The Charlottesville 29

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

Tag: Jose De Brito

“Best Thing I Ate All Year” 2017

No matter what else may be going on in the world, every year is a good food year. Each December we celebrate the Charlottesville food year by looking back at our latest trip around the sun and asking top area chefs: what was the best thing you ate all year? Here are the picks from 2016 and 2015. And, below are this year’s picks in chefs’ annual tribute to Charlottesville’s bounty. Meanwhile, check back here next week for The Charlottesville 29 pick for 2017 Dish of the Year.

Mitchell Beerens (Lampo)

Crispy Lamb Shank at Oakhart Social. “The lamb shank at Oakhart Social was the best thing I ate all year. Crispy crust that gave way to super succulent meat. I’m pretty sure it was served with hummus and harissa. Super simple and super soulful. That’s what I love about Tristan and Ben’s spot.”

Shank

Tim Burgess (The Space, Bang!, and Bizou)

Biscuits at Floozie’s Pie Shop. “I had the garden omelette, grits and biscuit at Floozie’s Pie shop in Louisa last February.  The omelette was really good, fluffy farm egg goodness, but not the star here. The biscuit took me back to my childhood, the best I’ve ever had and I’ve made a lot of biscuits in my day.  Then the grits, stone ground, salty, cheesy, buttery boom. I was floored by the meal, but shouldn’t have been, Jade and Debbie can flat out cook. Their pies are the real deal too.”

floozie

Jose de Brito (Fleurie)

Cotoletta di Maiale Alla Milanese at Tavola. “My dining etiquette is that when I return dining in a same establishment I rarely reorder the same dish except in extraordinary circumstances, and that would be when I was presented with a good dish. Tavola’s pork a la Milanese is the one dish that breaks my code of conduct. It never miss, I tried to break from my bad habit; once or probably twice I did order another dish. Although the restaurant is tasty across the line, when the pork is executed flawlessly it is close to saintliness. The other day, a guest of Fleurie asked me after service what was my favorite dish in Charlottesville. Before answering her I asked her the same question and we both answered simultaneously, the pork milanese at Tavola! You see when the breading on the cutlet is perfectly breaded, the sear is of the right color, neither too light or too dark, the capers have been slightly sautéed to take out the rawness, the tomatoes roasted a la perfection and the baby arugula wilted with kindness, the sum of all those delicate little details added to a butter emulsion laced with a drop of Meyer lemon, when that emulsion has the right body, the perfect amount amount of butter to cling to the breading, it is definitely, without any doubt my choice for best dish in C-ville. (Although, after reflection, the porchetta sandwich at Lampo is a close one and another dish that has made me break my rules, I usually never eat sandwiches , but I guess I am off subject, sorry!) And now to finish my little pamphlet. Let ourself ponder about what the French Chef Joel Robuchon once said: ‘What makes a good cook from a great cook, it is all about the details.’ The Milanese at Tavola has all the right details. Arrivederci, good people.”

Laura Fonner (Duner’s)

Smoked Jerk Jackfruit by Prime 109. “I had the pleasure of judging food for a cook-off at Highland Orchard Farms and Lampo participated by debuting some of the items that will be on their new menu at their downtown steak house Prime 109. Their lamb and duck kielbasa and dry aged Szechuan peppercorn pastrami were out of this world. Amazing flavors. Amazing textures. But the standout dish that blew me away was actually their young smoked jerk jackfruit. I taste a lot of things all year long but this is the first thing this year that actually surprised me, which is what I look for in new dishes. The flavor is perfect, sweet and spicy. The texture was similar to meat and I am sure it will actually fool people into thinking they are eating some sort of jerk meat. Hats off to those gentlemen. I look forward to seeing what else will come from that restaurant!”

Jackfruit

Craig Hartman (BBQ Exchange)

Crab Stuffed Squash Blossoms at Ivy Inn. “Angelo Vangelopoulos created a tasting menu for our 31st anniversary. It was world class. Our first meal with Angelo was in 1993, and watching his growth as a chef has been a real joy. He really has grown in a great direction! The whole meal was stellar but the crab stuffed squash blossoms with sweet corn sauce was unforgettable, and his father’s tomato-braised pole beans were life changing! Then, not to forget the pig brain amuse bouche, which was genius.”

squash

Michael Keaveny (Tavola)

