A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Feb. 26.

Lunch -

Take It Away - 115 Elliewood Ave., Charlottesville, Virginia
Sandwich on French bread with pastrami spiced turkey, Edam cheese, sprouts, cucumbers and house dressing; an Odwalla Mango Tango

Take It Away is proof that great food doesn't need to be complicated or expansive. It focuses on a fairly simple sandwich, letting you choose from their selection of quality meats, cheeses, breads, condiments and vegetables. That their sandwiches are so good is evidence that specialization can really work wonders.

Like Zazus (see Dinner today), I frequently ate at Take It Away but very rarely strayed from my usual. It was too good to risk branching out. At Take It Away, this means the French bread and the house dressing, a concoction so addictive that even 340 miles couldn't quell it. It means either Havarti or Edam (this time Edam) and getting both of their two available vegetables, cucumbers and alfafa sprouts. The meat was always the most variable decision, but I particularly enjoy the pastrami spiced turkey so I went with that again. Taken separately, all of these ingredients are pretty great, but put together, they form one of life's simple pleasures.

Pita Inn - 250 West prior to River Rd. intersection, Charlottesville, Virginia
Hummus; falafel sandwich with tahini, pickle and french fries

It tastes so much better than it looks.


Zazus - 2214 Ivy Rd., Charlottesville, Virginia
Thai Wrap

In college, I may have spent more time at Zazus than in the classroom. Ben and I often went there for dinner after finishing our comic, relaxing from the stressful days among the dim lighting and widely spaced tables. He'd steal soda by asking for a cup for water. I'd try to hide from all the people we knew. And inevitably, he'd order his veggie wrap and I'd get my Thai wrap. No matter what final we were cramming for or what book we hadn't done the reading in, our wraps were always identically excellent. Going to Zazus felt as constant as inhaling and exhaling.

Since graduation, I haven't indulged in much nostalgia, but early night dinners at Zazus is one thing I have missed. The wraps I've found in New York just cannot touch the Thai wrap, with its generous splash of peanut sauce, the spinach, the slices of carrot, the sizable chunks of chicken and rice. It just all comes together perfectly. It was cool getting to go back there with Ben today to find out that even hype and hyperbole couldn't make the wrap taste anything but wonderful. I guess Thomas Wolfe doesn't know much about going home again after all. 8

Cassis - 210 W. West St., Charlottesville, Virginia
Short rib with cassis BBQ and spicy remoulade, grilled venison with parmesan barley risotto and butternut squash chips, half of a vanilla creme brulee, Grey Goose vodka martini dry with a twist, glass of Cabernet Sauvignon

New restaurants are a gamble. Odds are the service and cooking will have inevitable flaws that only months of operation will be able to work out. But now and then, a new restaurant can conjure up instant magic from the start, giving its first diners the bragging rights of being first, the chance to eat hype-free and the opportunity to tell their friends about the hot new restaurant in question.

Only being in Charlottesville for one and a half days, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to risk my one dinner on a wild card. But with an inventive French menu, reasonable bistro prices and a storied space, I decided that Cassis would be worth the challenge. Occupying what used to be Metro before it used to be Metropolitan, Cassis was standing in a large shadow though. The young chef behind Cassis, Sean Lawford, also worked at Bizou and Mas, some of Charlottesville’s favorite restaurants, before striking out on his own. To even measure up to any of these standards would be an accomplishment.

Because they don’t take reservations (strike one), my friend Casa and I decided to meet at the restaurant at eight and get a drink while we waited. There was no discernible host or hostess to greet us or take down my name though. It seemed like whichever waiter was passing by would (or wouldn’t) talk to the people gathering by the door. After being told the wait would be about forty-five minutes, we opted to get that aforementioned drink at the too small bar.

Easier said than done. Because there weren’t any seats left, we stood in a free space and waited for the bartender to approach us. That didn’t happen. A few minutes later, one of the patrons pointed out that two of the seats had freed up. We sat at the bar, thinking that might be a better clue for him. Again, he seemed oblivious to us. Finally, Casa ruined the mystery and told him we wanted drinks. He asked for IDs and stared at hers for ten seconds and mine for about fifteen. If this wasn’t bad enough, I was treated to a repeat performance of “The Invisible Bartender” when I tried to flag him down to pay my tab.

The service at our table wasn’t as bad (that would require serious effort), but wasn’t great either. Uninspired bread arrived noticeably late and the waiter was hard to find. Thankfully though, (some of) the food was able to remedy the sloppy, confused service.

My appetizer, the Short rib with cassis BBQ and spicy remoulade, was easily the best course I had. The beef was falling-off-the-bone tender and paired well with the novel barbecue sauce. It looked and tasted like a dish that could be in a New York restaurant at a New York price. It gave me high hopes for the courses to come, but unfortunately, it was mainly the unique presentations of dishes that held up.

The grilled venison entrée was a study in unevenness. The barley risotto was delicious and a nice departure from more conventional risotto, but the venison tasted gamey and too dry. (Bizarrely, Vince, who ate here earlier in the day, said his venison was too raw.) Worst though were the butternut squash chips, which added a clever element of color and height to the dish. I couldn’t detect any flavor of squash in them, because they must have been soaking in the Dead Sea all day. I had to take extra gulps of my cabernet sauvignon just to wash away the salt.

To finish, Casa and I split the vanilla crème brulee from a fairly uninteresting dessert list. (In contrast, the appetizers and entrée selections appeared much more creative.) It was technically competent but lacked any spark to distinguish it from the many other crème brulees I’ve tried. Desserts in my mind should wow the diner so that he leaves on a high note. Instead, Cassis offered a sigh.

I have little doubt that the restaurant will improve once the service issues are solved and Lawford’s cooking becomes more even. Some dishes will fall by the wayside and new ones will be added. Ingredients and portions will be tweaked. Seeing how a restaurant starts out and where it ends up is part of the fun in being one of the first in the door. Unfortunately, this time, the gamble didn’t pay off and I don’t see myself returning for the conclusion. 4/10


Blogger Derek said...

I have only started going to Cassis this year so cannot comment on the startup pains. It is the best restaurant in Cville. Having lived in France, I find it the equal of any one star restaurant. The steak tartare is perfectly prepared - roughcut steak, raw egg, perfect seasons. The duck is unbelievable - slightly undercooked as it should be. I have never been disappointed at Cassis. The consistency of excellence is amazing.

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