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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.
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.
“I’m a chef. I like booze,” he tells me, deadpan. “I offer my feedback, I offer my ideas and experience to try to push them in the direction of what our concept is.
“‘Innovative’ is a tough word to use in reference to cocktails, because pretty much everything’s already been done, either on purpose or by mistake.”
He may be right, but that doesn’t stop some of the drinks on his list from being mighty effective.
To wit: My wife and I both remember trying one that listed moonshine as an ingredient. I’d tell you more about it, but for some reason, I can’t read any of my notes from later that night.
Our recent visit was on a weekend night, and it seemed like half of Crystal Spring had turned out. Several of the people we talked to said that they live in the neighborhood, and it seems like River and Rail is well on its way to becoming a walking-distance favorite. O. Winston Link photos adorn the walls, though the railroad motif is just a seasoning and not a gravy. Overall, the décor is rich and warm, but fairly understated.
True to Chef Deal’s word, a lot of the items on the menu are inspired by the culinary traditions of Appalachia. From the deviled farm eggs to the North Carolina trout to the garden pickle pot, most everything fuses country kitchen with upscale eatery. We started our meal with a half dozen of the Rappahannock oysters on the half shell and the heirloom tomatoes and smoked mayonnaise. This was a calculated move to try something flavorful without getting too filled up to really go crazy with the rest of the meal, and it worked out perfectly.
I should stop here and talk about the tomatoes. I do not like tomatoes. Anybody who has ever cooked for me in the past several decades will back me up on this. I do not like them in a box, I do not like them with a fox. When I was a kid, a trip to bed with no supper was preferable to eating one of the slimy things. So imagine my wife’s surprise as I did my best to corral most of this appetizer on to my side of the table.
“So you do like tomatoes!” she cried with primal abandon. And I was powerless to deny it, they were so crisp and fresh and flavorful.
From there, we moved on to a second course of farro flour spaghetti – rich and tangy with a smoky touch of bacon and ripe cherry tomatoes. The duck egg yolk gave the dish a light creaminess that wasn’t hobbled by the overbearing quality of a cream and cheese sauce. Each ingredient complemented the rest even as they combined into a unique whole. But as tasty as this was, it didn’t touch the Border Springs Lamb Ribs. Dredged in crispy roasted garlic and basted in a sorghum molasses barbecue sauce, they were so tender and flavorful that we just looked up at each other in wonder, without saying a word. For us, this is sort of unprecedented. Before long, we were negotiating over the last one, issuing wild promises of taking over chores in exchange for just one more bite.
For the main course, I chose the beef hanger steak with creamer potatoes, charred onion and wild mushrooms. This was a tasty, hearty selection, and the beef was cooked perfectly. My wife’s heritage pork rack was tasty and crispy, and our server told us that the purple cape beans it was paired with were nearly extinct. So we felt like we’d dodged a bullet there.
Naturally, after all of this great food, we had not saved room for dessert. But we’re good soldiers, and ordered it anyway. We decided to split the banana pudding, served with cornbread crispies and jalapeño coconut sorbet. Read that again a couple of times to let it sink in. If you’re like me, you think of banana pudding as that cloyingly sweet artificial stuff that comes with soggy vanilla wafers and has a slightly alarming yellow color not found in nature. This confection took the natural sweetness of bananas and paired them with the bite of the peppers and the tang of the coconut into an entire new thing.
“I can tell you this,” my wife said as she stole another bite from my side of the bowl, “If they’d made banana pudding like this when I was a child, I’d have gone to a hell of a lot more church picnics.”
All I can say to that is ‘Amen.’
River and Rail, 2201 Crystal Spring Ave.,