Short Rib at The Coat Room at Brasserie Saison.  “I had a short rib with carrot ‘BBQ’ sauce in The Coat Room at Brasserie Saisson that was pretty memorable. It was crispy on the outside and tender inside. Great contrast in texture, and the sauce was surprisingly delicious. Great dish! I will miss Tyler’s food, though all indications are the new chefs are killing it!”

shortrib

Michael McCarthy (Dr. Ho’s)

Chocolate Croissant from Little Hat Creek Farm. “Spectacular if not amazeballs! I’m good for one or two every time I visit the Nelson county farmers’ market.”

choc-croissant-1911

Jenny Peterson (Paradox Pastry)

Braised Beef and Macaroni at The Alley Light. “I have to say, it’s sooooo difficult to pick a ‘best.’ I think a ‘best’ is so often situation specific. Was it who I was with on a perfect evening after a very, very long work week? Then it would be the comfort of the Braised Beef with Mac at The Alley Light.”

Tomas Rahal (MAS)

Soft-poached Duck Egg with Perigord Truffles, asparagus, moliterno di tartuffo at MAS tied with Mike Ketola’s Salt-citrus Cured Albacore Loin with grapefruit and Brussels leaves salad, also at MAS. “JF Legault’s soft-scrambled farm egg with Alba truffles was a close third. I’d love to give props to other spots, but these dishes were transcendent.”

Duckegg

Ian Redshaw (Lampo)

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup at Cafe 88. “Available Friday and Saturday, dine-in only, this hidden gem is worth every last drop.”

Noodlesoup

Ivan Rekosh (Zocalo)

Roast Beef Panuozzo at Lampo.  “If I had to choose one thing, it’d probably be the aged roast beef sandwich with provolone at Lampo. I remember eating it and thinking this is the best sandwich I’ve had in a long ass time.”

beef

Wilson Richey (Ten Course Hospitality)

Crispy Scallops at Brasserie Saison. “I know you are not supposed to pick your own restaurants, but Tyler really nailed that dish and I just can’t make something up. The textures are one of the most stand out parts of the dish: the crunchy exterior, the creamy puree beneath it, and the crisp celery root on top. It’s just perfectly balanced flavor and texture. There are a lot of things going on. I could eat those scallops every night.”

scallops

Andrew Silver (Roots Natural Kitchen)

Ma Po Tofu at Taste of China. “I have discovered that I really like soft tofu (Zzzam also has really good soft tofu). It is spicy, numbing, hot, aromatic and tender. Pairs perfectly with stir fried snow pea shoots and a cold Tsingtao.”

tofu

Angelo Vangelopoulos (Ivy Inn)

Sourdough Bread by Tucker Yoder at Timbercreek Market. “I was lucky enough to have Tucker gift me a loaf (I think he owed for some truffles or something), and my family and I ate it for days. The crust is thick, it’s full of grains (I think his wife grinds the wheatberries?), has amazing chew and long lasting flavor. My son’s eyes lit up when he tasted it for the first time and he asked ‘WHERE did you get this?! It’s AMAZING!'”

sourdough1

Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)

Foie Gras with Passion Fruit Gelée at Fleurie. “Hot Damn. Those guys are actually cooking, and well. You don’t see real cooking all that much these days.”

foiegras

Tucker Yoder (Back 40)

Persimmons from Edible Landscaping. “These persimmons right here from my man Dan. Chased with a shot of tequila or mezcal.”

Persimmon

Jose de Brito Joins Fleurie

joseseafood

Jose de Brito is back.

The James Beard semifinalist whose two decades in Charlottesville included Ciboulette and a magical run at The Alley Light skipped town last Spring for the Inn at Little Washington, leaving his Charlottesville fans wondering if they would ever enjoy his food again. Now he is returning to Charlottesville as Chef de Cuisine of Fleurie and consultant at Petit Pois.

Both restaurants are owned by Brian Helleberg, who employed de Brito from 2008 to 2011 as a cook and Pastry Chef at Fleurie, a time Helleberg remembers fondly. “Jose’s knowledge, palate, work ethic, and enthusiasm brought lasting improvements,” says Helleberg, who sounds like he can’t wait to get started. “I am excited and honored to collaborate with such a talented chef,” Helleberg says. “His passion for great food is contagious, and I’m looking forward to learning from him and bringing our food to the next level.”

