From Beach to Bistro

Todd Jurich’s namesake Norfolk restaurant is proof that the veteran chef has parlayed talent and business savvy into big-city success.

Photography by Tyler Darden

When Todd Jurich opened his first downtown Norfolk restaurant back in 1992—Bistro 210 on York Street—many people scratched their heads at the term “bistro,” still a foreign concept. Typically, port cities are the first to embrace the new, the exotic, the foreign—think Venice, New York, San Francisco. But, even though it’s enjoying a Renaissance these days, the cultural and economic capital of Hampton Roads apparently took some serious seducing in the culinary arena. Chefs like Jurich and Sydney Meers, whose landmark restaurant the Dumbwaiter was located just a few blocks from Bistro 210, knew they needed to entice and convince diners with new flavors, artful presentations and sweeping wine lists, kind of like parents introducing solid foods to toddlers for the first time.

Their efforts paid off. Today, Norfolk diners can pick from an impressive selection of topnotch restaurants—from Luna Maya and Bardo in Ghent, to Empire and Vintage Kitchen downtown and Meers’ new charmer, Stove, in nearby Port Norfolk. What’s more, a new-and-improved culinary institute just opened in the city (taking the place of the relocated Johnson and Wales), and it could presage an even rosier future for area diners when this recession ends. Lean economic times have forced the closing of several young-and-trendy eateries; I couldn’t help noticing, for instance, that a handful of places I enjoyed on my last dining-driven visit to Norfolk in 2006 had vanished as quickly as a pomegranate martini or a plate of pork and ginger potstickers. All the more reason to pause and pay tribute to pioneers like Jurich—restaurateurs who have not only led the trends, but also survived them.

An intuitive, primarily self-trained chef, this now 53-year-old veteran was no stranger to the restaurant world when Bistro 210 hit the scene in the early ’90s. A decade before beginning his now 17-year stint as one of Norfolk’s favorite chefs, he had already built a fan base at “The Beach” with restaurants like the elegant Iron Gate House and, of course, Crawdaddy’s—a small and seasonal Cajun-Creole joint, popular with surfers and gourmets alike. Soft-spoken and formal when you first meet him, as I had the chance to do this fall, Jurich gets a boyish twinkle in his eye whenever he reminisces about the early days. “Crawdad’s had one counter and four tables and a line out the door!” he recalls. “At Bistro 210, space was so limited that we stored wine under the benches where diners sat!”

Space is not a problem at Todd Jurich’s Bistro, the chef’s now five-year-old namesake. Occupying the ground floor of a corporate high-rise, directly across the street from the imposing battleship Wisconsin (Norfolk’s a Naval stronghold) and the newly spruced-up Town Point Park, it’s got a bustling 130-seat dining room, wood-framed bar, 3,000-bottle, temperature-controlled wine cuvée and state-of-the-art exposed kitchen buzzing with young chefs. It’s all evidence that the 6-foot-4 Jurich has parlayed his talent and business savvy into big-city success. Not bad for a beach lover.

Not only has Jurich cooked at the James Beard House and won 20 area “Golden Fork” awards and 11 Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence, he has also traveled as far as London and Thailand to experiment with flavors and bridge the gap between Hampton Roads and the rest of the world. One thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the high standard of Jurich’s contemporary cuisine, which highlights the best of the Chesapeake and the best of the season, often with international flair.

On the Wednesday evening of my visit, I strolled past the crowded bar and slipped into a cozy, candlelit booth next to a table of businessmen in white shirts and nearly identical ties. Throughout the evening, they debated politics and impending mergers while I was slowly seduced by plate after plate, pour after pour of Todd Jurich charm. A bowl of pumpkin and crab soup started me off, paired with a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. Both comforting and slightly exotic with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and (later, I discovered) a touch of B+B (Benedictine and brandy), this squash purée filled with pieces of gorgeous crab meat was like eating autumn. Next came a single, elegant and tender raviolo, filled with a smooth but tangy blend of cheeses and truffle oil and topped with a few shaved black truffles.

It takes a lot to impress me in the Italian arena, I’ll admit, but I was completely won over by the next dish: a rustic, seasonal slaw of sautéed escarole, Brussels sprouts, chopped tomato and white beans studded with cubes of local Benton’s bacon. The vegetables were so fresh and flavorful that I almost didn’t need the Chesapeake Bay jumbo lump crab cake on top. But, of course, I devoured that, too, washing it down with sips of pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The final course was a celebration: a pair of just-grilled grass-fed loins of lamb on top of a cassoulet of fresh black-eyed peas, carrots and bits of bacon. The flavors—earthy, grassy, slightly haunting and also convincingly southern—transported me from my downtown Norfolk surroundings to someplace green and faraway.

I found out mid-meal that my attentive server, Cory, is actually Todd’s niece. But the family connection doesn’t end there. His sister manages the office, while his wife, Crystal, made my warm and chewy fresh apple-rum raisin cobbler, which was served in a Calvados Chantilly cream (with a snifter of Calvados, naturally). And artwork by his mother, Roberta “Bertie” Whisner, appears on the label of the bistro’s private label, Bertie’s Cuvée—a 2004 cuvée made with grapes from Trespass Vineyard in Napa Valley.

Todd Jurich’s is the only Virginia restaurant I’ve been to that boasts its own private label. A big fan of California wine and small production vineyards everywhere, Jurich has hosted more than 130 wine dinners in the past 16 years. His new cookbook, A Perfect Pair, is slated for a 2010 release and will feature wine stories and, of course, pairings with each recipe. When we met, he was getting ready to leave for a 10-day tasting and harvesting trip to Napa Valley.

Before walking back to my hotel after dinner, I stood near the kitchen for a few minutes to watch Jurich and his team as they worked with quiet focus. Though still in charge of everything from ordering farm-fresh produce and fish to creating new recipes each season (and making sure the signature dishes remain just that), Jurich no longer works long, grueling hours in the kitchen. Instead, he seems to play the primary role of coach-mentor for his team of chefs (led by Eric Nelson and Justin Sears) and culinary school interns. “You need to keep their juices flowing, since young chefs love to create,” he says, “but they also need to learn the business and know their clientele.” The latter comes naturally to Jurich by now; it seems he can hardly walk two feet through the bar or dining room without shaking hands with an enthusiastic diner.

Just before lunch the next day, when the chef and I had a chance to sit down for a semi-leisurely chat, Jurich was interrupted every few minutes by friends and fans eager to say hello. By noon, the tables in both the bar and the dining room were filled, and the chef excused himself to help expedite things in the kitchen. Within seconds, a fluffy popover and a bowl of Jurich’s signature oyster stew appeared before me—plump, sweet oysters in a creamy broth hiding a mound of garlic-mashed potatoes and sprinkled with Cajun-spiced potato chips—and it was so good to be back in Norfolk again, and I promised myself I’d not let three years pass before my next visit to Tidewater and to Todd Jurich.

Todd Jurich’s Bistro is still unequivocally Todd Jurich’s Bistro. His name has become synonymous with an exceptional dining experience in Norfolk—and beyond. Whether he ends up back at a seafood or burger shack on the beach or at a vineyard in California, the fact that he has helped educate and satisfy three decades of area diners and trained a generation of new chefs will define his career. “It hasn’t always been easy,” he says, reflecting on the economic climate, “but we’ve stayed the course, and I am still as passionate about food and wine as ever.” •

Todd Jurich’s Bistro

150 West Main Street, Suite 100

Norfolk

ToddJurichsBistro.com

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