Wine Blogger's Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, I did some research, to ascertain which restaurants I might enjoy. I sought recommendations on Twitter, I checked the reviews on Urbanspoon, I viewed restaurant websites, and much more. I was fortunate that all this time and effort paid off, and I dined at a number of delicious and interesting restaurants while in Charlottesville. And all of these places were a short walk from the Omni Hotel, making it even more appealing. My dining companions, which varied for each meal, also seemed very pleased with my choices.
We started Thursday evening with dinner at Maya Restaurant & Bar, as I wanted to savor some good southern cuisine. When I had asked for recommendations from people, over 90% of them mentioned Maya. I liked the fact that it was a "made from scratch" kitchen and that they used many local ingredients. It is a casual place, appropriate for families, groups of friends, or even a date, and they also have an outside patio. They have a full bar, and their cocktails average $7-$8, and glasses of wine are generally $6-$8.
The menu is relatively small, but that is a strength, and they also offer several daily specials. The menus is divided into Starters (6 choices from $8-$11), Dinners (9 choices, most $21-$23), and Sides (14 choices for $5 each). Each dinner comes with your choice of 2 Sides. I began my meal with a special Starter of Fried Green Tomatoes, and also shared some Cornmeal-Crusted Fried Oysters. Both were ample and tasty dishes, with a nice fried batter than was neither too heavy nor greasy. I then opted for the Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Sides of Stone Ground Grits with White Cheddar and Cornbread, with an extra Side of Red Rice & Chorizo. What a large plate of food, and all of it was delicious, sating my desire for southern cuisine. The catfish was tender and moist, and the grits were cheesy-corn goodness. The two large slices of cornbread were relatively moist and there was both butter and honey for spreading. The slightly spicy rice and chorizo was another winner.
My nine other dining companions all very much enjoyed their food too. I sampled a couple of the other dishes and was pleased with what I tasted. Service was very good, and it was a very fun evening, a fine start to our long weekend. The dishes are amply portioned, reasonably priced, and sure to please the palate. It gets a strong recommendation.
The next day, breakfast was at The Nook, located in a building that was constructed in the late 1880′s and which has been a restaurant since 1912. It has been known as The Nook since 1951, though was purchased & reopened in 2007. It is a very casual place, with a feel like an old fashioned diner. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, their breakfast menu has all the usual standards, from eggs to pancakes, from omelets to waffles, plus some southern specialties, such as biscuits & gravy.
But what most enticed me was the Steak For Breakfast ($9.95), country fried steak accompanied by eggs, toast and taters. The steak was very tender and the white gravy atop it was not too thick, and added much flavor to the dish. It was one of the best country fried steaks I have had in a long time. In New England, I find much of country fried steaks to be a bit tougher, and the gravy too thick and gloppy. The potatoes had a nice crispy edge to them, and the toast was thicker than usual, which I like. This was a hearty and delicious breakfast, and once again, my dining companions enjoyed their food as well. This restaurant also gets a strong recommendation for breakfast.
At lunch time, I stopped by Marco & Luca, which by the name you would not expect to be a place to find Asian dumplings and noodles. It is a small, hole-in-the-wall, with a very limited menu of Dumplings ($3), Spicy or Sesame Noodles ($3.50), Hot Pork or Veggie Bun ($2) and Hot & Sour Soup ($1.50). I knew nothing of this place before I stopped there, but it seemed interesting so a few of us took a chance, which worked out well. They fry up the dumplings to order and they were very good, with plenty of meat and fillings, and a crispy exterior. The pork bun was also quite tasty, with plenty of spiciness within the soft bun. I am not a fan of cold noodles, but the others with me eagerly devoured them. This is a great, inexpensive place for a snack or lunch.
After lunch, we made a quick stop at Cappellion's Crazy Cakes, a cupcake and cookie bakery owned and operated by a brother-sister team, Frank and Dotty Cappellino. They feature about 20 different cupcake flavors and at least a dozen different cookies. No preservatives or additives are used, so their baked goods are best eaten as freshly as possible. Everything looked very appealing in the case and I chose to try their Snowball cupcake, a chocolate cake with buttercream & coconut. It was topped with lots of grated coconut and the cake itself was fairly moist and flavorful. As cupcakes go, it certainly was better than many of the cupcakes chains. I also tried the Apple Harvest cookie, aka the Portable Apple Pie, and it was delicious. The cookie was soft, with plenty of apple, nuts and cinnamon. It did remind me of a tasty apple pie. I wanted to try their Snickerdoodles but they were out of them that day. If you have a hankering for something sweet, then stop by here.
