There’s nothing I enjoy more than when a meal ends up being a dining adventure. I savored one of those foodie experiences last month in Virginia at The River and Rail, a southern Bistro in the historic South Roanoke neighborhood. It was one of those standout experiences where I witnessed the marrying of flavors and textures I didn’t know possible as they playfully danced on my taste buds.
Let me preface this by saying Virginia and Roanoke really surprised me with their local culinary scene. I suppose you can say when I was invited to tour Old School Virginia (#OldSchoolVA for those social media inclined) in April, I was expecting the Blue Ridge landscape to be blanketed with mom and pop diners serving up good ole’ Southern comfort food as chicken and waffles, mashed potatoes drenched with gravy and collard greens infused with greasy bacon.
During my brief visit and particularity at The River and Rail, I discovered my assumptions were partly wrong. Chef Aaron Deal takes locally-sourced ingredients and makes traditional Southern fare deliciously hip and trendy. The meal I enjoyed is something I’d expect in New York, Chicago or Atlanta.
A Southern Classic, Almost: Pork Rinds & Pimento Cheese
Pork rinds were one of my starters and I am forever spoiled. (For those who don’t know, pork rinds are fried pork skin.) I spread a dab of creamy pimento cheese, a Southern classic, atop a curled, light and crunchy nearly-white nugget of deep-fried pork before popping it in my mouth. My taste buds melted this Southern-fried goodness while enjoying the salty and savory. The finale was feeling the spicy heat that’s been infused into the pork-rind on the back of my tongue.
Beautiful Deviled Eggs
I really had no idea a deviled egg could be an art form before this dining experience. I mean, it’s pretty basic – it’s a hard-boiled egg white filled with its yolk that’s been mixed with mayonnaise and spices, right? What I ate that night was pure magic. They were Deviled Farm Eggs with the yolk filling being the smoothest, creamiest texture I’ve ever enjoyed in a deviled egg and the dill flavor was subtle and refreshing making me think it had been picked from a garden that morning. They were topped with a dollop of what could have been stewed tomatoes (I’m not sure) and garnished with chopped chives.
Please Pass the Chicken Liver Mousse
Chicken livers really aren’t my scene but in the name of this blog, I gave it a try and it was pretty tasty, as far as mashed livers go. It was tan, somewhat fluid and full of that distinct flavor of eating condensed protein. The mousse was served with a crunch, thick toast.
Pig Cheeks. The Official Name?
The appetizer I was hesitant in tasting was the one with pig cheeks. I don’t know if it has an official name other than “pig cheeks.” A small stack of what looked to be brown, pulled pork was presented with a fried egg, sunny side up, on top. It basically tasted like pulled pork without barbecue sauce and egg, a salty and savory combo. I’m not sure what the desired flavor was, but have to give credit to the chef for utilizing the cheeks of pigs.
Did the Chicken Cross the Road to Be in The River and Rail Dish?
As for the main course, this was the tenderest piece of chicken I’ve ever eaten. This leg quarter was soft, moist and flavorful with spices and served atop mashed carrots, roasted purple carrots and bite-sized buttery buttermilk dumplings. It was pretty dang pretty to look at, too. Although, I was pretty hungry by the time it was served so I didn’t waste time admiring its beauty.
Eating My Veggies
I ordered the greens as an extra side dish because my body was in desperate need of veggies. Oh, boy. Another 21st-century twist to this Southern classic. Greens are prepared with garlic, onion, vinegar and Frank’s hot sauce to add a kick. One flavor doesn’t overpower, they all nicely complement the other.
And for the Finale, these Flavors Work. Really.
I’m not a dessert person but already this particular dessert at The River and Rail is legendary. Served in a small, hinged glass jar was banana pudding topped with crunchy cornbread bits and a scoop of coconut and jalapeño sorbet topped with essence of lime. Yes, it sounds so strange but it was mighty good.
The banana pudding is the real deal. It’s smooth, creamy and made with bananas and not that nasty artificial flavoring. Lime essence dominated the cold sorbet with hints of coconut and jalapeño heat shining through. The flavor and presentation were impressive enough to be memorable.
At the time of my visit, The River and Rail had been in the iconic Lipes Pharmacy building for almost a year. If you sit toward the back of the restaurant, you can watch the busy action of the kitchen. Because Chef Aaron sources ingredients locally, the menu changes often.
The River and Rail Restaurant
2201 Crystal Spring Ave. SW
Roanoke, VA 24014
Tel: (540) 400-6830
Open Tuesday through Sunday, call for times.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. They have not reviewed this post and opinions are my own.