Out and About: Ambrosia Bakery and Blue Ridge Pig BBQ

What began as a leisure hiking and blackberry picking weekend morning trip turned out to be an unexpected, wild adventure. Sunday morning, 8am, Bradley, Wesley and I left Charlottesville for Crabtree Falls for an easy hike to awake the dormant soul. Crabtree Falls are arguably the most scenic falls in Virginia, at least that’s what I have head, because I wimped out and waited for my partners in crime at the bottom of the hill. I am scared of heights and I got to the point where my knees started shaking, my heartbeat accelerated, sweat dripping from my forehead…in short, I was a mess.

In my defense, did you read the sign????? Twenty three people have died hiking to the falls. In my mind, there was danger at every turn. I gladly settled on terra ferma, camera in hand and all of a sudden very happy to be alive. I am exaggerating, of course. (Maybe just a little). On a positive note, during my time perusing the earth for some photo-worthy creature, I met a chatterbox of a park ranger, who informed me that millipedes had recently been spotted around those woods. Not bears, not jaguars, not mountain lions. Millipedes. I could hardly contain my excitement. (I did not find a single millipede, to my disappointment).

My brave buddies, who reached the falls and graciously vowed not to make fun of me for bowing out and run to the bottom.

Before the pseudo-hike, we trekked down Route 151 and found the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Ambrosia Bakery & Deli. What a surprise! We caffeinated our bodies with coffee and tea and went straight to the bakery counter adorned with blueberry tarts, spinach and feta croissants, apple turnovers and many other incredible desserts.

As soon as my eyes found big, round cookies, I was lost. The best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had: hearty, crunchy and at the same time soft and sweet. Did you know that chocolate chip cookies were actually discovered by accident? Who knew! Apparently, Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner and founder of Toll House Cookies, was baking her favorite butter and chocolate cookies when she substituted a chocolate she cut up into cubes, to her usual dark baker’s chocolate.

This is Wesley’s breakfast, a sizable cinnamon twist with a sweet, creamy sauce. When served hot, the enticing aroma is very hard to resist.

And this is my breakfast of champions. There was really no escaping the chocolate chunks of all shapes and sizes.

Our hike, or I should say my freak out, run us very low in calories, hence our next stop. Right next to Ambrosia Bakery & Deli on Route 151 rests one of the best BBQ places in Central Virginia. I say that without a sheer of doubt, since the newspaper that employs me, said so. In July, C-VILLE Weekly hosted a BBQ contest complete with official judges, photos and prizes. It turns out, Blue Ridge Pig stands out above … almost all the rest. The judges found it just as appetizing as Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

One judge called Blue Ridge Pig “clearly superior.” Now, I haven’t yet tried Barbeque Exchange, but the competition gave me a neat idea. I want to chronicle, and eat my way through the BBQ pits of Central Virginia. Blue Ridge Pig was my first victim.

When I thought about a hole-in-a-wall, I had a faint idea of what that would actually look like. When I stepped into Blue Ridge Pig, I thought I entered a far away galaxy. Nothing I was looking at seemed familiar, but everything smelled divine. Sheets of paper and business cards covered the tiny restaurant wall to wall and pigs in all shapes and forms (stuffed animals, lamp stands) adorned the space. It was a magical place and the meat did not disappoint.

We ordered a beef BBQ sandwich on a kaiser roll, split it in three and dove in. The smokiness hits my palate first, then the vinegar-based sauce and, last, the cabbage. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was better, much better. The meat was perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy, it melted in my mouth. Even after a good 30 minutes, the smoky flavor still lingered in my mouth. Definitely a welcome companion.

And look at this turkey sandwich, one of Bradley’s favorites. A sweet and refreshing dill mayo rounded up the distinct flavor of turkey. All in all, this joint really deserves national headlines.

Next time, I take Francesco with me. They even have his favorite, beef brisket.

Out and About: Blackberry Harvest Festival in Nellysford

One of my favorite things about summer is the myriad of festivals around the Charlottesville area. On Saturday, we drove 4o short minutes from town to discover a little piece of heaven that is Hill Top Berry Farm. Nestled within luscious green hills, Hill Top is a small berry farm whose landscape is reminiscent of my beloved Tuscany.

Ok, maybe not Tuscany per se, but it was really a wonderful sight nonetheless. Right?

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the overwhelmingly hot and humid summer—and we are talking about a relentless heat wave of 100-degree days—dried out all the fruit trees. What I thought would be the best summer find (imagine the cobbler I could have baked!), turned out to be a sad reminder that the weather does control our food source.

