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Trumpeting variety: Orzo’s a foodie’s delight

by Ned Oldham

eater-orzo-1Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar in the Main Street Market.

An elephant is like a tree—at least that’s what the blind monk who felt its leg deduced; his five fabled brethren felt differently. If Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar in the Main Street Market can be likened to an elephant, it might have to be one of those that famously traversed the Mediterranean areas working for Greeks, Romans, and North Africans because here owners-chefs Ken Wooten and Charles Roumeliotes have created a polished paean to Mediterranean cuisine via the Market space’s top-shelf position in Charlottesville’s foodie-fantasy, at the intersection of Local and Fine Taste.

I am not a blind monk; I am The Eater. It’s the variety of the layout that got me thinking of the elephant parable as we stopped first under sleek, dangling, swirled orange-and-blue glass lights over wooden stools and bar with coat hooks underneath. Here, a few over-40, country-club types were meeting their dates beneath the chalkboard list of bar-only small plates.

Across the terra-cotta-stained concrete center walkway, a small dining area with a few tables along a cushioned bench felt more casual than the main dining area. In this space, alongside a bourbon-sipping 50-year-old foodie couple discussing prime Market-quality real estate with their lawyer (about to depart for his other home in Florida), we tried the Greek Salad, faithful to and more refined than Greece’s ubiquitous horiatiki, rough-cut cucumber-tomato-feta with olive oil. In Orzo’s version, the smaller cut and addition of sweet onion maintains the dish’s simplicity; a dash of balsamic (reduction, even?) enhances and calms the onion. Also, the “roasted beets, Laura Chenel chevre, organic greens” (in the menu’s blunt but clear syntax) were super light, super fresh, cold and crisp.

A tangled nest of thin onion rings with a light, herbed breadcrumb crust, sprinkled with rough-ground sea salt and served with ketchup deserved Orzo’s lemon-garlic aioli, which is the best we’ve had in town— lemony and subtly garlicked, it accompanied the fresh-tasting and tender but losing-its-crust calamari we tried on another visit.

There is something vaguely Florida (Naples) or New York (uptown) about the aesthetic, particularly in the front area, perhaps the result of the industrial exposed brick and ductwork, steel beams, and concrete floors juxtaposed with the tropical palette of Laura Wooten’s impressionistic Mediterranean scenes. (She is another owner and wife to chef Ken.)

The Florida effect eases in the open space of the main dining area, and seems to disappear in the balcony. It’s almost homey up here (couples seemed either married or soon to be), and our crisply seared Meyer Ranch sirloin steak (the cut has a nice body for medium rare) with kalamata-feta butter proved a welcome alternative to filet or strip.

Yukons, roasted peppers, and caramelized onions made light work of accompaniment. We only wished, as we watched John Grisham dining in the main area below us, that the butter was warmer.

We consoled ourselves with a semi-sweet chocolate pot de crème: cream on top, soft dark chocolate crust, cold creamed chocolate below; and the citrus cake with Cointreau, orange juice, lemon zest, and whipped cream, a really tasty bundt pound that could’ve soaked up a bit more liqueur.

We still haven’t tried the rather private back table (though it also adjoins the inner Market), a luxurious enclave with a view of the wine racks, and recently occupied by nine 50+ gentlewomen in Lily and L.L. Bean, sipping pinot noir and enjoying fellowship over a slow, late lunch.

Our favorite spot is outdoors, trellised with flowering passion and trumpet vines, sheltered from the sun and Main Street traffic, with tall tables and the feeling of old world Mediterranean seaside bar/restaurants. On hot summer afternoons during siesta, drink cold prosecco or albarino (Orzo boasts an excellent wine selection), and crunch on baguettes topped with artichoke-cannelini bean spread and shaved manchego (a small stack of organic greens harbored a couple of wilts, but proved delectably useful atop this lemony, cream-colored spread). Or, on a temperate summer evening, share a plate of grilled haloumi cheese, drizzled with olive oil, with a bright hint of oregano and lemon. This is the place I like to return to.

None of the blind men fully defines the elephant; but from wherever you’re sitting, Orzo’s inventory-style menu is like a lexicon, a series of definitions made up of ingredients that are not fully interchangeable, but are versatile multi-taskers—parmigiano, fresh mozzarella, proscuitto, pulled rotisserie chicken, to name some we haven’t mentioned—constituent elements that combine and recombine in generally excellent taste.

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