Will Richey is at it again. And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a restaurant.
Since jumping into restaurant ownership in 2005 with Revolutionary Soup, Richey’s passion has evolved to the point of being a full-fledged addiction. He even now has a parent company — Ten Course Hospitality — to oversee his many projects, which also include The Whiskey Jar, The Pie Chest, The Bebedero, and The Alley Light, a 2015 James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant in the country.
Richey admits that the creation phase is what appeals to him most. Just as those of us with a passion for food are planning our next meal during our current one, Richey is thinking about his next restaurant before his latest is finished. The creation is the fix.
To make that work, the chronic creator knows he needs a stellar team. And, he always has one, thanks in large part to longtime business partner Josh Zanoff, a trained chef who spent years in management at Whole Foods, and has been instrumental to every Richey project. To explain their management approach, Richey likes to cite a Steve Jobs quote: “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.”
Richey’s reliance on collaboration begins at the earliest stage of a restaurant. As with his other projects, the idea for his latest venture — Brasserie Saison –, though his initially, was molded significantly by input from others. In this case, the “others” include an impressive pair: Hunter Smith of Champion Brewing Company and Tyler Teass, former Sous Chef of Rose’s Luxury.
Richey’s concept was simple: good beer food. A hard-core oenophile who co-founded The Wine Guild, Richey has a soft spot for beer. “I always think of wine in terms of the food it would go best with,” says Richey. Beer is the same way, he says, but as much great beer as we have in the area, there’s a shortage of classic beer food to pair with it. “So I began to imagine a beer concept that would serve European style beers and common beer foods from places like Belgium and Holland but also Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Poland, Alsace and more.” He even drafted a menu.
One problem. While Charlottesville brews lots of great beer, little of it is in the classic styles that would pair well with Richey’s menu. So, the restaurant would need to brew its own. For that, he knew just who to call. “I had always admired Hunter’s beers at Champion,” says Richey. As luck would have it, when Richey called to pitch his project, Smith, who has no restaurant at his brewery, was already considering the very same thing. “We both got very excited to brew and cook in collaboration on this old world inspiration,” says Richey. In perfect synergy, they thought, the beer would drive the food, and the food would drive the beer.
To enhance the harmony between beer and food, brewing will be done at the restaurant, located on the downtown mall at 111 E. Main St., in the former Jean Theory location. “Brewing onsite means we can work in tandem with the kitchen – brew seasonally and with flavors in mind,” says Smith. Richey agrees. “We are brewing beer specifically to match the cuisine we are working with,” he says. “With the brewery in the restaurant, the brewer can be working the same hours as the chef, tasting the food, and smelling the smells.”
So, what types of beer? Smith’s favorites are the namesake Brasserie Saison and Brasserie Dubbel. “They were written by our Lead Brewer Josh Skinner, and they are just as we want them,” says Smith. “Fruity and complex, but also super dry and begging for food pairing.” The Saison has lively carbonation with aromas and flavors of bubblegum, pear skin, spice, and the classic herbal funk of Belgian yeast. The Dubbel, meanwhile, boasts a huge nose of spice and dried dark fruits, flavors of plums and fig from Special B malts, and a spicy, clove finish.
View the full opening beer menu here.
In the kitchen is Tyler Teass, who worked at l’Etoile and Clifton Inn before becoming Sous Chef at Rose’s Luxury, Bon Appetit’s 2014 Best New Restaurant in the country. This marks one of the only times a sous chef of such a nationally acclaimed restaurant has come to Charlottesville to help start a restaurant. (Restaurant Daniel’s Francis Reynard coming to Fuel more than a decade ago was perhaps another.)
When Teass joined the team last year, Richey sent him the menu he had created nearly five years earlier. “A week later,” says Richey, “he sent me back a menu that blew my mind.” While it still followed Richey’s initial focus on Benelux, Teass gave it a modern American touch “that made the entire idea come to life,” says Richey.
Yet, despite all of his success as a chef, Teass never takes food too seriously. When I sent him background questions about the restaurant, his responses used the word “fun” six times, which reflects his positive temperament and unpretentious approach. Asked about his philosophy for cooking, he said: “I like really bright, seasoned food, lots of vegetables and meat that’s cooked nicely. And nicely cut chives. Is that a philosophy?”
