by Matthew Korfhage
Its name is a piece of charming nonsense, a lid placed over the stars. But the view from its windows is serious. Orion’s Roof, a sleek aerie of a restaurant perched 23 stories above the Atlantic shore, offers a vista that would cause countless postcards to crumple in shame.
Sitting atop the Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront, each of the restaurant’s 240 seats boasts a window view; the lucky ones stare down upon a ribbon of pale sand pulled taut against a sea of endless blue.
That alone would be worth the trip. But the menu manages to be as all-encompassing as the view – a four-continent swirl of flavors gathered by executive chef Hisashi Araki, who spent most of a decade overseeing the Bahamian outpost of the legendary Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Nobu.
Orion’s Roof is the kind of high-end eatery where a carbonara pasta might come crowned with a luscious quenelle of bright-orange sea urchin flown in from Japan’s famed Toyosu fish market, swapping guanciale for the smoke of Virginia pork. And while the hamachi and maguro on the restaurant’s extensive sushi menu are airlifted from Tokyo, they just might come accented with the cilantro and chilies favored in Peru.
Its far-flung flavors are perhaps the truest autobiography of its chef. The Japanese native’s resume looks like Carmen Sandiego’s travel itinerary: He cooked in Tokyo, Munich, California and the Caribbean, adding ingredients and techniques at each stop.
At Orion’s Roof, Araki says, he wants to bring those flavors to bear on the unique bounty of Virginia and North Carolina. This means Carolina shrimp slathered in the earth and spice of curry, ponzu-marinated local rockfish, pad Thai made with Virginia peanuts and free-range Joyce Farms chicken. Every plate, Asian-pear-infused cocktail and two-day miso-marinated cod has been mapped down to the micron.
But the one thing nobody could have planned for was opening one of the region’s most ambitious restaurants during a worldwide pandemic.
“It’s had its challenges,” deadpans Chuck Sass, vice president of Gold Key|PHR, which operates both the hotel and its restaurants.
Orion’s Roof was to open this spring, serving as a booze-and-bubbly-sparkled tiara for the company’s sprawling Cavalier resort complex, which includes the neighboring Cavalier Hotel. But when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March – a neutron bomb that emptied hotels and restaurants nationwide – they had to rethink everything: how to hire staff, how to source food and even how to transport guests up the elevators to the restaurant.
“It’s been countless little things we never thought of,” Sass says. “The challenge of just trying to talk with a mask on and be understood – from the kitchen to our expediters on the floor, or teaching servers how to project beneath a mask so a guest can hear them.”
They had hoped to open softly and quietly, but months of construction delays only heightened anticipation. Within hours of the official announcement, reservations filled up for days in advance. “On our first Saturday, the question was, ‘How do we get 450 people up to the roof safely?’” Sass says.
The answer, it turned out, was to move the restaurant’s front desk into the elevator lobby — checking in reservations downstairs, letting guests wait for their table to be ready with a cocktail at the Beach Club bar next door, and sending each group individually up an express elevator devoted only to Orion’s Roof.
During its mobbed opening weeks, the restaurant had to negotiate how to turn over tables while operating at half-capacity, allotting each group a set amount of time at their table.
There was also the delicate dance of collecting cocktails before 10 p.m., the state-mandated alcohol curfew during part of Phase 3. This sometimes involved informing diners they had to quickly scarf down their elegant $18 Japanese Old Fashioned, a delicious tipple that marries the delicate notes of single-malt Toki whisky with smoky Japanese black sugar. Needless to say, some didn’t want to.
And then there was the matter of getting the hooch in the first place. The 1,300-bottle wine list at Orion’s Roof was acquired through dozens of distributors and importers. The sake list alone pours 16 rice wines by the carafe, whether an exotic Ozeki Chobei that tastes like strawberry and honeydew, or a rare and expensive Shichi Hon Yari junmai
daiginjo that uses Ibuki mountain spring water and an heirloom rice called Tamazakae.
“For a while, our biggest problem was getting wines from France,” Sass says. “Then it was the proteins, the meats. All of these things, you never anticipate. For a while it was hard to get quality beef: Meat was doubling in price.”
Staffing the restaurant has been just as hard, requiring four full-time hiring managers to recruit cooks, servers and bartenders. Managers at the short-staffed restaurant worked 16-hour days without a day off in the early weeks, eating at their own restaurant and sleeping just long enough to come back to work.
But whatever the vastness of the production, the food at Orion’s remains, in its own way, personal.
Chef Araki points to his ever-changing miso soup, a pillowy roil of koji-fermented soy that’s a mere toss-off at most Japanese restaurants. Araki’s version is freshened daily with new ingredients. The miso’s flavor may also differ day-to-day. The soup is a tunnel to Araki’s childhood.
“My childhood memories always come from my mother cutting vegetables for breakfast,” Araki says. “She made different garnishes and used different miso every day. Not just tofu: wakame and scallion.”
He is also, perhaps eccentrically, excited about using Virginia Beach’s water to make the matcha-painted kakigori shaved ice of his youth. He recalls the nights when his family would all go out together to a little shack down the way, eating an ethereal take on the snow cone that’s been tempered with milk so it’s more like snow than ice.
“It reminds me of my childhood on a hot summer night,” Araki said. And if you find yourself spooning up the kakigori’s delicate snowdrifts from the height of the clouds, while looking down on a bunch of dolphins harassing some surfers, it’ll probably feel like your childhood, too.