We noticed a lot of restaurants in old gas stations in Charlottesville — all over the place, really. The novelty of dining at one was appealing, but not if the food wasn’t tempting, too. At Zinc — yes, in an old gas station — the menu, which we studied it in the window earlier in the day, touted a roast chicken from Polyface, Joel Salatin’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley. That pretty much sold it for us.
The farming methods used by Salatin — rotating livestock through the fields as you would crops being just one example — were a big inspiration for Stone Barns, and we’ve been wanting to visit Polyface ever since Stone Barns opened more than five years ago. Unfortunately, we were driving on I-81 past the exit that takes you there about 20 minutes before the farm closed for the day, so we weren’t able to go. What luck then, that we should find a farm-to-table restaurant sourcing from Polyface within walking distance from our hotel! We made a reservation.
We arrived a little early, and started, naturally, with a cocktail at the bar.
The cocktails were a harbinger of great things. All of the drinks on the menu were made with hard booze (of course!), and I wanted to avoid that. So I asked the bartender if he could put something together for me using something softer. I also asked for peaches, which I’d noticed in a drink on the menu called Nellie Melba (it used peaches, honey and vodka).
I swear he read my mind. He came up with a Lillet-based drink, where he muddled peaches, honey and mint, then added Lillet and topped with prosecco. It was just delightful.
Greg had a martini and was very happy indeed.
The front room of the restaurant holds the bar, which is industrial and square-shaped. Above it hangs the glass rack; toward the back of the room are a few tables.
After our drink, we moved to the back room, which has open garage doors out to the patio and an open kitchen.
We settled in with the menu and found it very, very hard to make a choice. Everything looked great. I’ll post the menu at the end of this post, but a few of the appetizers that caught my eye:
Piney River Pork Shoulder with mustard consomme with creme fraiche, peanuts and nasturtiums
Charcuterie Plate with local spec, Surryano ham and liver pate with pickles
Beef and Olive Terrine with housemade biscuit cracker
Decisions, decisions! We went with the Chilled Tomato Soup with creme fraiche, arugula and olive oil:
And the Beet and Local Cherry Salad with chevre, spinach, granola, wood sorrel and lemon thyme:
The waiter poured the sauce at the table:
Both were absolutely just what we’d hoped. The soup was bursting with summer flavor and the salad was filled with varied textures and flavors — a real delight. We were off to such a great start.
When it came to the next course, we were a bit disappointed. Not in the food — not at all. But when we perused the entree selections, we noticed something strange. On one menu was listed the Polyface Farms chicken we were so eager to try. On another menu was listed chicken from “Janet’s Garden.” Turns out, as our (excellent) waiter explained, we had one menu from last night and one from tonight. Good news: the menu changes daily. Bad news: no chicken from Joel Salatin. Don’t worry, our waiter said, the chicken from Janet’s Garden, a local farm, is excellent. He was absolutely correct. It was, in fact, incredible.
Janet’s Garden Roast Chicken with Crispy Mushroom, Gnocchi, Arugula and Surryano Ham:
The chicken was crispy but moist and juicy, and the combination of earthy mushrooms, soft gnocchi and peppery arugula was simple but genius.
The ham called surryano is not a typo, as I thought it might have been. Surryano is instead a dry-cured ham from Virginia, finished, naturally, on peanuts. (What else?!) From what I can gather, Surryano was originally developed by Edwards Ham in Surry, Va., but now is made all over the region. What a treat to taste something regional and so well-made. It’s hard to find such local discoveries in today’s small world.
The other entree we tried was not as local. Well, the accompaniments were, but the dish was scallops.
Scallops with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, Heirloom Tomato, Arugula and Garlic-Paprika Aioli:
It was hard to compete with the chicken, but the scallops were lovely: seared crisp on the outside and sweet and translucent on the inside. And the dish was fresh and seasonal.
After our main course, we shared a cheese plate and dessert. I quote from the menu on the cheeses:
Meadowcreek Mountaineer, from Galax, a hard, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese. Smooth, subtle texture, toasty and nutty flavor with a hint of butterscotch.
Everona Piedmont, from the Piedmont region, an aged sheep’s milk cheese. Nutty flavor, even flowery, with a slight tang and earthy aftertaste.
Caromont Chevre, goat dairy located near Charlottesville, established by Gail Hobbs-Page and her husband, Daniel. The cheese is rich, delicious and creamy.
They were all great, and as the menu described. And it was another example of bringing local to the table. I think sometimes we forget that farm-to-table means new flavors, new farms and new discoveries when you’re traveling. We eat at farm-to-table all the time in the Hudson Valley, and after a while, we get to know the chickens and the cheeses. Not so when we’re far from home. Instead, you taste — not to get all French on you, but — new terroir.
For dessert, we had a peach number with some meringue and chocolate dust. (I don’t have the dessert menu anymore, so I can’t tell you the exact name.) Maybe it was the meringue, but the dessert reminded me a bit of the desserts at Town House (unfortunately just not quite as fantastic and playful). Still tasty, though:
Starting and ending on peaches. In July. In Virginia. Very appropriate.
Chef Justin Hershey came to our table, and we learned a bit about him: he’d cooked at another regional farm-to-table restaurant, Staunton Grocery, before taking over the kitchen at Zinc. He seemed personable and confident, and he is definitely one I’m putting on my watch list. (Here’s a link to an engaging Q&A with him, where you can learn more about his philosophy and background.)
Sure Town House was a destination, an experience for the record books. But Zinc is just the kind of place we love to discover along the way. When the local neighborhood restaurants you discover traveling are turning out food this good — food you remember, food you want to go back for — you know we’re really getting somewhere. This trip, more than ever before, we saw that.
The 411 on Zinc: Creative but simple farm-to-table cuisine served in an industrial setting: an old gas station on Main Street in Charlottesville, Va. Chef Justin Hershey, a Staunton Grocery alum, is one to watch. 20 W. Main St., Charlottesville, Va. 22902. 434-245-9462, comptoirzinc.com.
On our walk home, we noticed a fun shadow our legs created in a parking lot, lit by street lights and the full moon. We played with the camera a bit:
When we got back to the hotel, Greg ordered a nightcap and we sat on the patio overlooking the pedestrian mall, and watched as nightflies made their way home after a fun evening out at the bars.
A lovely end to a lovely evening.