And so, while the cuisine is inspired by Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Teass is no stickler for culinary tradition. “Their food culture is really interesting and using that as a basis for the food we make is important,” he says, “but at the same time focusing on delicious, fun, well-executed food.”
The vegetable-focused opening menu includes dishes like fried and raw Brussels sprouts with tomatoes, shallots and parsley; roasted sunchokes with creme fraiche, horseradish and trout roe; and, crispy scallops a la meuniere, with celery root and benne.
With all the focus on pairings, I asked Richey which excite him most, and he named the Moules Frites with Brasserie Saison, which, he says, “will be an essential experience for anyone coming through the door.” Another favorite is the Brasserie Dubbel with either smoked beef bitterballen or roast beef “carbonnade.” Finally, Richey likes the Tripel with housemade duck sausage. “That is magical,” he says.
Teass is particularly fond of a dessert he has made for his wife for years: buttered popcorn pudding, with lime and creme fraiche. “It’s essentially a curd with popcorn puree, topped with a creme fraiche mousse, lime zest, candied lime segments, and popped sorghum, which look like little pieces of popcorn,” says Teass.
Joining him in the kitchen are two seasoned sous chefs. Morad Sbaitri, who recently moved from Morocco, has “skill way beyond what we could have hoped for,” says Richey. And, Nick Moon spent time at The Whiskey Jar before honing his skills at MAS Tapas. “There are few better kitchens in this town to learn and grow than the one at MAS,” says Richey.
“Beer is a main focus,” acknowledges Leah Peeks, a veteran of The Whiskey Jar and The Alley Light who now is the Beverage Program Director for Ten Course Hospitality. But, there is lots of other goof stuff, too. “Leah’s artistic talent fuels her inspiration behind the bar,” says Richey, “and keeps it interesting and dynamic.”
The restaurant’s focus on Benelux means that gin abounds, including Peeks’ all-time favorite liquid: a 50/50 martini of Plymouth gin and Dolin Blanc vermouth with orange oil and orange bitters. “I can’t wait to drink one with oysters. And mussels. And beer. All of the things, really,” says Peeks. The rest of the cocktail menu is “classic, clean, crisp, and bright,”she says. As with the beer, “I let the food be my guide on cocktail choices.”
THE KITCHEN COCKTAIL – market price – rotating chef’s choice of seasonal flavors
THE BRASSERIE SAISON COCKTAIL – 9 – Bombay, lemon, pink peppercorn, Saison – up // balanced // refreshing
THE 50/50 – 10 – Plymouth, Dolin Blanc, orange oil, orange bitters – up // smooth // clean
THE MARTINEZ – 11 – Tanqueray Old Tom, Carpano Antica, Luxardo, mulberry bitters – up // smooth // fruited
THE VESPER ROYALE – 11 – Aviation, Ketel One, Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, Carpano Antica – up // balanced // refined
THE ROUGETTE – 11 – Navy Strength Gin, Lillet Rouge, grapefruit, hopped grapefruit bitters – rocks // citrus // bright
THE 23 SKIDOO – 12 – Bulleit Rye, Aperol, amaro, lemon, charred lemon bitters – up // balanced // bright
THE ALPINE – 14 – Tanqueray, Chartreuse, honey, ginger, lemon, champagne – long // citrus // complex
THE BIG KID COCKTAIL – 9 – Flor De Cana, Licor 43, Lone Light Chocolate, milk, soda – long // chocolate // foamy
THE LITTLE HEAD BUTT – 10 – Champion Shower Beer Pilsner and Gin – Beer and a shot
The wine list, she says, is “smart and concise” with several offerings by the glass joining bottle options “that will make wine nerds delight.” They are even pouring a glass of Champagne for what Peeks says is half of what it should cost “because Wilson just loves it and wants to serve it.” In charge of the wine is Will Curley, former manager of Chicago’s Balena, who recently moved to town and quickly became Wine Steward for Richey’s restaurant group. “His palate is so correct,” says Peeks.
Brasserie Saison opens Thursday, February 1, and will seat 45 inside and 30 outside. Open seven days a week, it will serve lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m, and dinner from 5-10 pm. A midday menu will be offered in between.