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REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times October 30, 2012 Ashley Brennan (left) and Robin Rhodes, both of Daleville, dine at River and Rail in Roanoke on Oct. 30 to celebrate Brennan's birthday.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
The River and Rail, a cozy new restaurant named for Roanoke’s river and railroad heritage , is located in the landmark Lipes Pharmacy building in south Roanoke . It opened in June and showcases Southern bistro food.
The unpretentious, handsome decor goes well with the down-to-earth preparations, which are a combination of fresh seasonal ingredients from local and regional producers brought together through the culinary expertise of executive chef Aaron Deal and his staff.
Deal developed an appreciation for fresh food from his mother and grandmother, who transformed garden harvests into family meals. He refined his own cooking skills in culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., then landed plum jobs at acclaimed restaurants in Charleston and Chicago before coming to Virginia to intern at Town House in Chilhowie . After a stint in Cambridge, Mass., he was discovered by the owners of the Lipes building, who wanted to share his cooking with others.
Deal said he takes pride in knowing that everything served at The River and Rail is made in-house from the finest, freshest ingredients. Many of his dishes, as well as the family style in which some of them are served, recapture the mealtime pleasures he enjoyed while growing up.
I visited The River and Rail four times with friends. We found that the menus for dinner and Sunday brunch, although seemingly brief, pack an array of pleasing dishes playing similar notes but different melodies for both meals.
A mimosa cocktail ($3) is the way to begin brunch. This drink has never given me great pleasure before, but this combination was so perfect in every respect that I had to have two.
Red kuri squash soup ($6/brunch; $8/dinner) makes a great starter at either meal. The velvety, pale orange soup is speckled with bits of country ham and crunchy peanuts, which balance the complex flavors contributed by buttermilk and a touch of honey. Lamb ribs from Border Spring Farm in Patrick County ($10/brunch; $12/dinner) have tender, fall-off-the-bone meat seasoned with garlic, lemon and sorghum molasses barbecue sauce.
Other brunch dishes I recommend include the farm egg omelet ($12/brunch), an alluring combination of North Carolina blue crab, peppers, farmers cheese, and garden herbs. Sides of grilled wheat toast ($2) and salt-encrusted home fries ($4), plus a cup of full-bodied French press coffee ($5 to $7) make a satisfying meal.
Try the soft scrambled eggs ($12) served in a cast-iron skillet and accompanied by grilled pork belly, buttery heritage purple cape beans, and grilled wheat toast. There’s also a grass-fed beef burger ($12) topped with aged cheddar cheese, lettuce and crispy onions, and served with home fries sparkling with coarse salt.
Another favorite, Carolina shrimp ($14), comes with stone-ground grits encircled with an arrangement of smoked mushrooms, plenty of shrimp and a poached egg on top. But the second time I ordered this dish, my heart sank because of the salty pockets I encountered while trying to enjoy it.
The dinner menu begins with seven items titled “For the Table.” These foods the chef grew up enjoying are intended for passing around the table, a typical Southern custom . Among my favorites are the luxurious ham plate ($6) featuring loosely furled slices of transparently thin, tender and not-too-salty country ham on a plank. Deviled eggs ($2 each) offer balanced ingredients with just the right acidic lilt.
I thought I had met the perfect salad ($6/brunch; $8/dinner) as I waxed poetic over each forkful of the sublime garden lettuces tossed with shaved vegetables and dressed in classic French vinaigrette. Then I encountered a lode of coarse salt crystals, which burned my tongue. All good things come to an end, and that was the end for this salad.
Beef hanger steak ($18/brunch; $28/dinner) turned out to be an expensive homely meal. Several bite-size pieces of salty beef sat atop creamer potatoes, wild mushrooms and swirls of charred onions. My partner, who ordered the steak, jealously eyed the plump chicken breast ($22) with smoked pepper puree, October beans and wild mushrooms on my plate.
Desserts ($8) range from home style cobblers to a sophisticated cheese plate ($6), each accompanied by wine suggestions ($7 to $10 per glass).
I’ve had the pecan butter cake with apple jam, chopped pecans and burnt caramel ice cream, as well as dark chocolate bread pudding with toasted oat streusel and malted chocolate ice cream. Unfortunately, salt was strewn over the ice cream on both dishes, making it unbelievably salty.
Not to be picky, but …
The preponderance of salt in some of the dishes at The River and Rail disturbs me for a number of reasons. Not only is it unnecessary because a modicum of salt emphasizes flavor, but we know the health consequences of high sodium intake.
Every year, I make a few trips to San Francisco to assess restaurant trends there. Five years ago, chefs strewed finishing salt over meals. But these days, servers ask patrons if the kitchen should season their food and the answer is generally “No.” Salt and pepper grinders are on the tables at The River and Rail if patrons prefer more seasoning.
The bottom line
For the most part, The River and Rail is my kind of place. It is a welcoming restaurant, from the gracious greeting and pleasant farewell to the O. Winston Link photos on the walls. The food is well-prepared — minus the extra finishing salt .
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