By Marisa Marsey
(NOTE: Article courtesy of Veer Magazine)
It’s natural. When you’ve reviewed restaurants for nearly two decades (predating à la minute bloggers obsessing over exclamation marks: “OMG, two or three after YUM?!?!?”), run-of-the-mill meals, menu white lies, and pretentious posturing can leave you jaded. But in downtown Norfolk, cater-corner to MacArthur Center, a just-opened jewel box encases the romance of the bistro, evoking a different and rejuvenating green: Chartreuse.
The name doesn’t reference a daring Benjamin Moore high gloss, but the sustainable sensibility of husband-wife proprietors, Christopher Corrie and Karine Varga. Make that sustainability distilled with an artistic/eclectic twist. The modern gallery-like milieu adorned with her abstract artwork (she’s a Governor’s School alum) perfectly sets off his chef’s dream of a daily-changing menu. And the aforementioned romance doesn’t mean it’s just for two-by-twos; its soigné minimalism enchants generation-spanning foodies be they a trio of friends, a clutch of colleagues, or, indeed, starry-eyed dates. This is a place you can fall in love with.
An intimate L-shape holds just six lacquered tables graced with fresh flowers, a tufted settee by the entrance, and a petite bar overlooking Corrie cooking. The all-glass, street-side wall makes the cityscape – complete with ringing Tide – part of its décor. And allure. An upmarket catalog of aesthetic accoutrements such as Staub bowls and Laguiole knives will have you feeling you’ve slipped into a sumptuous Saveur photo shoot or the cosmopolitan cool of a Pink Martini song.
Proportionate to the bistro’s size, the menu (four or five first courses, a like number of mains, and three desserts) is Continental at heart, dictated by what’s fresh – and hopefully organic – that day. One night, a sublime rendering of chickpea-okra-tomato soup ($5), piping hot and chockablock with goodness, was both earthy and refined. Just a sip, and a delicious déjà vu seized me; I was back at Crackers circa 1995 (the original on Ghent’s 21st St., before changing hands and becoming the likable Little Bar Bistro) when the irascible, British chef-owner David Blackstock transformed a tiny spot into big dining news.
Corrie, a Norwegian in possession of a seemingly more placid nature, shares Blackstock’s red-hot passion, though, for beautifully-crafted, ingredient-driven dishes. His delicate crepe ($7) envelops duck confit, blissfully un-unctuous, but still blessed with a rich ooziness from its mating with melted brie. Cured salmon ($7) does his heritage proud; the fish delicately draped on toasted potato bread, made in-house, with arugula and a pink peppercorn gastrique one evening, reconfigured another with fresh baked sunflower seed bread, fried capers, and whole grain Dijon. He’s versatile with still more raw-ities (owing as much, maybe, to his sushi-rolling chops as to his homeland), such as N.Y. strip carpaccio ($8) with purple wax beans (whose color goes to green when cooked), three upstanding spirals of beef (enough meat for a meal) tautly wound with bitter greens, a precious quail egg atop the center wrap as if a bulls-eye.
“He thinks about dinner at lunch, and lunch at dinner,” Varga says of her husband’s menu planning. It’s sparked in large part by regular deliveries by Dave and Dee’s, known for homegrown mushrooms but now also a Virginia products forager for locavore chefs. A given haul could find Corrie and Varga (they met when she was the girl at the restaurant next door, Cora, and he was at Kotobuki) oohing and ahhing over paw-paws, perhaps, or fuzz-less baby kiwis.
Come for “Cocktails & Crudo” weeknights between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., and while sipping such as a lemon verbena champagne cocktail ($5) you’ll witness Corrie compose and print the night’s offerings and then review it with his staff (“…the eggplant, fried and served with goat cheese and roasted organic peppers, comes from Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore…that’s the chocolate poppy seed torte I made from my grandmother’s Hungarian cookbook”).
At a dinner last month, U-10 scallops ($25) were sweet and succulent, but the breakout star of the plate was a puree of Yukon potatoes and creamed cabbage that would make any colcannon-craving Irishman think it was St. Patrick’s in September. Alliterative ratatouille risotto ($17), that night’s vegetarian entree (there’s always one), gave equal play to rice and robust vegetables that spanned the spectrum: vivid red peppers, brilliant tomatoes, bright and tender yellow squash, green beans, and deep, dark, al dente eggplant.
Lemon chiffon cake ($6) with brandy butter-cream was as airy as a midcentury prom gown, revealing a deft baker’s touch. A hearty, crunchy cobbler ($6), bursting with peak-of-season peaches, supported a dainty cupola of peach sorbet, a study in textural contrasts.
Not everything is on point – sometimes seasonings are so subtle as to turn a dish into a cipher, other times a ham-handed peppering trounces true flavor – but despite fallibility, such mindfully-prepared fare possesses integrity. And just as Chartreuse, the French liqueur, continues to improve with time in the bottle, this namesake shows long-run promise.
Servers who unabashedly profess admiration for Corrie’s and Varga’s green vision abet that promise’s fulfillment. They recommend libations – house-made sodas, craft beers, herb-perfumed cocktails, a lovely little Cali-Euro wine list with some organics (farm to cork if you will) – and wipe tables with non-toxic cleaner as if on a crusade. At meal’s end, they’ll proudly hand you a postcard of Varga’s work. Quite fitting. Chartreuse is something to write about.
205 E. City Hall Ave., Norfolk. 965-2137. Lunch: Mon.-Fri. from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon.-Sat. from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Cocktails & Crudo: Mon.-Fri. from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. www.chartreusebistro.us; www.facebook.com/ChartreuseBistro