There are few scents as immediately identifiable as a wood-burning fire. It conjures memories of cozy winter nights in a fire-warmed living room, campsite dinners during a summer evening in the Blue Ridge, and now tasty meals at VANA.
In mid-August, Jayson Whiteside and Michael Noll, the managing partner and chef/owner duo that brought Charlotteans bardo, opened a new restaurant in South End. The project was a long time coming for the business partners. They knew, after opening bardo, that there was going to be another Charlotte restaurant in their future.
In VANA, Whiteside says there was “an opportunity for us to let down our hair a little bit.” Bardo procures elegant, fine dining, whereas VANA is its “little sister,” offering tastes that are just as likely to tickle the tongue but with a more casual, earthy presentation.
Food, Fire, and Communion
In Sanskrit, VANA translates to “wooded area of the forest”. It’s an apt name for a restaurant where food, flame, and communion with the earthly elements take center stage. The dinner menu has four primary sections: woods, sea, pasture, and farm. All dishes effuse that signature flavor produced by cooking over a wood-burning fire.
“The wood fire is the single greatest characteristic of the food at VANA,” says Chef Noll. “While bardo is very technique forward and focused, VANA’s emphasis is on purchasing high-quality ingredients and treating them simply.”
Most of those ingredients come from local farmers and artisans. Chef Noll is dedicated to patronizing groups like Joyce Farms, Verdant Bread, and Lineberger Farm not only to promote growth in the local economy, but also to work with some of the freshest, tastiest products available.
When those products meet Chef Noll’s creativity and VANA’s open-flame oven, the result is a masterpiece, like the pork cheek dish. Smothered in chimichurri and garlic cream sauce and served with perfectly browned pattypan squash, each forkful of this delectable dish is as delicious as the last.
Mixologist Amanda Britton has crafted a drink menu worthy of Chef Noll’s food menu. If her name sounds familiar, it may be because she also masterminded the cocktails at bardo. However, VANA’s libations, like its food, have a slightly more playful character than bardo’s. Influenced by the open flames, Britton’s VANA drinks feature smoky flavors, like barrel-aged whiskey and tequila, as well as Mezcal and scotch whiskey.
Opening Challenges and Payoffs
2020 has been a rough year for opening any restaurant, but VANA’s entry into the world came with its own set of unique challenges. “The most ambitious part of the build-out was definitely deciding to build a kitchen that’s basically in the dining room,” concedes Whiteside. The location of the kitchen meant that it needed to be kept small, which translates to a small kitchen staff. Chef Noll was challenged to design menus that could be tackled by just four cooks at a time.
The payoff is delicious food and a homey setting complemented by barn doors, mismatched chairs, and tables that look as though they might have been plucked from your Uncle Lou’s farmhouse. Large doors open to Camden and South Tryon, blurring the line between the neighborhood and the restaurant.
From the scent of the smoke to the taste of the food to the feel of the setting, a meal at VANA is an experience that satisfies all the senses.