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.
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.
- - -
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.
- - -
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.
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.]