Restaurant reviews are a bit of a specialty genre when it comes to writing. For those who are not particularly interested in the often cultish aspects of foodie-ism, they are a slog to read, let alone to write. For those who pride themselves on being able to distinguish twenty different types of saffron – the only sort you need to know is La Mancha from Spain, BTW – any such writing will be a vessel into which copious amounts of scorn may be poured. Suffice to say then, for both groups, that all you need to know is that Chartreuse Bistro in downtown Norfolk, Virginia is very, very good. For those who wish to know more, let us press on.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of dining at Chartreuse with this fellow and his gracious lady wife, who were kind enough to have me down to stay with them over the long holiday weekend. The philosophy at Chartreuse is one combining “new” elements of cooking, i.e. focusing on local, organic ingredients, but making use of many traditional Continental and American cooking techniques. There is no fixed menu, as the owners decide on the day what they are going to be cooking, based on what is fresh and available. There are also house specialty drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as well as a cocktail and wine menu, with options for every taste.
Charetreuse is located in a storefront in downtown Norfolk which, according to my hosts, has housed several informal restaurants over the years, but nothing like the current incarnation of the space. Very simple colors of black, gray, and white, low lighting, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furniture mask the fact that this is a very, very small dining room. There are a few seats at the bar counter, which gives onto the kitchen, and less than a dozen tables spread around the periphery. The tables themselves reminded us of the heavy, waxed concrete and stainless steel lab tables from high school chemistry class.
Scattered here and there are touches of color in the form of flowers and accessories. I pointed out to our server that we were fortunate enough to have Mr. Squirrel, a squirrel-shaped votive candle holder, at our table, someone whose presence had been noted online by previous reviewers of the restaurant. Her reply was that the bistro was indeed full of “woodland creatures”, a remark confirmed upon closer examination of the rest of the dining room, and indeed of the facilities.
I observed people as they came and went during the humid, rainy evening, only occasionally overhearing snippits of lively conversation about bourbon or the theatre, but the vibe at Chartreuse is definitely one of a chill, local favorite. It’s as if you were invited to a party at the very chic flat of someone whom you do not know very well, and are surprised to immediately find that you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself. While not stuffy or formal, this is definitely a place to enjoy being a grown-up.
For cocktails, our server very graciously took my instructions on how to make the classic Andalusian warm weather rebujito, after my having seen a good, dry sherry listed on the drinks menu. Being in the South, I should perhaps have gone with something local. However this kickoff and the bottle of cava from a good Catalan cellar which we enjoyed with dinner, led to a meal fusing together of Mediterranean bistro cuisine with touches that speak to local, Tidewater ingredients and cooking.
My starter was an eggplant napoleon, comprised of layers of roasted eggplant, onion, mozzarella, and heirloom tomato stacked atop each other, acoompanied by both an olive tapenade and a wonderfully smoky vinagrette:
Charetreuse obtains their organic foods locally whenever possible, as part of the farm-to-table concept, and that earthy freshness came through in the dish. The combination of sweet, bitter, salty, and savory, made what could otherwise have just been a bland collection of normally fairly mild ingredients really shine. Moreover, as would become apparent with the main course, the chef really knows his business when it comes to things like dressings and sauces.
My main was a pasta dish featuring homemade fettuccini, wild mushrooms, Idiazabal (a cheese from the Basque Country in Spain), parsley, and okra:
Now okra is one of those ingredients in Southern cooking which, as a general rule, one either loves or hates – like collards, grits, and so on. Personally, I have always hated it, finding the texture too slimy and reminiscent of what happens when you leave cut flowers in a vase too long without trimming the ends. Our server assured me that this was not the gooey, grungy okra I had tasted previously to my infinite regret, and so I agreed to take a chance. Surprisingly, rather than something from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, the okra was a terrific touch, crisp and green, reminiscent of asparagus but without the assertiveness of that vegetable.
And then there was the sauce.
There are various theories as to what makes someone a good chef: being able to cook a perfect omelete, swift and skillful preparation technique, etc. For me, the mark of someone who knows their way around the kitchen is in their sauce-making. Whether brought together as part of the cooking process, or prepared separately and added to the final dish, a good sauce tells me that the person standing at the stove knows what he’s doing. So if I tell you that upon finishing my main course at Chartreuse, I wanted to sneak outside with the bowl and lick it clean, that should give you some indication of the level of skill involved in this particular kitchen.
My dining companions seemed equally pleased with their food choices. Of particular note, the roasted corn and tomato soup had a wonderfully complex perfume despite its apparent simplicity, and the tiny bit of beef tenderloin I sampled was probably the best I have ever eaten, perfectly cooked, with a wonderfully unctuous, buttery quality. Sadly, having gorged ourselves, none of us were up for dessert, but Chartreuse provides dessert choices that in their flavors would complement, rather than overwhelm, any of the dinner combinations.
Should you find yourself in the Tidewater region then yes – by all means go enjoy things like Brunswick stew and Smithfield ham at a reputable local tavern. However if you want something a bit more special, then do make the effort to visit Chartreuse Bistro. I am already anticipating my next visit.