First & Main, long a standard for its simple American food and attentive service. The menu offers nothing terribly surprising, but the generous portions are fresh and expertly prepared. The shrimp and grits are a standard, as is the vegetarian "blue plate special" that offers the best of whatever the chef can get her hands on, such as a poblano pepper stuffed with wild rice and zucchini and topped with fontina sauce.

Around the corner is Bang, an Asian tapas and martini bar. Not everything here is stellar, but boy, do these guys know how to fry. The rock shrimp tempura is stunning with its cool ginger slaw and is big enough to share. So are the Asian doughnuts. The three golf-ball-size creations arrive piping hot alongside homemade coconut ice cream and on their own are worth the drive to central Virginia.

Not everything in Charlottesville is upscale, and that's part of the charm. There are authentically retro diners, the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar (a hippie-esque tea salon) and, my favorite, Timberlake's Drug Store, whose lunch counter seems to have been frozen in time circa 1940. Besides Revolutionary Soup, the best casual food I tried was a few minutes' drive from downtown, in the Barracks Road Shopping Center.

Aromas is a bright Moroccan-inspired cafe that opened here in February after eight years in an old cafeteria close to the university. The space, with its warm red walls and bright watercolors of Marrakech, is much improved, by all accounts, but the food remains as always: fast, fresh and undeniably good. Owner Hassan Kaisoum offers a range of salads and sandwiches, but don't leave without tasting the falafel and the shawarma. The juicy pieces of dark-meat chicken in the shawarma are lively, with a hint of cinnamon and other spices that Kaisoum would not disclose. The falafel is crisp outside, fluffy inside and wrapped in hot pita bread with crunchy romaine lettuce and tahini.

If you need to stock up for the journey home, head across the parking lot to HotCakes. This longtime ladies-who-lunch stop has a shockingly good selection of elegant salads, sandwiches and pastries.

Shocking until you discover that the chef is José De Brito, a talented if notoriously hotheaded guy who previously ran the Ciboulette gourmet shop and cafe in the Main Street Market. At one point, he canceled lunch service by posting a note on the door explaining that he was tired of "getting tuna sent back because a lot of you like to eat it in a stage of a hockey puck." Ouch. De Brito says he was trying to push the envelope, cooking as chefs do in Paris and New York. And he stands by his decision not to serve well-done steaks, even if that is what the customer wanted.

Almost everything at HotCakes is homemade. I tasted tender wine-braised octopus (no easy feat) with olives, cranberry beans and watercress; and a Sicilian cauliflower salad, with salty capers and sweet dried cherries, cranberries and golden raisins in a mild anchovy dressing. The Portuguese cod cake was one of the best I've eaten, an ideal balance of chunky salt cod and potatoes. (The only flaw was the aioli, a yellow ball with the consistency of Play-Doh. Maybe he was testing me.) The pastries, too, were expertly prepared: The croissant was crisp and flaky; the fruit tart's crust was tender and topped with sweet berries.

Those eateries are just the beginning. Across the board, Charlottesville's food scene is inventive, diverse and brimming with talent. It's enough to give Monticello a run for its money.

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