First Look: The River and Rail–Roanoke

Back in April, I was given the chance to sneak a peek at The River & Rail, a new local-foods-cum-Southern-oriented restaurant in the Crystal Springs neighborhood of Roanoke. At the sneak peek, G & I were given the chance to enjoy some wine, chat with other residents and with restaurateurs, and, most importantly, taste a tidbit of what chef Aaron Deal has up his sleeve. Between the oysters, cured meats, and deviled eggs, I was sold on the prospect of the restaurant and eagerly awaited its opening.

That was back in April.

The River and Rail didn’t open until June. And I respect them for that. They waited for their cooking team to train and get comfortable with the menu, they waited to train the front of house, and they waited to get their purveyors in line. That’s good stuff.

See, I come from a background of get-it-done-who-needs-a-plan (not my idea, by my former employer’s) and, while I wish them the best in whatever they’re up to these days, Big Pine Provisions was a complete failure. We didn’t have a plan. Sure, we got it off the ground and running, but I should have never been the main cook behind that venue. And when we did hire a chef, we didn’t figure things out before going forward–something that created a lot of tension. There’s a lot to be said about having a vision, drawing up a strategy, and implementing it. Follow-through. It’s key. Big Pine Provisions is no longer in business. I hope that isn’t the fate of The River and Rail. (God knows they’ve put the effort into it.)

But enough of that–the dining experience. Let me state for the record: I RARELY (read: I’ve once before) go to a restaurant the first two months it’s open. It’s risky business. Every restaurant needs its time to settle in, figure out the menu, coordinate the staff, get a rhythm. Restaurants that I go to after two months have, largely, nailed it, learned the tempo. So, of course, throwing caution to the wind, I visited The River & Rail the first week it was open.

I like taking risks. Sometimes they pay off.

What a relief it was to finally walk in the front doors to a finished space–pale blue walls, dark floors & bar, bench seating along one wall flanked with high windows. Lots of light. We were close to the solstice–June 19–so our 7 pm reservation promised lots of natural light (something I took full advantage of). At the entrance by the reservation stand are a few tall bar tables that are used for bar space in addition to the bar itself. All tables were full. Back by the open kitchen, larger tables were combined to seat a group of 10-12; in the middle are the two-tops. And that’s my one irk regarding the space–when I come to a restaurant in a party of two, it normally means I’m with G (or, before G, on a date). That means I want a more private, romantic space. Being seated smack dab in the middle of the restaurant with servers whizzing by is exciting, sure (I was almost whacked by an extra chair making its way to a table–the menu took the brunt of the hit, thankfully), but it’s the antithesis of intimacy. I realize space is hard to figure out, hard to divvy, but I found myself desperately wishing I were seated in one of the four-tops along the wall. Or at the bar.

Once seated (we were a few minutes early), we ordered cocktails–the Jalapeno Sour (Sauza Hornitos Reposado, jalapeno, fresh lime juice, egg white) for me, an Old Gabriel (Old Overholt Rye, Campari, sweet vermouth, bitters) for G. Shazam, that Jalapeno Sour packs a spicy punch. For the first time in a long time, I was excitingly surprised by a cocktail. I expected it to be slightly jalapeno-y, with a slight kick (it’s Roanoke, things are often dull here, taste-wise), but it was full on, presumably uncomfortable for most. While I loved it, I’d say order it with caution. If you’re not a fan of peppery heat, stay away. The Old Gabriel was good too–I have an alternate issue with it in that I’m not the biggest Campari fan and I found the Campari to overwhelm the rye. But it was well crafted and a pleasant sip. I’m definitely planning on testing the barkeep’s mettle with an Old Fashioned the next time I’m at the bar–it’s the most difficult to pin down drink for all the bartenders in Roanoke. I’m excited to see if the bar tender can figure out the simple, classic cocktail.

The menu itself changes daily, depending on what chef Deal can source. To start, we ordered the “Garden Pickle Pot & Vegetables”–a mix that included carrots, beets, radishes, and celery. Quite a few pickles for just two diners, but each vegetable seemed to be brined slightly different, the radishes and celery seeming to have the most bite (which would be typical for a radish, but less so for celery) which led to an enjoyable plate. And for a non-beet fan, I found the beet pickles to be fresh, crisp, and just vinegar-y enough to hold interest. Paired with Bread Craft’s buttermilk rolls, the pickles were a great, fresh start to the meal (minor complaint: please please please warm your rolls before serving–there are few things sadder in this world than a cold dinner roll).

After the pickles, we shared the “Farro Flour Fettucini with Chicken Confit, Wild Mushrooms, and Sugar Snap Peas.” The noodles were cooked a perfect al dente and the sauce would be a great winter-spring crossover (rather heavy with the chicken confit, like a stroganoff). That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious, it was!, just a little rich for the eighty-degree weather. The mushrooms and sugar snap peas complemented each other perfectly, though–a meaty bit with a crisp, green snap–and the chicken was moist and slightly fatty, lending a rich tone to the farro fettucini. Over all, a great dish–maybe just one I would have liked a little better a month or two earlier.

