Less than an hour’s drive from Richmond, Charlottesville offers the perfect gastronomic road trip, its food scene having experienced something of a renaissance in the past couple of years. For a recent special occasion, my husband, Alex, and I spent the weekend there and ate some of the finest meals I’ve had in years.
We booked a private cottage through an agency called Guesthouses, which handles accommodations in Charlottesville and its surrounding areas. Milton Cottage, our home for the weekend, was idyllic. Six French doors in a row led to a large porch with rocking chairs and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The cozy interior was tastefully decorated with original art and fresh flowers.
Our first meal was dinner at OXO Restaurant, on the back of the Downtown Mall. Owned by husband and wife John Haywood and Alice Kim, it has a fresh, contemporary feel, due to an airy interior filled with mirrors and a stainless-steel bar. Whether the staff is delivering a sorbet intermezzo or little morsels of candied orange peel at the end of the meal, everything is presented with finesse.
Several items on the menu featured an exploration of a single ingredient, and we found these culinary exercises a real treat. For example, Rabbit Three Ways featured a seared loin with horseradish-beet caviar and thyme-scented jus, homemade rabbit raviolis with roasted garlic and apricot purée, and, finally, our favorite, the confit of rabbit spring roll with arugula. Save room for dessert: Pastry chef Jason McKown makes the best chocolate soufflé around, serving it with hazelnut ice cream.
Before heading into town the next morning, we leisurely nibbled on fresh strawberries and nutty granola provided by our hosts. Passing horse farms, the roads were awash with naturalized daylilies. It took only 10 minutes to reach Main Street, whereupon we headed directly to the City Market and paid homage to the makers of our breakfast goodies by visiting Albemarle Baking Company, the original anchor of the group of vendors. The City Market has been so successful that it’s currently expanding to accommodate other vendors. Don’t miss Feast! and Gearharts Fine Chocolatier while you’re there.
Feast! is owned by another couple, Eric Gertner and Kate Collier, and specializes in artisanal cheeses, cured meats, olives and other gourmet fare. They make tasty sandwiches that can be packed to-go or enjoyed in the Market’s communal space filled with a homey blend of mismatched chairs and tables.
A stone’s throw away is Tim Gearharts’ diminutive chocolate boutique. He told us that most visitors assume they are entering a jewelry store. Displayed in a striking glass-topped wood case, his hand-dipped chocolates are worth seeking out. The “Taj,” bittersweet chocolate ganache infused with candied ginger, cardamom and rose, and then dipped in dark chocolate, was divine.
For lunch we headed to Market Street and checked out Fuel Co., a refurbished gas station (and yes, you can fill up your tank while there) with a distinctive awning over the gas pumps and two separate dining spaces inside that are both slick and gorgeous. The café side features an espresso bar and serves breakfast, wonderful desserts and a wide selection of fancy sandwiches. The new chef, Tim Hockett, recently from the esteemed TRU in Chicago, has playfully revamped the dining-room menu, with entrées like Virginia Truck Stop Pork Chops, a double-cut pork chop served with spinach, creamy polenta and gravy.
A little shopping trip to Barracks Road led us to a much-loved café, HotCakes, where we stopped for a cup of tea and a visit with the owner. Lisa McEwan started out making wedding cakes and has expanded her business to include a successful catering operation and a delightful restaurant for a quick sweet or savory bite.
We had time for a nice nap at our private retreat before a late dinner at Fleurie, one of the most exciting restaurants in the area. Alex had only one thing on his mind the whole weekend — foie gras. It’s a tossup as to who does a better job — OXO or Fleurie — but they both regularly have it on the menu, and it’s always wonderful. On this particular evening, it was seared and served with lentils, bacon and a beef-stock vinaigrette. My shrimp-risotto appetizer with mascarpone and carrots was equally decadent.
The dynamic duo in the kitchen is Brian Helleberg and Brice Cunningham. Cunningham, a native of Loiret, France, also oversees the thoughtful and comprehensive wine list. We shared a Morey St. Denis 1999 that married nicely with our entrées — poached lobster with sautéed fennel and a red-pepper-and-beet emulsion, which blew us away, and my pan-seared skate in a beurre noisette sauce with capers and parsley, which was classic, simple and oh so French.
The next morning was drizzly, so we slept late, a luxury rarely afforded parents of small children. Only one spot, the Farm Shop, was on our itinerary before the short trip home. Tucked away in a wooded clearing on the Kluge Vineyard property, this relatively small structure was designed by noted architect David Easton.
There is a wine-tasting bar at the Farm Shop, where you can sample by the glass. Order a “picnic” to be enjoyed inside or beneath the poplars just outside. We split one of Serge Torres’ (former pastry chef of Le Cirque) signature desserts, the Opera cake — multiple thin layers of coffee-soaked almond sponge cake alternating with coffee buttercream and vanilla ganache. Topped off with a thin coating of chocolate and a smidge of edible gold leaf, it was almost worth the trip itself. We bought homemade caramels as treats for the girls when we returned home and then waddled back to the car, satiated in every way.
How to get there:
Take 64 West to exit 124, where you’ll get on Business Route 250 West toward Charlottesville. Bear right onto East Main Street and follow the signs to the Downtown Mall.
Where to eat:
Feast!, 416 W. Main St., (434) 244-7800 or www.feastvirginia.com.
Fleurie, 108 Third St., (434) 971-7800.
Fuel Co., 901 E. Market St., (434) 220-3700 or www.klugeestate.com.
Gearharts Fine Chocolates, 416-C W. Main St., (434) 972-9100 or www.gearharts
HotCakes, 1137-A Emmet St. (in Barracks Road Shopping Center), (434) 295-6037 or www.
Kluge Estate Farm Shop, 3550 Blenheim Road, (434) 984-4855 or www.klugeestate.com.
OXO Restaurant, 215 Water St., (434) 977-8111 or www.oxorestaurant.com.
Where to stay:
Guesthouses, Bed and Breakfast Reservations, (434) 979-7264 or www.va-guesthouses.com. Office hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. or reserve online. Rates are $72 to $200.
Omni Charlottesville Hotel, 235 W. Main St., (434) 971-5500 or www.omnihotels.com. Room rates are $60 to $199.
For more information:
Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, Route 20 South (exit 121 off 64 West), (877) 386-1102 or www.soveryvirginia.com.