Winter Crushes

Now and then we cross paths with bites or sips that stay with us and leave us daydreaming, blushing a little the way you might in the wake of a harmless flirtation outside your formal relationship. It was nothing, but it was a tiny something, and you can't stop thinking about it. Let's be honest.   

In that spirit, we're looking back on winter so far and the steamy encounters set in our path.    

Seven minutes in heaven: a pork stir-fry from the Oakhart team (Photo courtesy of Oakhart Social)

Seven minutes in heaven: a pork stir-fry from the Oakhart team (Photo courtesy of Oakhart Social)

By now, we know to be on guard for some provocative wrinkle from Chef Tristan Wraight, but apparently we like our lessons the hard way. Just when we think we have a handle on his skills, he slips a culinary dalliance that leaves us flushed and grasping for composure. Yes, somehow Oakhart Social's ballsy small plates have become the restaurant analog of 7 Minutes in Heaven.

It's been noted that Wraight loves to color outside the lines. To our delight, rhyme and reason are not prioritized on his menu. You'd be very hard pressed to characterize the style of cuisine here with any tired label. Thankfully, it's all over the (global) map and consistently well executed. So, when a Pork Stir-Fry special is introduced with lurid detail one evening by our lovely server, we aren't at all prepared for the hedonistic ride in store—we just know we must have it. (Pro tip: if there's a special on the Oakhart menu, sign yourself up.)

In this wild-card dish, Wraight delicately balances meat and vegetables and spikes it all with an illicit unctuousness that finds us looking over our shoulders as if we're committing a crime. Pork shoulder from Autumn Olive Farms is marinated in pineapple juice, sambal and soy sauce then charred. It all comes together when the pork is paired with some virtuous red leaf mizuna from Wayside Produce, and seasoned with fish sauce, gochujang and aioli. Taking a "great idea" from his sous, Wraight then tops with the dish with a slutty, soft egg "to elevate that fatty element" even more. Then, as he's oft to, Wraight throws a bunch of fresh herbs and pickles on it. "At the end of the day, it was a really fun dish to put together that was greatly improved through collaboration," he says.    

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Vitamin P, or Pork Schnitzel 

Vitamin P, or Pork Schnitzel 

Another siren that's drawn us too close to the hot stove lately is Brasserie Saison's Pork Schnitzel Sandwich. We live in the South, ergo we suffer from bouts of southern fried chicken sandwich fatigue. There are some legit players out there, but mostly it's a field of throwaways we move past without a second glance. Then, along comes this head-turning fried pork sandwich that compels us to rationalize more diet detours than we're willing to admit to in writing.

Sandwiched between a kaiser roll from Albemarle Bread Co, the protein is pounded pork loin that's dipped in buttermilk and flour. The chef tells us the key to the abundance of "crusty bits" is to dredge it properly and to make sure the flour is a little crumbly, not too cakey - a fine line, and something that takes a lot of attention to do it right. Out of the fryer, the loin gets hit with local honey and salt. That fatty, salty, crunchy goodness is contrasted with a red cabbage marmalade (blanched red cabbage folded into a red wine vinegar caramel). On the side? The perfect kind of french fry—crispy and thin, but with enough potato that you still feel like you're getting a serving of veg. 

Here, Will goes off on a rye-fueled writing tangent about this game changer. Indulge him, dear reader:

Some of my favorite bites today are the ones that inspire nostalgia and transport me back in time to simple moments free of pretense and window dressing, indifferent to other opinions. I celebrate chefs who can pull it off.

In this case, Chef Tyler Teass takes me back to a sweaty summer night in 1980, at a roadside McDonald's somewhere east of Orlando where I destroyed a McChicken while reflecting on that day's Magic Kingdom adventure. It was the first fried chicken sandwich I'd ever eaten, right on the heels of my first Disney World experience and would put Happy Meals in the rearview mirror of my life forever. It turned out to be a rite of passage - that crispy chicken patty, shredded lettuce and a cold spread of mayo. And it launched a love for the genre. Who knew? 

Today you couldn't pay me to eat a McChicken, let alone set foot in a McDonald's. It's safe to say my grownup palate wouldn't tolerate one and sure as hell would not draw modern comparisons to the dope Teass riff on the fried chicken sandwich. Still, the evocation of this nostalgic moment, in all its trashy glory, resonates deeply and elicits miles of smiles from my inner child.   

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Lampo's Braseola Pizza: Savory and Sexy 

Lampo's Braseola Pizza: Savory and Sexy 

Finally, that indecent proposal we just can't shake from our heads—the Braseola Pizza at Lampo. Truffle oil spritzed arugula pops bright green, scattered with torn bits of buffalo mozzarella, bedded by rose petals of seductive beef shavings, all languidly lounging on the Neapolitan crust and garnished with a lemon wedge. The only thing missing here is a trail of discarded clothing. 

We hate to admit it, but our pizza order sometimes comes with an uninvited side of guilt. Blame the villainization of carbs. Count on this pie to mitigate that dramatically—in fact, just think of it as a salad. As Chef Ian Redshaw puts it, "This is my fun riff on beef carpaccio." It's also what makes Lampo a P+K favorite: here it's all about the ingredients and virtually nothing to do with manipulation.