A fixture in The Charlottesville 29, Fleurie’s food has long been beloved by regulars. So, what might de Brito have planned? “I have always considered Fleurie to be among the great restaurants of Charlottesville, and they happen to do French cooking which is what I do best, so there is no better match,” says de Brito. “French food is very diverse and when done well it can be really tasty, so I will push and build all our flavor profiles to make each dish as tasty as I can.”

While de Brito enjoyed his time away, part of what brought him back was the lure of Charlottesvulle. “My wife and I like this place very much, so there is no better place to cook great food,” says de Brito. “I have a lot of regulars, and many seem to like what I do.”

Yes, yes we do.

 

Blessed: Jose De Brito’s Magical Moment

Jose

“Enjoy it while it lasts.”

The same advice I once gave about Jose De Brito’s phenomenal, but doomed, Ciboulette I would also offer about his food at The Alley Light. It’s not just that nothing lasts forever. It’s that the way Jose was cooking was unsustainable. And, this week it came to an end.

I have described Jose at The Alley Light as being in “the zone” – a manner of cooking which few people attain and which is impossible to maintain for a long period of time. It requires a perfect convergence of skill, effort, passion, and creativity. Some chefs might rev a few of these cylinders here and there, but it is rare for a chef to crank all four to full speed at once. And, it’s exhausting when a chef does. Too exhausting to last.

Jose did it for two years. Literally every time I ate there — and there were many — his food caused a “wow” moment. Usually, there was such a flurry of “wow” moments that it became ridiculous. Some guests proclaimed their meal the best they ever had in Charlottesville. Others called it the best they had ever had. Anywhere. And, almost all of them eventually found themselves laughing (LOL!) at the splendor of the food. Enjoying Jose’s food recalled some of my own favorite meals at four-star restaurants in big cities around the world. Yet, unlike the chefs of those restaurants, Jose did not have the help of a large army of elite culinary school graduates. He did it with a small staff of hard-working cooks, some of whom he trained himself.

Passion Personified

While Jose’s talent and creativity are undeniable, to those who know him well his passion stands out most. To begin to appreciate Jose’s passion, it helps to know that he began at The Alley Light with no stove — just two electric burners to go with a small oven in a kitchen smaller than many closets.

Most chefs would allow these conditions to limit what they cook. But not Jose. There were so many dishes he wanted to make, and he would find a way to make them. A sauce poivrade, for example, tastes best if it can simmer and reduce for hours, says Jose. But, with just two electric burners, which he would plug into the wall, he didn’t have that kind of time. So, Jose would cook the sauce a few minutes at a time each day over weeks.  That’s one sauce, for one dish.

“Every day was a battle,” Jose says of the early days of The Alley Light, before an expanded kitchen was built. “No fridge space, no containers, and one saute pan which I had to run to wash at the sink between each guest’s plate and run back to do the next ticket.” And then, after a full day of cooking and service, he would begin prep for the next day. At 3 in the morning.

Why did he do this? Passion.

Raised in France, Jose loves French food, and, perhaps sensing he is nearing the end of his career, was eager to introduce as many dishes as possible to as many people as possible. “I love the depth of French food,” says Jose. “The terroir, the cheeses, the markets in Provence, the butcher in the village, the apertif, the millions of ways to make charcuterie, the hundreds of ways to do bread, the millions of sauces, pastries, pies, regional dishes, and more.”  At The Alley Light, Jose’s aim was to share his love with others. “My objective was to have people experience the real cooking of France,” says Jose. “To democratize French food and take away the stereotype that it needs to be precious or extremely expensive.”

And so, Jose would pour himself into his work, each week creating a new menu of blackboard specials to share with the world. Take a minute to read through this one example among many of Jose’s weekly list of specials:

SNACKS

  • Duck Liver Mousse w/Port 12
  • Braised Pork Shank w/Lentils 12
  • Braised Mussels w/Mushrooms 10
  • Farro, Egg Yolk, Parmesan 11
  • Mussel Stuffed w/Pork & Tomato Stew 12
  • Roasted Beets, Creme Fraiche, Orange & Pistachio 9

SALAD, CHEESE & SOUP

  • Simple: Lettuces, Herbs, Olive Oil, Sherry Vinegar  8
  • Cheeses: Bijoux, Epoisse, Comte, Nuts, Armagnac-pickled Cherries  14
  • Sunchoke, Roquefort & Toasted Almond Soup 9