Next was the “Market Vegetable” offering, featuring cheese grits, carrots, radishes, broccoli, greens, and beets. It ended up being G’s favorite main course, I think because of the simplicity. I’ll admit, it was hard not to compare it to David Sweeney’s vegetable genius at Restaurant Eugene, but I did, truly, try to taste it at its own level. The grits themselves were creamy and rich, with the perfect amount of nubby crunch you want from a bowl of grits. The vegetables were hit or miss for me, however. Some were cooked well–roasted edges, soft middles–but others were almost raw, a little too abrasive for the palate (when it’s a chunk of beet or half of a carrot, not a thin radish shaving, that is). And, overall, I found the dish to be far too buttery. Instead of letting the vegetables tell the story, I found the butter cloyingly fat, salty at worst, and felt it masked the truly fresh flavor profiles of the local vegetables. It’s not that the dish was inedible–it was far from that!–it’s just that I felt it could have risen to greater heights, that it could have truly preached the power of the simple Appalachian vegetable.

Our other main was the “Summer Flounder with Carolina Rice Grits and Smoked Shrimp Remoulade.” This dish nailed it. Flounder from Local Seafood Delivery (gigged in North Carolina!) was nested with a rich, creamy remoulade of smoked shrimp on a bed of rich grits. This dish oozed Southern charm–I felt like I was back in Charleston visiting my grandparents, walking the Battery, and dipping into little cafes to eat all-too-exotic dishes for my thirteen-year-old taste. True, the more personal the dining experience, the better, and I think this dish exemplifies that fact. There was a story to tell with each bite, and the fatty chunks of shrimp paired with the thin, lightly fried flounder, and the creamy grits took me back to those days in Charleston and to my first forays into finer cuisine. I’m a Southern girl raised my Midwestern parents–culinary traditions are a little weird and non-local in my family, so, even though I’m not from the coast, I highly identify with coastal Carolina cuisine.  Even beyond that, however, this dish was a stand out favorite for me, one that would please any seafood lover.

Finally, the fin de siecle of the meal (yes, I am stretching the meaning of that phrase, bear with me)–“Virginia Cherry Hand Pies with Black Pepper Dough and Buttermilk Sorbet.” Now I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I came to this dinner having just maraschinoed some Floyd, VA, cherries, and I swear those cherries had some bourbon or some liquor going on with them–which made them all the more tantalizing if so, but I’d love to know if it was just the natural cherry flavors or a little sumpin sumpin. I’m a hand pie fanatic and I do realize that they’re last year’s cupcake, but you can’t beat a flaky pastry crust (black pepper flecked to boot) filled with cherries from up the plateau in Floyd. And buttermilk sorbet? Hold me steady, that stuff was delicious, if melty. Tart and slightly sweet, it played with the bright flavors of the cherries, the pastry as well.

In terms of overall experience, The River and Rail exceeded any expectations I hold for restaurants in their first week of business. Parts of service were sluggish–we waited 15-20 minutes between courses at times–and parts were stressed and frenzied from the front of house. I think they’re just getting their routine down (hence the chair being ferreted from the back of the restaurant to the front that hit our table and knocked my menu onto the floor, narrowly missing my face). The kitchen, though, seemed to have its act together and pulled off a fantastic meal for us. I especially loved the openness of it–even its first week, the communication between Aaron and his sous was quiet and almost nonexistent, the two a well-oiled cooking machine churning out plates for a full restaurant.

That said, if the issues with front of house are still there two months down the road, I think they’ve got something to worry about. I’m fairly certain, however, that they’re just growing pains. And I’m excited to see the restaurant evolved and adapt to the area, to watch the wine list diversify (we shared a Vina Nora “Peitan” Albarino 2010, in case you were wondering, with dinner), and to see how the diners feel about the changes and certainties that any restaurant experiences. Southern. Appalachian. Styled but still comfortable. I’m already a fan of The River and Rail–I hope they keep up the good work.

The River and Rail
2201 Crystal Spring Ave. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014-2483

6 Responses to “First Look: The River and Rail–Roanoke”
  1. oh my gosh what a delicious meal! yum! that dessert looks fabulous!

  2. FoodFeud says:

    Holy crap, I mean, I’m vegan, but buttermilk sorbet? Wow. The cherry hand pie sounds amazing as well. Question about the drinks – do they tell you on the menu that there are egg whites in there, or did you ask? I know egg whites are occasionally used in cocktails – I just don’t want it to sneak up on me.

    • Jes says:

      Fizzes are made with egg whites, but the restaurant did list the ingredients on the menu (including the egg whites). I’m pretty sure most restaurants do that when they use a product like egg in their drinks. Always worth double checking though!

  3. Really enjoyed reading this and eating vicariously through this meal! I know what you mean about cherries.. They can go in that direction of “sumthin-sumthin so easily… especially when they are.. very ripe. A heavy handed “splash”, goes a long way. Bourbon vanilla with extra bourbon?… tee hee.

  4. Jes – what a great and thoughtful review. It will always be impossible for me to withhold bias about the River and Rail (I am the principle owner’s twin brother and brother in law) but I have now eaten there 5 times since family opening weekend (the latest being this past Friday night) and I agree with most everything you have said. The good news is that the last 2x I had to sit at the bar (I am not a name dropper) as it was too busy to be seated BUT the service was 2x better than my initial two visits. I think they are tackling the “front of house” issues that you spoke about but are still delivering a great and unique food experience. I think Roanoke is to have what in my mind is a very special place. Again I think your review was well written and very well thought out. Kudos to you and the River and Rail team. Talking about food — especially uncommon dishes — can be exciting!

    • Jes says:

      So awesome to hear that service has picked up–I figured it would, always tough the first few weeks. Can’t wait to visit again, you’ve got me excited to go back again soon!

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