A question I get asked a lot: How do you spot a good restaurant? Sometimes it’s the bread, others the wine list, always the service and the freshness of the ingredients. But I could tell from the sign alone that “Stove, the Restaurant” was worth the drive to Portsmouth on a day forecasting freezing rain.
After crossing the James River bridge in the deep, late-morning fog and weaving my way through the sleepy streets of the primarily residential enclave of Port Norfolk, I parked in front of a low brick building on Detroit Street. In its promotional material, Stove’s location is described as being in “the trendy SONO area of Port Norfolk.” But if there’s anything trendy going on there, it’s probably limited to this single block. Not only was STOVE printed in hot pink and red above the front door, but a two-sided painting of an actual, funky green stove flapped in the wind by the big front windows. “Eat here,” it said on one side, “eat heer” on the other. How bizarre, I thought. From inside the stove’s oven, a caricature of a man grinned and waved. A chef happy in the heat? Now that’s a good sign.
Both intrigued and a few minutes late for my appointment, I slipped inside. I had a few seconds to scan the quirky, colorful elegance of this little place before a slightly plump, green-haired man wearing orange clogs and a chocolate-brown Stove t-shirt greeted me with wide eyes, a warm handshake and a deep Southern accent. Meet Sydney Meers, visionary artist, local personality, raconteur and dazzling chef-restaurateur. It’s rare to meet such a tour-de-force as Meers. Days later, I am still absorbing the stories, sights and flavors of my experience at Stove. I’ve been “Stove-i-fied,” I guess he’d say.
Sydney served me hot coffee in the cool lounge area of his tiny 32-seater restaurant, which opened—tellingly—on Halloween night, 2006. The décor is pure Meers—soothing sea-foam green walls punctuated by terra-cotta red accents (mesh and bamboo chairs, sculpted polystyrene planters filled with plastic grass and flowers, striped silk curtains), a gallery of his fascinating, acrylic-on-foam board paintings and, for the holidays, a Barbie doll dressed in a plush red and white Santa suit and lounging on a (fake) poinsettia wreath.
Somehow, even otherwise tacky elements (like the Barbie) take on a tasteful quality in the meticulously composed interior of Stove. It’s an oasis of artistry where pleasure and hospitality are encouraged, but modern-day distractions like television are, thankfully, prohibited. “Sometimes you can get too in touch with reality,” Meers says.
At 56, Meers could be the oldest chef still cooking on the line. “Sydney’s always here when the restaurant’s open,” the hostess told me when I first called to make a reservation. Hallelujah! These days, it seems that so many experienced chef-restaurateurs rely on sous or executive chefs to do most of the cooking.
The scenario at Stove could not be further from this formula. Cooking and creating for 30 years now, Meers’ first inspiration was his grandmother, Winnie Lee Johnson, a talented cook and baker who ran a café in their native Senatobia, Mississippi. An avid reader since his teens of French culinary classics such as Le Gastronomique and the cookbooks of Auguste Escoffier, Meers went on to pursue a formal culinary degree at Norfolk’s Johnson and Wales in the early 1980s.
In 1989, following a four-year apprenticeship with Marcel Desaulniers at The Trellis in Williamsburg, he opened his first restaurant, The Dumbwaiter, in then-soon-to-be-trendy downtown Norfolk. The noisy renovation boom forced the closing of this popular American bistro a decade later. After a short stint at his second eatery, Cowboy Syd’s in Newport News, in 2003, he poured his creative juices into his masterpiece—Stove. “Obviously, I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” he said during our three-hour interview, during which my pen struggled to keep up.
I suppose all great chefs are artists, but in Sydney Meers’ case that artistry extends from the kitchen into just about anything he does. Not only does he make everything from the bread to the stocks to the desserts from scratch, but he also painted the paintings, carved the planters and designed everything from the logo to the curvy black steel bar and the well-stocked, wood-and-glass wine room behind it. Meers’ studio/dwelling happens to be located across the street from Stove, which means that he can pop home to work on a painting while his dough is rising, or take a quick nap (I’m told there’s a bed in there, somewhere) before the dinner rush.
After a hot, post-interview bath in a charming Olde Towne Portsmouth bed-and-breakfast, I was ready for more of Meers. I returned to Stove at twilight for dinner and found the ambience even more inviting—dim lights and candles, sounds of laughter and jazz music, and the smell of fresh bread wafting from the open kitchen. My timing was perfect. Just as I was seated at a comfy booth near the kitchen, I heard Meers yell, “Bread’s out!” Seconds later, I could hear the perfect crustiness as the server’s knife sliced through loaf after golden-charred loaf of artisan rye, made, like all of the breads at Stove, with Meers’ prized four-year-old sponge. Seconds later, it was on my table and in my mouth—hot and moist with hints of butternut squash, black pepper and chopped scallions.
Despite my desire to pace myself, I devoured two slices as well as the first course put before me: a single plump, just-seared diver sea scallop veiled by a crispy basil leaf. In a perfect introdaauction to what the chef calls his “New Southern” cuisine, the scallop was served in a bowl of creamed fresh corn, smoked tomatoes, sweet cloves of roasted garlic and tiny chunks of Stove’s signature “Smoochie-Bear” ham. Soothing yet surprising, the contrast of flavors, textures and colors in this dish was, well, irresistible.
Since I’d met the owner of Gryffon’s Aerie Farm on his delivery run earlier that day, I was excited to taste a slender slice of their flavor-packed Tamworth pork belly bacon, which Meers topped with a dollop of coarse grain mustard and served with a blend of roasted fennel, onions and tomatoes. A little purple pool of reduced balsamic vinegar added yet another element of flavor, keeping my palate as engaged as my mind had been earlier, talking to this performance artist of a chef.
A founding member of the local Slow Food chapter, Meers strives to source most of his ingredients from local farms and purveyors. Which means that the menu, with its several “visiting courses,” changes daily, if not hourly. The gorgeous filet of rockfish I enjoyed next was caught just five miles from my table, and the roasted purple potatoes and white sweet potatoes served with it were grown at a farm on the Eastern Shore. Like many unusual ingredients coming out of this kitchen, I had never tasted watermelon radishes before eating at Stove—pink on the inside and more delicate than standard radishes, they were a perfect palate cleanser in a salad of crisp lettuces and heritage apples.
For my final tasting course, the chef sautéed a handful of feathery cauliflower mushrooms (another first) and served them with a Gryffon’s Aerie strip steak (from grass-fed Devon cattle), a spoonful of his homemade steak sauce and a mound of stock-infused mashed potatoes. Never one to sit still, Meers darted in and out of the kitchen during dinner, greeting guests, responding to special requests and modestly thanking them for the praise. At dessert, he even sat down with me and—thankfully—helped me sample sweets such as his truly Southern “nut-coco-nut pie” and his almost too-good “sextuple truffle,” along with coffee, a glass of 15-year-old sherry and a few more stories.
After spending most of the day and evening inside Meers’ Stove, I got the sense that this restaurant is much more than a job for him. Somehow, on a little side street in Port Norfolk, he has created a seamless bond between life and art, business and pleasure, invention and tradition—a balance so many of us strive for but so rarely achieve.
2622 Detroit St.
Portsmouth, Virginia 23707