But not all is lost. Apparently, we are supposed to get some much-needed rain in the coming weeks and I bet all the dried, sad little blackberries will be coming back to life.

The ripe and fatty ones we tried, however, were fabulous. So, until next time, happy picking!

Out and About: Vegan pizza from Whole Foods

I am not a big fan of pizza here in the United States. The dough is a bit chewy, the tomato sauce is practically raw sugar and the mozzarella cheese is tasteless. Yes, I am a bit harsh, but imagine my surprise when Francesco and I bit into a slice of vegan pizza at the local Whole Foods Market. The new store is something out of a movie: There is a bar where customers can drink a vast assortment of wines and beers, a homemade pasta section and a wood fire pizza oven that has apparently been crafted and shipped from Italy. Yay!

This was heaven in a slice: The crust was perfectly charred, the tomato sauce was juicy and flavorful and the addition of fresh tomatoes (San Marzano, I presume) was genius. I was so happy I almost cried. This will be my go-to place for pizza. Have you tried it yet?

Out and About: Peach picking at Chiles Peach Orchard

What a gorgeous day in Charlottesville: warm sun and gentle breeze. The perfect weather to go peach picking. After a fun morning at the City Market, my good friend Emily and I trekked to Crozet, Virginia to Chiles Peach Orchard. Picture the green hills of Central Virginia, sun bathed peach trees, families pic-nicking and acres of pretty green hills. Here are some pictures of our fun day. Enjoy!

Emily is an experienced peach picker!

Look at this peaceful landscape…who wouldn’t want to spend some time in the sun in this place?


I picked about 10 pounds of peaches. How many peach cobblers can I possibly make? Emily gave me a super tasty recipe for a spicy peach salsa. Stay tuned. We’ll blow your minds.

Chiles Peach Orchard is open from April through Thanksgiving and it might be the best kept secret in town – at least for me!

An enthusiastic and friendly picker!

New York Magazine gives thumbs up to Peter Chang’s China Grill

{Image: New York Magazine}

Peter Chang’s China Grill (which has won over my taste buds not once, but twice) has finally made headlines, big, thick headlines in one of the most important cities for foodies: NYC. Grub Street of New York Magazine has named the local restaurant among “Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.”

May I recommend the braised short ribs? Or the shallots bubble pancakes? You won’t be sorry. I promise.

After this accolade, the disappearing chef may just stick around for a while.

Out and About: Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace

On the day of our first wedding anniversary, our good friends Farah and Lee brought us to one of New Orleans’ most renowned restaurants for a unique experience: Jazz Brunch.

Commander’s Palace is an institution, voted most popular restaurant by the Zagat guide in 2009. We were escorted to our table by a suited gentleman. We walked through the busy kitchen and by the smell of it, I knew we were in for a delicious treat. The menu was pure decadence. After a quick read, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of dishes I wanted to try out: Oysters, crabs, cheviche. For appetizers, I decided to go with the quintessential New Orleans treat—and the recommendation of the cordial, animated staff.

Oyster & Absinthe “Dome” – Plump P&J oysters poached with bacon, artichokes, Absinthe and a splash of double cream ~ Presented under a flaky pastry shell.

When Farah’s appetizer reached the table, I was jealous. The shrimps were fresh and spicy, the texture of the remoulade was perfect.

Wild Shrimp Remoulade “Moderne” – Spicy boiled shrimp with Tabasco mousse, crispy brix, Creole remoulade and salt cured lemon zest.

Before we dove into each entrée, the meal took a musical turn. As per tradition, a jazz band goes around the restaurant’s various rooms and plays jazzy tunes. At time, the players invite the customers to join in the fun and that’s exactly what happened to me.

The band came around and I found myself dancing, with my napkin in the air, around the room with Lee.  It’s called Jazz Brunch for a reason! (Yes, that’s me with my friend Lee).

Picking an entrée was like choosing the perfect pair of shoes: You wanted the make the smartest decision. Being in New Orleans, I decided to order something that I would not so easily find in Virginia, so I went with a soft shell blue crab, fried, on a bed of greens with a poached egg smothered with Hollandaise sauce.

The crab was perfectly married with the sweet and tangy Hollandaise. I had never had a whole fried crab before. It didn’t taste like anything I have ever eaten before and the more I think about it, the more I’d love to eat it again and again.

