Jose De Brito, the French-born chef behind one of the most intriguing restaurants in Charlottesville, never went to cooking school. Much of what he needed to know about feeding a crowd he learned from being the eldest in a family of 10 children in a town outside Paris, where convenience foods were few and “my mom needed help,” so of course he whipped mayonnaise by hand.
In his 20s, he immigrated to New York with his American wife, a student at the Sorbonne, and got a job as a sales representative for Urbani Truffles, a job that introduced De Brito to some of the best restaurants in the country. The gig eventually led him to Charlottesville, where his (now former) wife is from, and a shot at launching a business of his own. Ciboulette opened in 2001 as a combination cheese shop, wine store and bistro, which thrived until De Brito got tired of 70-hour workweeks and sold the venue in 2008. Subsequent years found the chef, now 47, catering and helping out at the modern French Fleurie.
Good things come to those who wait. Make that the Alley Light, the chef’s roost since it opened last year, named for its hidden location and an exterior lamp off Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Early in my exploration of the restaurant, I was hooked by a number of dishes — haricots vert beneath shavings of frozen foie gras, plump frog legs atop creamy risotto, a seafood board that looked like Poseidon’s pantry — despite servers whose delivery (“Hey, so tonight we have ... ”) was better suited to a college tavern.
Arrivals are handed one menu and instructed to look at a chalkboard wall for the second list, typically twice as many dishes long, with everything spelled out in careful script. (Diners within squinting distance tend to walk over and take photos of the choices with their smartphones, for leisurely perusal at the table.) The printed list embraces dishes that are popular — tuna carpaccio, bone marrow with escargots — no matter the time of year. The wall menu tends to show off the season — think tomatoes, lots of them, in August — and De Brito’s savvy shopping.
But first you have to find the place. No matter how many times I drop by, I always feel as if I’m entering someone’s unlocked abode. (Before it was a second-floor restaurant, the space was an apartment.) In the foyer, framed menus from famous places to eat — French Laundry in Napa, Arnaud’s in New Orleans — assure me I’m where I ought to be, as does the clubby dining room outfitted with fat leather sofas and plump chairs near a bank of windows, along with tall tables and stools closer to a handsome bar. A skylight over the counter, the source of some of Charlottesville’s finest cocktails, makes for a natural chandelier.
But cozy doesn’t necessarily translate to comfortable. Teetering on a table near the bar feels like eating on a ladder. Perches closer to the ground put you so close to your neighbors you feel guilty for not passing them a taste of a dish. Did I mention the size of the tables? More than once, I’ve had to speed-sip a cocktail or race to finish a plate to make room for my meal. Nutmeg-laced Kingston tea cup (coconut milk and pineapple juice spiked with rum) and anchovy toast spread with herbed butter should not be rushed.
In the kitchen, where De Brito launched with a mere two hot plates and only recently added a gas stove, the chef tells his cooks that ingredients are their best friends. “Before getting fancy and playing with tweezers,” he says, they have to make sure their food is “tasty.”
A terrine of smoked mackerel and saffron potato meets the test. Like a number of successes here, the dish is a link to De Brito’s childhood. In France, smoked eel would have been the fish of choice; in Charlottesville, mackerel is easier to find. The soft slab of comfort fuses fish with potatoes that have been boiled, tinted with saffron and enriched with clarified butter. Throw in a few steamed mussels and tomato confit for garnish, and you’ve got Mama’s cooking, elevated. Another throwback to De Brito’s past is the boudin noir casserole, blood sausage blended with potatoes, cream, Gruyere and a touch of nutmeg. Only David Copperfield could have made the dish disappear faster than this fan. The kitchen also has a lovely way with octopus, sheer slices of which form a mosaic on the plate, and rabbit, which is shredded, stuffed into tubes of pasta and staged atop a zesty mustard cream sauce. Crimson slices of hanger steak get a lift from tomato-mint chutney.
The owner of the Alley Light is Wilson Richey, whose collection of nearby restaurants includes the popular Revolutionary Soup and the Whiskey Jar. A wine geek, he might be on hand to point out his favorite labels on the list. De Brito says it was his employer’s hope to encourage sharing, an idea the chef translated into boards with something for every appetite: meat lovers, seafood admirers and vegetable fans. The displays change from visit to visit but always elicit a little gasp from recipients, as much for the bounty as the color and variety. When several dishes no cardiologist would green-light were followed by a fantasy garden of vegetables, one of my dining companions cried, “The guilt negator!”
The Alley Light begs for better bread and prompts the occasional “meh” from diners. Baked chickpea cakes (panisses) cut to the size of croutons and stacked on a puddle of tomato buerre blanc is not among the small plates worth the nearly three-hour journey from Washington. Yet the biggest drawback may be the changing nature of the menu(s). To those who return for a favorite dish only to find it unavailable, the restless De Brito has this to say: “Life is short. There are lots of things to cook and lots of things to eat.”
Do I miss those rich green beans from months ago? For sure. Am I glad to be eating a memory from the chef’s youth right now? Absolutely.
Location: 108 Second St. SW, Charlottesville, Va. 434-296-5003. www.alleylight.com.
Open: 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday,
5 p.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
Prices: Snacks and appetizers $7 to $14, shared plates $12 to $25.
Sound check: 62 / Conversation is easy.
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