Dining at Mockingbird
Mockingbird Restaurant in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood is both familiar and exotic. Mockingbird introduces elevated Southern Comfort with a ton of soul. Mockingbird is a new name in a familiar building, with an even more familiar (and formidable) executive chef.
Né Junction after (what felt like, and most probably was) years of renovation by owner Adam Frazier, Junction was born to hold the creative space for Melissa Close-Hart, wife of sister restaurant’s executive chef, Matthew Hart, to do the best work of her career. After a brief closing, the spot has reopened, been renamed, and redefined by what Melissa loves the most: traditional Southern cuisine.
While the entrance has changed, the warm atmosphere remains the same.
With warm lighting, yellow booths, and wood everywhere, Mockingbird’s vibe is elevated casual, and the staff add a warmth that leads nicely into the menu offerings, including specials (which you must sample!). I immediately ordered the new addition to their specialty cocktails, the Blood Orange Margarita, which I’m told was run as a special before making the cut on the curated list of only five beautifully perfected cocktails created behind the beautiful wooden bar. I was also pleased to notice a number of Zero-Proof options for those of us looking for an alcohol-free cocktail.
The cocktail I enjoyed was smooth and very vibrant. Coated with a lip-sized amount of spicy salt, obviously homemade, it tasted of burnt Orange with a light pink body. Perfect for someone who wants a highly drinkable Marg. The salt is incredible because it lingers on your lips, offering a pleasant burning with a bright lime-salt burst at the front. A perfect tang and depth of flavor with the addition of smokiness, and that’s just in the salt!
For an appetizer, we were offered Hart’s signature Hoppin’ John Fritters.
At first look, they are glistening and beautiful, with micro greens and buttery collards. Scallion and maldon salt are sprinkled on top, with what is a generous drizzle of pot ‘likker’ gastrique nestled underneath!
The rice is buttery and salted well, the purple eye peas are so delicious and tender, and the ham tastes a little salt-less. There’s sugar in the collards, which I didn’t think I liked at first, but after a few bites it helps lessen the richness of the fritters.
The fritters hold their crunch throughout many bites which is such a nice complement to the peppery greens and the play of salty and sweet is just perfect. This dish is best served in one heaping bite! I found myself craving a vinegar hot sauce, so order that along with if you’re a Louisiana hot sauce person.
Next up, a divine plate of crispy Pork Belly was served…
There is such a nice touch of sweet bbq sauce with each bite. The pork belly is just the way I like it! Crispy to the point of crumbling off the haunch with some melty pieces of fat mingled in there. It’s not thick or chewy, and is just the right amount for an app that two people might share as an amuse bouche of sorts, Southern-style.
At first it’s hard to place all of the flavors in this dish, but all of a sudden the blast of horseradish hits and the smooth and spicy flavor of hot Chinese mustard (!!!) swirled with the honey-hoisin bbq. The peppery burst of hot mustard cuts the fat and neutralizes the sweetness from the bbq to just the right level.
Under the Pork Belly is a light Slaw comprised of green cabbage (marinated nicely) with apples julienne. Maybe some celery root or fennel? That’s what I would do. This dish is an absolute winner, and it’s been on the menu since the opening in July of 2022.
I recommend taking a big bite out of the sliced apple (there’s only one, don’t fight) swirled in the hot mustard.
The pork is practically confit in texture and your best bet for a best bite is a portion of belly on top of the sliced apple with mustard, bbq, and micro greens. Not a lot of heat but it gives you that sharp bite I was hoping for.
If you’re the kind of couple or pair of friends who agrees to disagree concerning how bacon should be cooked, this one’s for you. It’s the best of all worlds!
After my cocktail, I opted for a white wine with a nice mineral backbone. I was served the 2021 Pinot Grigio from Barboursville Vineyard.
With its flat mineral on the nose and front of the palate, then rich velvet swirl and punch in the pucker/tart, this wine is mostly light and mineral, and perfect for shrimp and grits! Speaking of…
Next up was the Shrimp and Grits.
This dish has a beautiful aged flavor, like someone who knows how to do a roux the right way. The grits are exceptionally creamy and melt in your mouth! The green onions on top add that beautiful type of sharpness.
The Grits are playful and dynamic as they are simultaneously crisp and toothsome. Accompanied by the smoked sausage with its acute level of spice, this dish is truly heavenly, and certainly something you’ll want to try if you’re a S&G connoisseur. The cheese hides in the grits but in the best way. The shrimp are tender and perfectly done, with a nice sweet bbq flavor due to their Southern BBQ treatment.
Garnished with fried okra, this dish offers a wonderful balance of crunch and velvet.
For dessert, I enjoyed the Apple-Almond Crisp with Housemade Coconut Ice Cream, which is both Vegan and Gluten Free.
The apples are cubed and sautéed beforehand, presumably, which really adds a layered flavor profile that’s butter, molasses, confit, spices, and the perfect chew. The ice cream is not overly coconut, and if you didn’t know it was vegan you would absolutely not guess. The ice cream has a bit of vanilla bean, but the depth must also come from extract, which makes it an excellent balance to the rich apples.
With the ramekin piping hot, the ice cream softens quickly, but not in the way it would in its non vegan form.
The crisp on top is caramelized and slightly salty. It tastes like that kind of addictive granola that you can’t keep from popping in your mouth. As the crisp falls down the inside of the dish, it collides with the apple and gets soft and custardy. That is the perfect ending to a restaurant focused on warming, comforting foods.
It is an absolute pleasure dining in Close-Hart’s restaurant, which is clearly filled with plenty of Southern heart and soul. Let me make one thing abundantly clear: if you have yet to visit this establishment, you have wasted precious time!