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; Page F01

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 jalapeƱos.

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.

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