We're always amused by the puzzled reactions we get when explaining to outsiders that a small town in Central Virginia boasts one of the most dynamic food scenes in the region. Thanks to local restaurant veterans and artisans who lean into their passions and grind through the years to maintain a vibrant industry reputation, a tractor beam has reached out far and wide to draw badass new talent into the pool, bringing a spike to the local punch that Charlottesville needs to stay fresh. Bright-eyed and ballsy, with few fucks to give about existing conventions, these transplants drop in and infuse this town with a bravado and creative swagger that turns heads.
Count us among the groupies who push to the front of the line when any baller brings their talents here from the likes of Brooklyn, Chicago, Washington, DC, et al. We’re not hard pressed to tell you Oakhart Social is one of our favorite restaurants in town. Straight out of Chicago (go figure), the duo of Chef Tristan Wraight and GM Ben Clore delivers a gritty, urbane dining experience that is a shot in the arm every night we land there. Oakhart rarely plays it safe with the nightly menu and, on a super hip scale, has pulled off some really dope popup concepts and collaborations.
Which brings us to the latest bombshell: the Oakhart guys are partnering with Chef Ryan Collins (yep, another transplant) to open a new restaurant this summer called Little Star, right up the road at the spot formerly occupied by Three Penny Cafe.
We’ve been tuned in to Collins since his days with the José Andrés culinary empire, Think Food Group, where he helmed Oyamel Cocina Mexicana and opened new restaurants in Las Vegas. Collins was also Andres' go-to traveling chef for celebrity events and worked in showcase kitchens for a few stars you may have heard of — Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain. So, he’s not exactly what you’d call a wallflower. Little Star won’t be his first stop in these parts. Since early 2016, Collins has been elevating the food game at Early Mountain Vineyards where he developed a friendship with Wraight and Clore (and J.M. Stock Provision’s Matt Greene) through some cross brand collaborations, eventually joining forces with these roughnecks on occasional popups that drew and pleased ridiculous crowds. That friendship paved the road to partnership which brings us to this threshold of anticipation.
Just to tease the masses with a preview, the trio staged a two-evening, Little Star popup at Oakhart on Feb. 27 + 28. We were all over it like a cheap suit and made it both nights. While we obviously can't paint a picture of the entire experience until they open across the street (another former gas station), we can't help but gush on some of our first bites.
Tuna Ceviche (kumquat, coconut leche de tigre, almonds, serrano, cilantro, toasted amaranth)
If ceviche didn't land on the menu, we'd feel cheated because Collins basically majored in the art of this dish. At Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, back in Washington, DC, one of his specialties was conceptualizing and executing a ceviche bar with the deepest menu of offerings in the league. We've lost count of how many nights we spent saddled at the bar and making an entire meal of his creations. This iteration is a refreshing dose of tuna, crunch and spice that gets the endorphins firing as you settle in for the ride. We'll even be so bold as to say that if you currently "don't like ceviche" (what??!), this dish will be your religious conversion.
Dry Aged Ribeye Carpaccio (grilled cactus, parmesan, chive blossoms, migas)
Carpaccio has been around the block too many times to raise our eyebrows when spotted on a menu. Generally, if you've had one, you've had them all. Then Little Star's version shows up and chases that fatigue straight away. Instead of posing as a salad like its weird cousins, this one flies its freak flag with no shame—ribeye dry-aged for 75 days, delicately sliced and perched on a bed of grilled cactus. Yes, you read that right, grilled cactus. The only carnivore's dilemma at our table was which jackal's fork would stab the last shred. Also, shoutout to parmesan—another overused, under-appreciated ingredient that truly shines on this bed of meat.
Sunny Side Up Eggs (salsa negra green onion, cilantro, sesame seeds, hickory syrup, grilled bread)
A signature Oakhart move is to harbor a wolf in sheep's clothing on every menu (we're looking at you, chicken wangz.) Sunny Side Up Eggs is the first clue that Little Star will play the same contraband game. Textually this read like almost any other hipster brunch dish. On the eyes it's also basic AF, Wraight's trademark topping of fresh herbs notwithstanding. When you follow the server's direction to thrash and mash the eggs and dive in, this unassuming jam jabs you in the mouth with a haymaker of hot, sweet, smoky texture. By the way, where the hell have you been all our life, hickory syrup?
Soft + Crispy Pork Ribs (salsa naranja, white onion, epazote, crispy ancho chile)
It's taken us too long to mention that many of the dishes come with simply divine corn tortillas, cooked in-house with masa from local producer Ula Tortilla, procured for restaurant consumption via Local Food Hub. These are not your #TacoTuesday tortillas—they are a hipster foodie's dream, made fresh with certified organic, non-GMO corn using an ancient process called nixtamalization. We mention them now because these pork ribs will lead you to forked path: do you, A) eat them with your hands, T-Rex style or B), shave off perfect slivers, cover them in the slightly sweet salsa, wrap them up all cozy in a tortilla, and then indulge? The answer is obviously C), you do both, because there is no right way to enjoy a damn fine selection of pork ribs.
Wood Roasted Lamb Neck (braised cabbage, guajillo chile broth, hominy corn)
If we told you we were lamb neck aficionados, our pants would burst into flames. It's not a stretch to say this could be our first time feasting on that particular section of anatomy. Now that we've come clean on that, humor us as we wax hyperbolic—this is by far the best goddamn lamb neck we've ever eaten. The hominy corn unexpectedly played a special tune for us, offering a carb texture with a vegetable finish. Think rice + corn hybrid on steroids with a nutty meatiness, and you'll start to understand why this was the perfect, if subtle, pairing with the rich, gaminess of the lamb.