Spending some time at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello near Charlottesville the other weekend made me think about how much the sustainable local agriculture movement has taken off. With more local markets than I can count and community gardens popping up all over town, there's some serious momentum behind the local-food movement.
Seizing a ripe moment, the Fan's new Sprout Market & Cafe is a business with a mission. Getting some 90 percent of its products from Virginia growers, it serves lunch, dinner and brunch with goods from such local names as Manakintowne, Agriberry, Avery's Branch Farms, Farm to Family, Twin Oaks, Deer Run Farm, Ault's Family Farm, Night Sky Farm, Billy Bread, Homestead Creamery and Green Duck. With many restaurants waving the local banner, there are few that I know of that take it to the extent Sprout does. Crates of produce and local artists' wares are displayed at the entrance.
On our first visit we start with a sampling of appetizers. Cheese hush puppies ($5) are an indulgence and arrive piping hot with a spicy aioli dipping sauce. Honey-glazed biscuit crostini ($8 for 3) are topped with a choice of deviled eggs, minced bacon, fruit chutney or toasted cheese. The sweet and crispy biscuits are a fresh riff on the traditional crostini base and the toppings are unusual as well. Deviled eggs have a hint of curry; the fruit chutney nods to the last peaches of the season; and the crispy bacon bits topped with spicy mustard offer the perfect combo of salty and hot.
Roasted tomato tartlets ($8) channel the essence of late-summer tomatoes and are the star of a plate that also includes caramelized onions, melted cheese and a rich balsamic sauce. The only disappointment is the crust, more akin to a matzo cracker than traditional tart crust. My boys are in heaven with their Polyface Farm free range beef burger sliders ($12 for four) served on fresh buns with lettuce and tomato. They're everything burgers should be: tender and juicy with some fresh herbs mixed in.
Entrees come with a simple side salad of greens that burst with flavor and a basket of sesame Billy Bread and high-quality olive oil. Spaghetti squash and meatballs ($16) are more healthful options than traditional pasta, and the pork meatballs add a nice element of spice to the fresh roasted red-pepper marinara. My wife orders Parisian gnocchi with a brown butter sage sauce ($9). Instead of being made with potatoes like an Italian gnocchi, this variety uses pA›te Aÿ choux, a classic French pastry dough that is poached. The results are a breadier version. The sage-tinged sauce is more brothy than saucy, and includes fresh tomatoes, green beans and greens.
After working late one night, I decide to pick up dinner from Sprout and am not disappointed. A baked sweet onion is stuffed with a pesto more nutty than basily and topped with bacon. It's a bit tough and on the expensive side for the size ($8). But otherwise the menu is well priced, especially considering the quality of the ingredients. Beets and berries brulAc ($10) are a refreshing original salad of beets and blueberries with a lemony dressing and tart, creamy goat cheese. I'm still confused by the brulAc bit — nothing on the plate was burned or broiled as the name implies — but it's a great combination of earthy sweetness.
Herb-roasted chicken delivers simple flavors and is comforting and tender. The accompanying sage polenta is cut in a slice and crispy pan-fried. Dessert is a new take on cobbler — half a peach sits on slightly macerated berries with basil and is topped with just a touch of oats and brown sugar. It's summer's swan song to the juicy sweetness of the season's last fruit.
I hope that Sprout continues to attract a crowd. It's worth a trip even for those who aren't concerned with where their food comes from. But for those of us who are, it's doubly satisfying.
Sprout Market & Cafe ($)
1 N. Morris St.
11a.m.-midnight Tuesday through Saturday
Sunday brunch 11a.m.-4 p.m.