The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Tag: Cafe Frank

Five Finds on Friday: Mike Davidson

No fan of the limelight, my father might have declined an offer to appear in Five Finds on Friday. Everything he did he did without fanfare, like coming to America and quietly achieving his life’s dream: provide his family everything they need.

Of all the things my father gave me, one of the greatest was a love of food. When I was ten years old, he invited me to Manhattan to see his office. A commuter train from Connecticut full of men in business suits. After we visited his office building, he took me to see Beverly Hills Cop, which I thought was particularly cool since there were swear words. Even cooler was afterwards when he took me out for dim sum. I was floored. Chinese ladies who didn’t speak English pushed around carts of foods the likes of which I had never seen, let alone tasted.

My father and I first visited Charlottesville in 1991, on a college tour. Over the next three decades, he returned often, and food was always at the center of our itinerary. This week I found myself wanting to celebrate his favorites. And, he’s no longer around to stop me. How I wish, though, he could join me for them again:

1) Ham Biscuit at Stock Provisions. My father didn’t ask for things. He didn’t believe in it. So, the fact that he would gently mention the possibility of getting this ham biscuit in advance of Charlottesville visits speaks volumes to how much he loved it. So good he would swallow his pride.

2) Gyro at The Ivy Inn. There’s something about Brits and lamb. But, my father’s fondness for lamb is not the only reason the list includes this gyro sometimes served with rack of lamb at The Ivy Inn. Since his death on Sunday, my siblings and I have had many conversations about “what Dad would have wanted.” And, one thing I am sure he would have wanted is to include Angelo Vangelopoulos in this list. Though my father did not know Angelo well, he was a great admirer of kindness, which, come to think of it, may explain why I have always strived for it. In the Charlottesville food community there is no one kinder than Angelo, whom my father admired from afar. Long live Angelo and my father’s favorite gyro at The Ivy Inn.

3) The Davidson at Beer Run. While some may think I am the namesake of this Beer Run blend of double IPA and pale ale, its true originator was my father. He loved both beer and problem-solving, and this was his shrewd way of maximizing the amount of beer he could enjoy in one sitting, without overdoing it. The flavorful double IPAs he loved were too high in alcohol to have in large quantities, so he would cut them, 50-50, with a pale ale. The best of both worlds – lots of flavor, without excessive alcohol. Always served in a 20 oz glass, because anything else is not a “proper pint.” Some brewers, deeming their beers to be finished products, object to blends like The Davidson. As someone who believed in minding one’s own business, my father’s concern for their disapproval could not be understated.

4) French Green Beans at The Alley Light. A good measure of my father’s enjoyment of a food was how long he extended the second syllable of “extraordinary,” in his erudite British accent. And, this signature dish of The Alley Light he always called extraOOOOOOOOOOOOrdinary. The dish of green beans topped with grated foie gras was so beloved by him and my mother that it was served at a dinner in our home on their 50th wedding anniversary. About his favorite foods, my father liked to imagine that he had something more profound to say than that they taste good. His most common attempt was: “It’s the combination of textures and flavors,” a line this dish would evoke every time.

5) Steak Frites at Petit Pois. I was born in England. And, in some pockets of British society, “French” and “fancy” were once one and the same. When I was growing up in Connecticut, to go out to a “nice” restaurant just meant to go to a French one. As a man with no greater love than the woman he called “My Darling,” my father was always happy to oblige my mother’s wish to drop in to Petit Pois whenever in Charlottesville for her beloved chicken liver mousse. It also gave him a chance to enjoy the steak frites that reminded the well-travelled man of a French bistro. Not only was the steak delicious, the fries always arrived “piping hot,” the highest praise a Brit can pay food.

Bonus: Burger at Ciboulette. I tried to avoid including places that no longer exist in my father’s Five Finds, but the list would not be complete without this burger. My father would tell everyone about it, managing to sneak it into conversations that have seemingly nothing to do with burgers, or even food. “That reminds me, . . .”. My father must have had a good sense for talent because the owner of this gourmet shop and eatery that closed in 2006 went on to big things, like James Beard accolades, a job at Inn at Little Washington, and running Charlottesville’s best new restaurant. Who knows, maybe “Mike’s Burger” will resurface at Café Frank?

To honor him: My father was a more avid reader of The Charlottesville 29 than anyone. Donations to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank may be made in his honor here. (Check the box “Dedicate my donation in honor or in memory of someone.”)

Five Finds on Friday: Allen LeHew

School’s out for summer!

For many in Charlottesville, nothing says summer more than Duck’s Cottage Coffee & Books, the iconic OBX shop that fuels vacationing Charlottesvillians with waterfront coffee. It turns out the love affair is mutual, as longtime owner Allen LeHew loves Charlottesville, and makes frequent journeys to Charlottesville for food (and sports!). Quietly, he is also a regular contributor to fundraisers when members of the Charlottesville food community are in need. No wonder Charlottesville finds his shop such a pleasant place to be.

To kick off beach season, today’s Five Finds on Friday come from LeHew. Check out his great picks, and don’t miss Duck’s Cottage Coffee & Books this summer:

1) Seasonal Fruit Brioche at Albemarle Baking Company. “This delicate, light and fluffy brioche, filled with pastry cream and seasonal fruit, is perfect with your morning coffee, as an afternoon snack, or even for dessert.”