SHARED PLATES

  • Foie Gras & Duck Confit, Fig Gelee 18
  • Quail stuffed w/Rice, Bacon, Cranberry, Chestnut 15
  • Saffron Risotto, Braised Calamari in Shellfish & Orange 14
  • Ahi Tuna & Potato Terrine, Whelk Vinaigrette 12
  • Braised Beef Cheeks, Macaroni & Carrot, Cabernet Reduction 25
  • Crispy Crepe, Cognac-Braised Escargot, Pork, Parsnip Puree 14
  • Roast Cod, Artichoke, Fennel & Potato Puree, Pimento Vinaigrette 24
  • Scallops, Sunchoke, Grapes, Almond & Maple Sauce 24
  • Lamb Rack, Artichoke stuffed with Lamb Shank, Red Pepper 28
  • Veal Sweatbread, Lentil & Aged Balsamic Stew 26
  • Poached Lobster, Lobster & Tomato Ragout, Lobster Crumble, Pasta 28
  • Choucroute Garnie (Serves 2-3) 45
  • Duck Breast, Braised Red Cabbage, Pear & Fig Reduction 26

DESSERT

  • Four Spice Brulee, Cat’s Tongue 9
  • Mousse au Chocolat 9

It’s tiring just to read. Now imagine the energy required each week to conceive of, prepare, and execute all of these dishes. And, that’s on top of a regular menu of several dozen outstanding items, like his signature green beans with shaved foie gras, braised and roasted pork belly with apple, and salmon tartare so picturesque that diners would hesitate to eat it.

salmon

The Planets Aligned

No other chef does this. And there are good reasons for that.

For one, economics. Time-honored rules of menu construction dictate one chicken dish, one vegetable dish, etc. Restaurateurs typically follow these rules or learn quickly how much ignoring them can hurt the bottom line. In The Alley Light’s case, owner Will Richey eventually gave Jose carte blanche in the kitchen. This is a highly unusual approach, and to explain it Richey cites a quote from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” At The Alley Light, Richey says, “the idea of working with Jose De Brito and telling him what he should or should not do in the kitchen seemed ridiculous to me.”

Another reason “the zone” is so uncommon is the make-up of chefs. Few have the skill, energy, passion and creativity to pull it off. Talented young chefs, for example, are often full of energy and passion, ready to change the world with their cooking, but may lack the wisdom gained through time. Think about the knowledge required to compose Jose’s weekly menu of specials. Older chefs, on the other hand, can have the wisdom of experience, but may have lost some of the energy and passion of their youth. Do you know how much mettle it takes to endure a single night in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen?  Try that for two decades.

A related limitation, particularly for older chefs, is time. Older chefs often have families and other responsibilities. The enormous time commitment to stay in “the zone” is time away from those responsibilities. In Jose’s case, his only child is full-grown and living in France. His sole other main responsibility, his wife Christine who he married last year, actually helped Jose remain in the zone, rather than distracting him from it, by serving as his inspiration for everything he did. From your muse, waste not a moment of time apart.

And, so the planets aligned. Carte blanche in the kitchen granted to a chef with the skill, effort, passion, and creativity to do something extraordinary. From a tiny second-floor kitchen in a dark alley of a small city in central Virginia, Jose spun magic that beguiled diners across the nation. The James Beard Foundation named The Alley Light one of just 25 semifinalists for best restaurants in the country. Jose himself was a semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. And, the award-winning critics at The Washington Post and The Washingtonian both traveled to Charlottesville to bear witness. “In this, the era of Instagram, when chefs across the country swap dish pics at the touch of a button and restaurants at a certain level all begin to look and taste alike, De Brito remains a lone wolf with his own aesthetic,” wrote James Beard award-winning food writer Todd Kliman, urging D.C. readers that Jose’s food warranted the 100+ mile trip to Charlottesville.

Blessed

Though I always knew that Jose’s moment would be fleeting, its end still brought sorrow, at least initially. But, then I reflected on how lucky we are to have enjoyed the moment. It brought to mind what someone said when David Bowie died in January: “4.5 billion years the Earth has existed, and we were lucky enough to have lived at the same time as David Bowie.”

Almost three years ago, Richey was at a party describing to friends his idea for a new lounge on the downtown mall. Jose, who was working at another French restaurant at the time, overheard the conversation and expressed interest in cooking there. Until that point, Richey was not even sure what type of food his lounge would serve, if at all.

What if Richey had not run into Jose that night? What if the other planets had not aligned? Fortunately they did. And, the rest of us just happened to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy it.

We are blessed.