Meet Virginia's, a Neighborhood Joint From Two Fine-Dining Vets
Photos courtesy Virginia's
A breeze blows in through the open windows of the dining room at just-opened Virginia's, and patrons sigh happily, savoring the spiritual uplift that rides in with the first truly warm week of the year. It makes this well-timed Alphabet City spot seem extra charming in one of its first services, as staffers deliver glasses of chilled rosé poured from a tap, and plates of grilled cuttlefish with asparagus. I'm perched at the bar, and from my vantage point, I can see servers polishing cutlery in the kitchen, and diners toasting each other in a booth in one half of the split-room dining room. The pace here is casual and friendly, and it's easy to imagine whiling away several hours over several glasses of wine. That is just what owners Christian Ramos and Reed Adelson want to see happen.
Ramos and Adelson both have mothers named Virginia, which is where this restaurant got its name. That's a good, homey lens through which to view this concept. "This is more about being with the people that we love to hang out with," says Ramos. "We want to feed people like us. We want to greet them at the door and know them by name."
That's a bit of a departure from the partners' history: Each cut his teeth in fine dining.
The pair met at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, and then worked together at that chef's Las Vegas restaurant. That was Adelson's first job, after which he relocated to New York to help open the Mark by Jean-Georges Vongerichten before moving over to the front of the house at Locanda Verde. Ramos started in New York kitchens; he worked at Montrachet and at all of David Bouley's concepts before taking the job at Charlie Trotter's, where he started at the bottom and worked his way up to sous chef. When he left Las Vegas and moved back to New York, he decided it was time to work with Thomas Keller, a longtime goal, and took a job at Per Se. He was a sous chef there, too, and stayed behind the burners for five years.
Ramos and Adelson had begun forming plans for a restaurant when they first met, but it took several years for those plans to crystallize. "It was always a dream of ours," says Adelson. "We have the utmost confidence and respect for each other, and we'd always said, when we're ready, we should pair up."
Finally on the same page, they began looking for real estate, envisioning a casual neighborhood restaurant, the concept for which they planned to tweak just slightly depending upon which neighborhood they ended up in. "We were looking at a dozen spaces a day in the East Village, West Village, Williamsburg, and Harlem," says Adelson. "The current iteration was guided by the layout of the dining room, kitchen, and basement."
The address they ended up with is wedged into an old building with vaulted ceilings, and the dining room is divided in two: One side seizes the energy of the bar, while the other is a bit more intimate. "It's not dramatically dissimilar from Gramercy Tavern, but the whole place is very casual," says Adelson. They enlisted Sam Buffa and Amy Butchko — who designed Vinegar Hill House, among other projects — to build the space out, and personal touches infiltrate the décor: There are oak tables built by Ramos's uncle, and the walls are hung with vintage menus Adelson and his father collected from fine-dining temples over the years.
Ramos was interested in cooking personal food that's seasonal, organic, and sustainable, and the cuisine here falls into the vein of modern American and classic. The partners also wanted the fare to be approachable "We wanted food that we wanted to eat," says Adelson. "We're using interesting ingredients: sweetbreads, pickles, savory and sweet plays — but the neighbors can come twice a week, too." The menu changes based on the chef's thrice-weekly trips to the market, and features dishes like crispy sweetbreads with apricot, pea leaves, and english peas; duck with fermented soybeans and charred garlic scapes; and striped bass with razor clams and young potatoes. Whatever you order, do not miss the side of crushed potatoes — it's simply prepared and woven with crème fraîche, but it's an excellent example of the type of well-executed, comforting fare this kitchen is putting out.
Ramos and Adelson brought on a third Charlie Trotter's vet to handle the pastry program; Lauren Calhoun most recently held the role of sous chef at Roberta's. Look for seasonal sweets such as chocolate beet cake with beet cream, shaved Oaxaca chocolate, and amaretti; and raw honey panna cotta with rhubarb compote, pickled rhubarb, and rye biscotti.
And the partners enlisted Conrad Reddick, former beverage director at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago and another Charlie Trotter's alum, to design the drinks program. The wine list is deep in unique producers and sub-$50 bottles; the concise beer list features local pours. You'll also find seasonal low-alcohol cocktails that work nicely as aperitifs.
"It's been a dream," says Ramos of the opening process. "I have faith in my business partner, and I trust him. I don't have to worry about the little things that I know he's going to pay attention to."
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