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