+ By Melanie McCarty + Photos by Allison Zaucha
He started with sauerkraut, then moved on to hot sauces. Pickles and preserves soon followed. Jeremy Hoffman began experimenting with fermented and pickled foods to create unique flavors for the menu at Restaurant Eve, the celebrated Alexandria, Virginia restaurant where he was chef de cuisine (head chef). It sparked in him a passion. “I started to develop recipes and play around with different flavors,” he says. “It turned into something that I really loved.” Before long, his preserved creations appeared in items across the menu. “At one point, we had five different house made hot sauces” he says with a smile.
When he and his wife, Michelle, decided to set out on their own, they knew preserved foods would be a focus. “We were looking for a place to either open a restaurant or do retail ferments and pickles,” starts Jeremy. “It worked out that we got a little bit of both,” finishes Michelle. The tendency to complete each other’s sentences is an endearing quality of the couple, who met while studying at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After graduation, they moved to New York City and gained experience at some of the city’s most renowned restaurants—Jeremy at Nobu 57 and Per Se, and Michelle at Union Square Café and Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill. In 2008, they married and moved to Alexandria to work for Restaurant Eve’s group of restaurants. Within a year, Jeremy was promoted to chef de cuisine at the company’s flagship restaurant, while Michelle worked in a variety of management roles. A few years later, a colleague purchased a historic building in downtown Annapolis and approached the Hoffmans about opening a restaurant, and Preserve was born.
Tucked into a cozy storefront halfway up Main Street, Preserve is a bright, inviting space where guests are treated to innovative food and some of the best people-watching around. The contemporary American menu leans affectionately toward Jeremy’s Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing while incorporating his pickles and ferments into many of the dishes. For instance, pickled radish is served atop the spicy shrimp lettuce wraps, and kimchi (a spicy Korean cabbage dish) is served with the house-made gnocchi. The flavorful results have won over diners and critics alike. Open just two years, Preserve has been praised by some heavy-hitters in the regional dining scene: it was included in the Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide, it won the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s 2016 Favorite New Restaurant award, and in 2016, Washingtonian gave the restaurant two nods, including it in its “Top 100” list and singling out the crispy kale salad as one of “the twenty-five best dishes we ate around DC” for the year.
Preserve stands out in part due to the menu’s creativity. Hoffman uses pickled and fermented ingredients strategically, adding brightness and complexity to dishes. The pepper jelly that dots the restaurant’s crispy kale salad, for example, is a sweet contrast to the tartness of the cumin-yogurt dressing and the crunch of the flash-fried kale. The result is addictive, delicious, and nothing like any salad—kale or otherwise—that you may have tried before. “We’ve been together 12 years, and I’m still impressed by the dishes he creates,” says Michelle, who describes herself as Jeremy’s number one volunteer when it comes to sampling new creations.
While the name Preserve nods to the focus of the menu, it also speaks to the couple’s belief in supporting the community around them. Most of the food is locally sourced, including the produce and meats, to support family farms and the local economy while providing fresher, more nutritious ingredients. “It’s about supporting your entire city and the entire ecosystem around your city,” Jeremy says. He uses the changing availability of produce as a jumping-off point, tweaking and modifying the menu as ingredients come in and out of season. They look for ways to support other local businesses whenever they can, from using locally made pottery in the restaurant to serving a rotating array of Maryland-brewed beers. “Small business supporting small business. That’s sort of what it’s all about,” says Michelle.
A CIA graduate in her own right and a trained sommelier, Michelle runs Preserve’s beverage program, carefully selecting the wines and creating the cocktail menu. “I always had a passion for the beverage side of things, wine specifically. It grew into craft cocktails as I moved through my career,” she says. She uses seasonal flavors and ingredients, designed to complement the food menu. Her winter vodka cocktail, with its sparkling wine and cranberry-rosemary syrup, is a light and refreshing counterpoint to the roasted and stewed items on the food menu during the colder months. Her creations aren’t just tasty, they’re attractive: photographs of Michelle’s cocktails, served in elegant glassware with colorful garnishes, appear frequently on social media.
Since opening Preserve, the Hoffmans launched a retail line of fermented foods called Cabbage Alley, named after a nearby alley on Main Street. They began with three products: kimchi, curtido, a Salvadoran relish, and, of course, sauerkraut. The ferments are sold at Preserve and a handful of other outlets, including Rutabaga Juicery in West Annapolis.
Pickling and fermenting for many years now, Jeremy remains as enthusiastic as ever about preserved foods. “Hot sauces, pickles, and ferments are delicious, so how could you not be excited about them!” he says. We’ll see what the Hoffmans dream up next. █