Ok, there is some mad genius in the curing and aging of the beef: Ian soaks juniper berries in Junipero Gin (so meta) then smokes them. Once he gauges the berries to have the right smoky, peppery flavor, he grinds and rubs them onto the high round cut (upper back) sourced from Sherwood Farm. The beef ages 30 days and cures another 60 before it's swaddled into a sexy pose atop that pie. Savage AF.     

savage AF

savage AF

Pizza without red sauce is rarely, if ever, our jam. Lampo's sauce is so legit that going sans inspires a mild case of FOMO. And oddly enough, for us regulars, pizza itself has been subtly edged to the margins by the fantastic creative range of specials (road beef panuazzo, hamachi collar - whaaaat?) that grace the menu daily. Tune in sharply enough and you'll catch on to the secret that Lampo has quietly become the best steakhouse in Cville. Once you've experienced the dry aged, wood oven-fired steaks, you may never want to order anything else. In the case of this braseola pie - a perfect Lampo hybrid of aged beef & stellar pizza—we are happily back to dancing with the one that brought us.    

[Note: Last week Chef Allie Redshaw, Ian's wife, suffered a terrible kitchen accident. After two surgeries she is said to be in high spirits as she begins the long road to recovery. It has been so inspiring to see the Charlottesville community and beyond rally around her and the Redshaw family. An unfortunate truth in life is that you don't often figure out what you're made of until pianos fall from the sky on you or the good people around you. It turns out this community is made of love, kindness, empathy and compassion. We invite you, however you can, to be part of that movement here.]           

The Underground Kitchen: La Vie En Rose

The Underground Kitchen story begins with a fateful relocation. Some years ago, Micheal Sparks and his partner made the move from the Big Apple to the River City's Museum District. Micheal is a fashion designer and creative consultant by trade, but his love and knack for food and drink are a family tradition, inspired and cultivated by a childhood of home-cooked memories. Richmond was a great fit for the pair, but they immediately began missing their close-knit NYC community. An extrovert with an uncanny ability to bring people together, Micheal's local circles quickly grew. After routinely breaking bread with new neighbors, dinners became more elaborate—and competitive—with Micheal and Co. inviting outside chef pros to take the helm each night.

Now, if there’s a city that loves some good food and drink, it’s RVA. As requests flooded in for a (literal) seat at the table, Micheal realized his casual neighborhood dinners could become something much more. He set out to share this community with cities and chefs beyond Richmond. And so, the Underground Kitchen was born—a movement that is:

“…unique, in the truest sense of the word. UGK, as it has come to be known by its foodie cult following, is a supper club that gives members access to a one night only, 5-7 course gourmet meal prepared by an amazing chef in an undisclosed location. The chefs are asked to prepare food that pushes them to the limits of their culinary creativity, and to refrain from preparing the staple items on their restaurant menus. Each event has a theme that is intricately woven through the menu and atmosphere. Locations vary from art studios, to local restaurants, to farms, to anywhere else with a venue suited to UGK’s holistic vision. The venues emphasize the themes, and generate dialogue about food sources, culinary preparation, and eating. An understanding of food, as an economy, profession, and source of enjoyment is one of the founding principles of UGK.”
The Underground Kitchen

Our UGK experience began a week ago under a signature veil of secrecy—location revealed last minute, and menu kept mum until we walked though the door. As we climbed the stairs into Charlottesville's Water Street restaurant, we were greeted with our first clue for the direction of the evening by a large blackboard welcoming us to “La Vie en Rose". Translation — life in pink, or life through rosy (pink) glasses. A nod to both Valentine’s Day and famed French singer Édith Piaf’s signature song, the theme and its inspiration was further explained by Chef Brice Cunningham, a native Frenchman who has called Cville home for many years. Turns out, included in each course was an ingredient commonly regarded as an aphrodisiac. Well played, Chef—well played.

That must be Nigel with the brie.  Find us someone who doesn't enjoy bread and cheese and we'll find you a liar. The two have been embedded in global food history for centuries, and for good reason. Chef Cunningham and the UGK team began the evening with passed hors d'oeuvres of baguette crostini and Vermont brie with a touch of pear jam. The flavors and textures of this particular crostini + brie + jam marriage interacted in a way that reminded us of the Rice Krispie treats of our youth. Unexpected? Yes. Awesome? Also yes. Well-paired to the setting and the hors d'oeuvre was a fresh and lively non-vintage Juvé Y Camps Pinot Noir Rosé Brut. Our palates primed, we settled in by the bar and admired Water St.'s recently renovated space, appreciating the largely unadorned style that pays attention to a few distinctive, choice details—custom wine bottle shaded pendant lights, and unique roller coaster Victorian-esque booths.