Farah also picked fish: Griddle Seared Gulf Fish – Butter roasted artichokes, asparagus, pequillo peppers, grilled eggplant and tiny tomatoes with brûléed citrus & lemon-thyme vinaigrette.

Francesco went with the only non-fish dish on the menu: A beautiful beef filet adorned with a poached egg and a myriad of extraordinary sauces. The meat was so tender, it blended with the smooth texture of the egg and accompanied white sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we still had dessert. Commander’s Palace, it turns out, is known for its bread pudding souffle. Farah recommended it, we listened and agreed: It was insanely good.

The pudding was rich and velvety and the occasional raising gave it an unexpected crunch. Yet, the star of the dish, according to Francesco, was the luxurious whiskey cream—which was carefully served at the table, when the souffle was still warm.

In order to try another specialty, I picked something reminiscent of an American classic—strawberry shortcake with local strawberries and handmade whipped cream. The cake was soft, moist. The whipped cream was light and with a hint of vanilla. The strawberry syrup was rich, but not too sweet.

This was most likely the richest and most satisfying meal of my life. Great food is hard to come by, and good friends are even harder. Farah, Lee and the carefully prepared food made our first anniversary simply unforgettable.

Out and About: New Orleans, beignets and NOLA

It’s really true what they say about New Orleans. It is the ultimate foodie town. Francesco and I got in around midnight on a Thursday night. Our French Quarter historic hotel, Hotel Monteleone, was impeccable—exuberant crystal chandeliers welcomed us into the lobby and the charm of old luxury traveled with us to the seventh floor, to our room.

Sleep didn’t come too easy…I was too excited; I kept waking up expecting it to be morning—time for my first beignets. The alarm went off at 7:30am (I am a morning person and I am sure Francesco resents that), I jumped in the shower and was ready in 4.3 minutes. Our good friends Farah and Lee recommended we head to Cafe du Monde for the best beignets in town. We walked to the Decatur Street location, in the French Market, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people waiting to get their order. I would have waited for eternity. The beignets were out of this world—warm, soft, fried pockets of delicious dough covered in confectioners sugar.

We shared an order and sat in the crowded cafe´and enjoyed the noise. We watched as petite waitresses carried overly loaded trays from the busy kitchen to the even busier dining room. In the midst of a chaotic Friday morning, we were completely at ease with stuffed bellies and happy souls. It’s funny how good food influences your mood.

Of course, as soon as breakfast was over, I began contemplating my lunch options. Francesco and I decided to go all out and chose NOLA, Emeril’s restaurant in the French Quarter.

A sparely lit space, the restaurant had a surprisingly accessible feel—it had a modern warehouse look with metal and brick—and was filled with tourists. The menu was a bit daunting. As appetizer, we picked the Wood Oven Roasted Pocket Bread with Garlic Oil, Fresh Basil and Grated Parmesan, a delicious beginning to an outstanding meal.

For the entree round, we hit a major roadblock. Francesco doesn’t eat seafood. I know, how can you go to New Orleans and not eat fish? Luckily, a brisket dish saved the day. The Hickory Roasted Beef Brisket with Orecchiette Pasta-Brie Cream “Mac & Cheese” and Bacon Smothered White Beans was an impressive feast. Crispy, fried bacon covered the delicious Mac & Cheese, but the star was, of course, the slowly roasted brisket smothered with sweet bbq sauce. Such a simple dish, yet elevated to such culinary heights.

Then, it was my turn. I am an avid seafood eater. My Seared Rare Yellowfin Tuna with Avocado, Wonton Crisps, Cucumber, Wasabi Aioli and Ponzu Vinaigrette was everything I wanted it to be and more. The best Yellowfin Tuna I have ever had in my life. It was rare, fresh and just perfectly sprinkled with Ponzu vinaigrette.

The cucumber was cut into think slices as to resemble soft angel hair pasta noodles. The wonton crisps served as the perfect resting place for the delicate tuna. I still dream about this meal at night.

Our culinary journey was punctuated by moments of pure ecstasy. We walked around the French Quarter and beyond for an entire day and we came across The New Orleans School of Cooking, complete with cooking class (that I wish I had taken) and a vast assortment of various uber spicy—and humorously named— sauces and seasonings.


Headed to New Orleans

Folks, I’m headed to New Orleans. I’ve lived  in the United States for 10 years, and I have never been to New Orleans. Shameful, I know.

