I’ve been thinking for days how to start this post. There was the elitist dribble (“I’ve been lucky enough to eat at many great restaurants across the globe”). There was the exuberant and hyperbolic (“This was the best meal ever,” though this was all I could manage to say afterwards and is true). Then, I realized the only thing I could say to get to the core of the matter is this: This is damned good food. This is a damned good chef.
I’m referring to River and Rail in Roanoke and its executive chef, Aaron Deal. I had the fortune to interview Chef Deal just hours prior to my dinner there. The interview was part of a freelance assignment that will hopefully be published in October, an angle that I’ll save for then and will instead focus on our eating experience here (the article will definitely not be a restaurant review, so this post is purely from a personal perspective, hello alliteration).
Just to forewarn you, there are no pictures here. To be honest, I was too immersed in the food experience to bother with photos. Besides, I couldn’t do visual justice to what was hitting our table.
The restaurant and its staff were warm and inviting from the start. Located in the former Lipes Pharmacy (and dangerously close to a local cupcakery and ice cream shop), I was smitten from the get-go as I set down for my afternoon interview and heard Johnny Cash being played. That’s a great way to get right to the heart of a Southern girl. There was no pretension here, and Deal tried to be humble as I gushed about my longstanding admiration of chefs (or he was scared, one of the two). When I explained I wasn’t able to try his food before meeting with him, his parting words were, “That may have been better. You may not want to talk to me after you try it.”
Oh, how wrong he was.
I’m not a food critic. I can’t ramble about “mouthfeel” (which, by the way, sounds just disgusting) or use other such nonsensical adjectives with a straight face. And maybe that’s for the best because what struck me the most about eating at River and Rail was its total accessibility. I mean that, aside from the restaurant set up to be open and airy, aside from the fact that Chef Deal was visible at all times in a cooking/staging area that was smaller than my galley kitchen (holy crap, how does that work, because I get tripped up if even one more person is in my kitchen, but there were three guys back there at River and Rail), aside from the fact that Deal was gracious enough to come talk to us during our meal, aside from a wait staff and a general manager who seemed genuinely excited to be a part of River and Rail, aside from all of that: the food was accessible. There were no frills here, no unnecessary garnishes. There were no long narratives on the menu of what I may choose to eat, no here’s-some-meat-but-look-at-all-these-sauces-and-sides-and-fancy-words-because-we-don’t-trust-the-meat-on-its-own-to-be-good-enough descriptions.
No, this was food that was allowed to shine on its own because the quality offered here is stellar (the restaurant makes a point of sourcing its ingredients locally).
We started with a pickled vegetable pot served simply in a Ball jar (R&R uses a combo of hot and cold pour-over methods and packs the jar full of cucumbers, carrots, etc.) and were treated to a chicken liver mousse served with crusty grilled bread and pickled onions. I know what you’re thinking: “Did you say treated to chicken liver mousse?” Yes, yes I did. I was skeptical, too. I remember years ago having fried chicken livers; I remember the metallic taste. But you know what happened? I ended up eating this stuff (served in a Weck-style jar and topped with duck fat; have I mentioned my love of duck fat lately you guys?) straight up and by the forkful. I was following that up with pickled beets, something I’ve never enjoyed before. It was then that I realized Deal was onto something good here: if he could take two ingredients I would normally eschew and make me fall in love with them, he was doing something amazing.
Next up was a summer squash soup served with more crusty, rustic bread topped with goat cheese and thin slices of (good god, be still my heart) magnificently cured country ham. My husband went with a warm nectarine/tomato/cornbread crouton salad topped with a pesto-style wonderment. It was at this point that I leaned toward my husband and said, “What I’m about to say hinges on the main course, but this could be better than Husk.” I whispered this, like it was some sacrilege. After all, Husk has garnered attention (and deservedly so) as the prime example of the resurrection of Southern food. Charleston in general has become some Southern fantasyland for the more northerly inclined. Its chef, Sean Brock, is popping up in Vogue, on No Reservations, taking curious journalists on Southern food road trips (Men’s Health). How the hell could something in Roanoke possibly compete?
When I took the first bite of my entree (trout over Carolina grits, topped with a smoky shrimp remoulade), and when I took the second bite of my husband’s entree (a pork rack featuring pork belly), I had my answer: Because it just could. Because at its helm is a chef who, to put it bluntly (earmuffs, kids), gives a shit. That’s not to say others don’t. But he and the owners have gone out of their way to create a restaurant that gets to the root of what true Southern food is about: using good, local ingredients and cooking to highlight the natural flavors. Nothing was masked here, nothing hidden under myriad sauces or overbearing seasoning. The presentation was simple, nothing to detract from the natural beauty of pork belly glistening with glorious fat. (What more do you need on a plate?) The portions were generous, which I appreciated. As a girl raised in the South and an endurance runner, I like to eat. The last thing I want is some cutesy plate with a dollop of food on it. I need a substantial meal, and boy did we get just that.
Because then came the dessert.
At some restaurants, dessert could be an afterthought. At River and Rail? It was just what dessert was always meant to be: the perfect ending to the perfect meal. I opted for the blackberry cobbler (because I never turn down cobbler), while my husband chose a vanilla cake garnered with nectarines, hazelnuts, and a peach frozen yogurt. And then came a third dessert: banana pudding topped with a jalapeno sorbet. This was definitely not your grandmother’s banana pudding. This was the perfect pairing of fruit and a cool, cool heat. Chilis/peppers and fruit are not an uncommon pairing in food (though it seems to appear more in ethnic cuisine such as Thai), but why it’s never been applied to banana pudding is now beyond me. Like chicken and waffles or PB&J, it was just the perfect marriage of flavors. I think my husband got about two spoonfuls of the pudding because I got really greedy. Also, I was personally thrilled that not one dessert was overly sweet. Nothing was swimming in sugar: it was all about enhancing the natural sweetness of the ingredients used.
The crazy part? The restaurant has been open for only about six weeks. You would expect some hiccups, some struggle. It’s difficult for any new establishment to be this amazing pretty much right out of the gate, and we did hit a bit of a speed bump in the form of having to wait a while for my husband’s cocktail, but once the ball got rolling, it was nonstop stunners.
So how do I sum all of this up? By urging you to go try it out for yourselves. Go make those reservations, go support a restaurant that strives to support your local farmers and producers. Go watch Chef Deal in action, and do it now, because once word spreads further, you can mark my words that he’ll be the new face of Southern cuisine. For my part, I’ve decided to run the notoriously hilly Blue Ridge Marathon in the spring just to reward myself with the River and Rail burger at the end. I just hope I can find some room at the bar by then.
Update: Thanks to the folks at Polished Pig Media, now you can get a visual of the restaurant! (Photo courtesy of The River and Rail.)