Saturday evening entailed a leisurely dinner at Ten, a Japanese restaurant, with a bit of a hip, modern ambiance. They have a full liquor menu, including a list of about twenty different sakes, including some very good selections. The food menu is diverse, and a bit pricey, though the quality and quantity are high, and provide justification for those prices. Their Nigiri Sushi is sold by the single piece, often priced at $4-$6, which is the same at in most high-end sushi places. But, the slices of fish, which seemed quite fresh, were very large, often making it necessary to eat the sushi in two bites rather than one. So, you could end up with more fish on one piece than you might find in two pieces elsewhere.
For Kushiyaki, there is Waygu beef and Chicken skewers, each available in three different styles. It might be best to order the Harami Trio and Yakitori Trio, and get the chance to taste all three of each skewer style. The Harami trio come with wasabi, garlic, and miso while the Yakitori comes with yuzu, karai honey, and teriyaki. The beef and chicken were moist and tender, and the different preps were good, especially the elephant garlic chips and the karai honey. Their Tempura dishes generally come with different sauces, such as the Calamari with Korean chili and sesame cream reduction and the Shrimp with a spicy cream sauce. I would prefer to have my Tempura without such a sauce, but these dishes were still good, and I liked the spiciness of the sauces.
Overall, we enjoyed the food, including the dishes I have not mentioned, like the salads and donburi, though service was slow and our server made a few mistakes. Thus, their food and sake gets a hearty recommendation, but be wary of service issues.
The Main Street Market is a must-stop culinary destination, a place for much of your food and wine shopping. You'll find Feast, a gourmet food shop which I highly recommend. They carry a wide variety of foods, including cheese, cured meats, produce, sauces, spices, salads, soups, nuts and so much more. They also carry a small but interesting selection of wines, including numerous Virginia ones. The staff at Feast were very nice and helpful, the type of people who make you feel right at home. Seasonal Chef sells a diverse selection of cooking equipment, gadgets, dishes, pots, silverware, glasses and much more. Plus, they hold cooking classes. The Organic Butcher is intended to be like a traditional butcher shop, with lots of different types of fresh meats and cuts. The meats looked quite appealing and I would have liked to fill up a cooler with their products. Seafood @ West Main is a fresh seafood store, which also sells sushi and packaged, Japanese food products. I was not able to check out a couple of the shops, Albemarle Baking Company and Gearharts Chocolates, but I did have some of their products elsewhere, and they were good.
My final dinner in Charlottesville was at Orzo Kitchen, which I had visited during the Rioja Crawl, and which seemed like it might be an interesting restaurant. Though a casual place, it also has a certain sense of elegance about it. The food menu is a Mediterranean blend of Italian, Greek, Spanish and French cuisine, and the wine list is mostly from those same regions. The menu has Appetizers ($7-$10), Salads ($7), Pasta ($16-$18), Meats & Seafood ($16-$22), and Sides ($3-$5).
To start, we had the Grilled Halloumi Cheese (with Lesvos Ouzo, Oregano, Lemon, & ABC Baguette) and the Orzo’s Caesar (with Garlic Croutons & Spanish White Anchovies). The two pieces of Halloumi, with a light seasoning, were nicely grilled, and there was plenty of thin slices of baguette to spread the cheese atop. The Caesar was huge, and could have easily fed two people, and filled with plenty of fresh produce and the anchovies added a nice touch. For entrees, we chose the Organic Shenandoah Valley Beef & Pork Bolognese atop spaghetti, a hearty and flavorful dish, and the Meyer Ranch Sirloin Steak with Roasted Yukons, Mushrooms, * Oven Dried Tomato-Garlic Butter, another hearty and delicious choice.
This was an excellent meal, and I would recommend Orzo too. Service was good, prices were very reasonable, and the food is tasty and plentiful.