Under the sea. Caviar is always a crowd pleaser, elevating the flavor of dishes it accompanies and inflating the self worth of those who ingest it. (Who doesn't occasionally enjoy wielding a mother-of-pearl spoon like some sort of election-meddling, egomaniacal Russian oligarch?) However, not until UGK did we experience it camouflaged within a cream of oyster soup. Subtle and light, the velouté consisted of an oyster and cream emulsion that was delightfully more sweet than salty at first taste. The added salinity and texture of the caviar nicely completed the emulsion and made for an interesting pairing contrast to the lean and bright 2015 Laforêt Pinot Noir from Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin. The initial menu design actually included Drouhin's white burgundy, though a last minute switch by the distributor left Cunningham and the UGK team thinking quickly on their feet and changing course to the Pinot. All things considered, an admirable pivot.

In avocado we trust / return of the crostini. First things first—we're proudly aboard the avo-toast train. Pictured right, our beloved avocado on an Albemarle Baking Co. toasted baguette crostini, topped with pine nuts, fresh greens, and a balsamic reduction. While a departure from our aforementioned musings on bread and cheese, it was a delicious interplay of acid and fat, salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth, and an ideal palate gear shift between the first and third courses. Similar to the first course, an unexpected wine delivery alteration caused redirection on the pairing here, though pleasantly so with a limestone-grown, steel-fermented 2015 Viognier from Le Paradou in France's southern Rhône.

Fields of green. Course number three presented a turn to the light and refreshing side of the spectrum—mixed field greens, pomegranate seeds, and house-made vinaigrette—before we got down to more decadent business. A no-frills palate cleanser with a satisfying crunch, the greens were accompanied by an expressive, cool climate 2015 Pinot Noir from Viña Leyda in Chile’s coastally-situated Leyda Valley. While not our favorite paring of the night, we’re interested to revisit this wine to see how it changes over time in glass. Noticeably reductive throughout the course, it only just started to show its true colors as we readied ourselves for the main event. C’est la vie. We will see you again, Leyda, don’t you worry.

The main event. As a Frenchman by both birth and culinary proclivity (is it legal for a Frenchman to prescribe any differently?), we fully expected Cunningham to know his way around a rack of lamb. Hot damn, our high hopes were met by a perfectly executed, medium rare trio of chops, accompanied by root vegetables and honey jus. Presented sans much stylistic embellishment, this course was a lesson in the power of quality ingredients prepared by a skilled hand. We appreciated the approach of substance over flourish, and cleaned our plates accordingly. Not to be overlooked, the dark fruited, Syrah/Grenache-based 2014 Chateau Puech-Haut Pic Saint-Loup "La Closerie du Pic" from Languedoc, played well with the rich flavor combination in front of us.

Cocoa me crazy. Capping the evening was a miniaturized chocolate molten cake served à la mode with raspberry coulis. The dessert satisfied our sweet tooth(s) without sending us over the edge into Thanksgiving sweatpants, self loathing territory. Appropriately paired was a 2002 late bottled port from Smith Woodhouse.

A note on wine: While it's exciting to attend dinners that pair precious wines beyond reach and/or budget, it's fun when you have an actual shot at taking home the experience from the table. This brings us to the UGK bottles—at the end of the night, Micheal announced that all were available for purchase though Richmond-based Looking over the provided price list, we were struck by the affordability—most in the $13 - $16 range, and all sub $35. As a crew with a penchant for cracking more than a few bottles each week, P+K is always on the hunt for quality wines that punch above their price weight class (have you met our friend, Austria?). Not only did these wines fit the bill, but the apparent, intentional accessibility of the lineup was appropriate punctuation for the evening: that is, food & drink = community at UGK, and discoveries made underground should be shared above.

FinAs was Micheal's founding hope and intention, our biggest takeaway from the evening was this sense of community that UGK evoked. From dinner conversations with our tablemates about travel, family, the state of global affairs, and whether or not Virginia can be considered “the South” (conclusion = yes, duh), to discussions of UGK’s support of culinary scholarships and training for underprivileged students, we left Water St. with a deep and renewed appreciation for breaking bread with neighbors and (former) strangers. Moreover, we left feeling inspired by the tight-knit and ever supportive soul of the foodie movement. In our fast-paced world of social media, mobile phones and online living, it’s not always easy or convenient to take a few hours to meet and truly get to know new people—we are thankful to UGK for pulling us from our comfort zones and designing a delicious setting to do just that. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for UGK and its team, a team that recently added a second Sparks to its roster—Micheal's niece, Sydney. A passion rooted in family tradition has come full circle.

Bring it on home. Gift bags! A wonderful, handheld takeaway that included Shenandoah Joe's Eye-Opener coffee blend, the latest issue of Charlottesville Wine & Country, sugar cookies from Paradox Pastry, and a box of chocolates from Richmond-based For the Love of Chocolate.

In full disclosure, the kind folks at UGK extended complimentary tickets to Pen + Knife to experience their unique concept. We assure you this in no way shaded our recounting of the experience if it had sucked, so be it, we would relay accordingly.

Want more? Check out The Piedmont Virginian's coverage of La Vie en Rose here!
Ready to experience your own UGK event? Register here.