But I’ve done my homework, asked friends who swear New Orleans is the ultimate foodie town, and I’ve come up with a list of places I absolutely want to get lost in. After reading Tom Sietsema’s “Postcard” from NE, how can one not dine at Cochon? Just look at these items on the menu:

  • Fried alligator with chili garlic aioli
  • Deep fat fried hog head cheese with field beans and ravigote
  • Smoked beef brisket with horseradish potato salad

And if these delicacies somehow fail to capture your attention, Cochon’s co-0wner and chef Stephen Stryjewski just won the James Beard Award as Best Chef: South.

My friend Wesley also suggested some very interesting spot I can’t wait to try out:

Domilise Sandwich Shop & Bar, which a commenter eloquently characterized as “the Quintisential New Orleans hole-in-the-wall excperience … They emptied the kitchen sink into my shrimp Po Beaux.” Yep. I’m going.

Court of Two Sisters‘ Jazz Brunch. The buffet’s selections change with the season and with the time of day. In the afternoon, for example, one can find Creole jambalaya, turtle soup, Duck a l’Orange and Shrimp Etouffee in addition to omelets and Eggs Benedict.

NOLA, one of Emeril’s best known restaurants. Bam! I’m there.

If you have any suggestions, please send them along.

Gotta finish packing! See you in The Big Easy!

Peter Chang’s China Grill, the second time around

I can’t seem to be able to stay away from this place. It’s that good! This time, I went with three great girls and the night was nothing less than magical. As soon as we walked in, the scent of sizzling veggies emanated from the kitchen. It’s a good thing we had a reservation because the place gets crowded in a heartbeat. We take our seats and inspect the menu, four pages of what seemed succulent entrees. The decision would have been impossible to make, but our waiter’s unit of measure helped out, immensely: As soon as we picked something, he would rate it by an enthusiastic raise-the-roof gesture. If the entree´ was slightly less than exceptional, he would raise his hand only half way.

To start, we picked the famous bubble pancakes and fried eggplant.

These bubble pancakes were fluffy and crispy at the same time. Their companion sauce, we speculated, had a hint curry in it. Although they look so perfect when untouched, it didn’t take much to pop them. This appetizer lasted about 4 minutes.

My problem with this next appetizer was the spice level. Since I am a wimp and can’t handle spice very much (at all actually), the fried eggplants were a bit too much for me, but by the speed with which my Emily, Bradley and Wesley ate them, I’d say they were worthy of a fully extended raise-the-roof rating.

Next, we went with the highlight of the night  (in my humble opinion): braised short ribs!

The ribs were so tender and juicy (here you see them covered in Panko and decorated with minced green onion). Interesting story, this was the dish our waiter rated the highest. He was absolutely right. Amazing.

I picked an amazing chicken dish: Chicken with eggplant in a hot pot.

The eggplants, thinly sliced, melted in my mouth. The chicken was perfectly cooked, and the sweet onions completed the dish. As if these delicacies weren’t enough, we ordered sesame shrimps (a bit too sweet) and duck (excellent).


Here is our glorious feast. I knew I loved this restaurant before, but this visit cemented my appreciation for good food.

Thank you Emily, Bradley and Wesley for making that night a perfect dinner.

Out and About: Charlottesville’s Peter Chang’s China Grill

I had the privilege to try the creations of elusive chef Peter Chang back in February. Peter Chang China Grill is just want Charlottesvillians had been dreaming for: Tasty and masterly crafted Szechwan cuisine.

Fun Fact: Chang cooked a meal for Chinese president Hu Jintao and moved to Washington D.C. to become chef at the Chinese Embassy.

Before Peter Chang China Grill opened, the chef created headlines, both locally and nationwide, for this quick appearances and equally expeditious exists. He would pop up near Atlanta one day only to surface in Richmond the same week. (Click here and here to read more of Chang’s tours and incredible career).

I love trying new things and Peter Chang China Grill didn’t disappoint. At the grand opening dinner on an unusually warn February evening, Chang prepared 16 dishes, delicacies if you will. The hot and sour soup was a revelation. It usually isn’t my favorite, but Chang’s was delicate and complex. We were served fried beef, crispy tofu and glazed duck, among other things, and the meal ended with sesame balls with bean paste.

This lamb dish was amazing… if only I could taste it! (I can’t handle that much spice…see the red pepper flakes?). But these rice covered tofu balls were Out. Of. This. World., the perfect combination between soft and chewy. The accompanying baby bok choy were exquisite, tender and sweet.

Before dessert, a whole, fried fish made its way to our table. Enough said.

I highly recommend a trip to Chang’s new dig in Charlottesville. You won’t be disappointed.