2) Jambon Beurre at Belle. “Belle’s take on this classic French sandwich is so simple yet so delicious. The house baked bread, using flour from Woodson’s Mill, is perfection. Finish your meal with one of Belle’s cinnamon rolls or chocolate chip cookies.”

3) Pig Mac at Little Star. “#11 on Simon’s 29 Sandwich list. A breaded pork cutlet with all the fixings to make it a Mac. Served on a brioche sesame seed roll. One of those thing I eat and days later think about and crave another.”

4) Quenelles de Brochet at Café Frank. “My wife Judy and I try to dine at Café Frank whenever we are in town. Nothing disappoints, but the standout so far has been the Quenelles. The pike dumpling practically melts in your mouth and the rich velouté is the perfect accompaniment.”

5) Ethiopian Qabballe Pourover at Mudhouse. “I’m partial to the fruit forward Ethiopian coffees and the pourover method really brings the fruit out. Leave the cream and sugar out, and enjoy the subtle nuances and mouthfeel of the coffee. You can’t go wrong with any of the single origin coffees Mudhouse has to offer.”


Charlottesville 2022 Best New Restaurant: Café Frank

Since arriving in Charlottesville in 2001, Jose de Brito has been on a mission: expose the area’s diners to as much great French food as possible. The native of France has a deep passion for its cuisine, and few things drive him more than sharing it with others. While he has found success doing so at places like The Alley Light and Fleurie, 2021 brought the first restaurant of his own, where he now has unbridled freedom to pursue his goal of sharing as many French dishes as possible with Charlottesville. What makes that especially daunting a pursuit is his perfectionism, which can require inordinate amounts of time on a single dish, even for a chef as skilled as de Brito, a James Beard semifinalist who once worked at Inn at Little Washington. “I try to give as much attention as possible to every line of the menu,” said de Brito, who has been known to spend weeks preparing a single sauce for a single dish.

Consider pan seared trout, which, de Brito says, “looks simple but there are tons of little steps that need to be followed to make it perfect.” In de Brito’s words:

First we butterfly it, and take out all the little bones.
Then we sear it hard, and cook it only on the skin side. We then add butter and regulate the color of the butter with lemon juice and a splash of water.
Too dark and it is gone, so we watch it carefully.
The heat starts to rise and you can see the flesh getting opaque. When it is opaque up to 80% of the fillet, we take out the fish to the plate.
When we started with this dish, my cooks did not understand and would say “But Chef, it is not cooked all the way through.” They were right, but they forgot the carry-over heat, and that is when the garnish comes in.
So for the garnish, we have to be extremely fast, so the skin stays crispy. We toss in the brown butter some wax beans, (I prefer wax beans over green beans, the texture is more suave), we pepper strongly, and we add persillade (shallot, parsley, garlic, lemon zest). Then we add toasted almond.
All of this is rapidly tossed around, and then placed on the trout fillet. The heat of the beans will bring to the trout fillet the 10 degrees missing to have a perfect moist fish. By the time the dish is brought to the table, the fish will neither be under or over cooked. It will be perfect.
All little details for a simple dish, but if not rightly done, it will be just an alright fish, like any other.
I think we got it right, it is succulent, simple (but not that simple), classic, and sound in the assembly of flavors with just three components.
Now we have to be careful and always be on our toes, like I like to say “as good as your last dish.”

Photo by JB.

Each detail has a purpose, and for de Brito, it is vital that his meticulousness not translate into food that seems overwrought or fussy. Unapproachable food, after all, would undermine his purpose of exposing French foods to as broad an audience as possible. “I try to give each guest quality ingredients, prepared soundly to achieve as much succulence as I am able to do at a fair market price,” said de Brito. And so, much of the menu consists of classics, faithfully executed, like coq au vin, moules frites, and lobster chowder with a BLT.

Coq au vin. Photo by Do Me A Flavor.

Moules frites. Photo by Do Me A Flavor

Lobster chowder with a mini BLT

That said, a chef’s gotta chef. And so, off-menu specials can be especially inspired.

Handmade fettucine, sturgeon, beurre blanc, Osetra caviar

Quenelles de brochet – pike dumplings in Nantua sauce

Wagyu beef tongue a la Parisienne – braised 30 hours, herb & caper relish, pickled vegetables

In opening Café Frank, de Brito had the good sense to team with Wilson Richey, reuniting a duo that once helped The Alley Light earn a seminfinalist nod for best new restaurant in the country. Richey is Charlottesville’s most prolific restaurateur of our time, and his expertise puts the front of the house in good hands, allowing de Brito to focus on the kitchen. As a result, Café Frank already offers one of the most polished restaurant experiences in town, under a veteran team led by GM Chris Butler. Keeping up with the times, the restaurant also offers a weekly takeout menu, with “Take the Chef Home” entrees, as well as soups, salads, apertifs, sides, and desserts.

A common trait among great restaurants is a cadre of regulars who find it underappreciated. While that may be true of Café Frank for now, it won’t last long, as more and more people come to realize how blessed Charlottesville is to have a gem like it. Last year was an extraordinary year for openings in Charlottesville. Among a stellar group of finalists, the 2022 Best New Restaurant is Café Frank.

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