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River and Rail OutsideRiver and Rail has totally transformed the old Lipes Pharmacy building, both inside and from the outside.
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Mike HavlickRiver and Rail sous chef Mike Havlick works some of the kitchen magic.
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Banana PuddingThe banana pudding features cornbread crispies and jalapeno coconut sorbet.
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Border Springs lamb ribsThe Border Springs lamb ribs are enhanced with crispy garlic and Sorghum molasses barbeque sauce.
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Black GrouperThe black grouper is topped with roasted spachetti squash, toasted almonds and herbed buttermilk.
River and Rail Outside
Border Springs lamb ribs
It’s nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and Chef Aaron Deal is sitting at the bar at the River and Rail enjoying a cup of French press coffee and the quiet and solitude that he rarely gets to experience at the new Southern bistro that has taken up residency in the old Lipes Pharmacy building on Crystal Spring Avenue in Roanoke.
Deal shows all the signs you’d expect to see in the executive chef at a newly opened restaurant. He’s a little bit tired, a little bit obsessed with food and drink, and passionate enough about what he’s doing to be there early after having been there late the night before. He’s got a look-you-in-the-eye directness that would be kind of offputting if we’d been talking about politics or “Star Wars” or gardening. But when it’s a guy talking about putting his heart and soul into his dream, it just seems natural. And you can tell that hospitality is flowing through his veins; he makes sure I’m set up with coffee and that I’m comfortable before he’ll say a word about himself or his restaurant.
But once we’re seated at a long table just adjacent to the open kitchen, it doesn’t take him long to warm to the subject. Deal, who hails from Morgan, N.C., stresses that he has four goals every day:
“To provide service, food, atmosphere and value.” He acknowledges that consistency is a slippery goal, and that his team falls short from time to time. But, he says, “there’s a lot of thought that goes behind everything we do. Because if you don’t do those four correctly, it doesn’t matter what you have on the plate and how innovative it is. They’re coming to eat.”
I ask him about the crossroads between upscale Southern dining and the more down-home aspects of a cuisine style that brought the world fried pickles and chitterlings (neither of which, I should point out, are currently on the menu). Where does world-class dining meet granny’s kitchen?
“I think people’s expectation is to get something that they may not be able to cook at home. So we want to provide that aura. … That being said, we still want to be approachable and fun. There’s something about being able to serve country ham and deviled eggs.”
He pauses for a moment and laughs. “It’s funny; everyone thinks that their deviled egg recipe is the best one in the world. And that’s one example of how cool it is to see one little thing bring out so much culture from people.
“We want people to be able to look at the menu and say, ‘Chow chow! Butter beans! Deviled eggs!’ But at the same time, the food’s not presented in a way that’s so complicated that it takes away from the fact that there’s a lot of simplicity behind what we do.”
Deal seems to take it as a given that he should use local ingredients as much as possible, but rejects the label of being a “locavore” restaurant.
“It’s huge. I hate the cliché of ‘being local.’ It’s not like we’re trying to be farm-to-table. We’re a Virginia restaurant. This is the way it should be. We are in Roanoke. There are great ingredients around and available. Why you wouldn’t use those and why it seems so innovative, I can’t figure out.”
It’s probably not accurate to say that Deal’s primary focus is on the restaurant’s bar and cocktail offerings, but they’re obviously on his radar. He’s created a number of the cocktails on their list, and even makes his own tonic water in house.